The Chilling Adventures of Sabrina is frequently chilling, but it’s rarely much of an adventure. Netflix’s new spin on the lore of Sabrina the Teenage Witch, starring Kiernan Shipka (Mad Men) as our spooky heroine, gets off to a spellbinding start but over 10 episodes becomes more toil and trouble than it’s worth.
When we meet Sabrina Spellman, she’s carefully crossing days off her calendar, leading to the date where she’s written “16th birthday” and, just underneath that, “dark baptism.” It’s hard being a teenager these days. Or whatever days Sabrina is set in: The show has a ‘50s retro aesthetic, from the cars to the crinoline, but modern sensibilities about feminism, gender expression and the costs of serving as Satan’s handmaid.
The Devil isn’t just in the details here; he’s everywhere, with his clomping hooves and goat head, wreaking gruesome havoc and dispatching his servants to torture and coerce Sabrina into falling in line. But Sabrina doesn’t want to submit to baptism, and she doesn’t want to sign her life over to the Dark Lord. She wants to stay in the ordinary world, alongside her doting boyfriend, Harvey (Ross Lynch), and her spunky besties, Roz (Jaz Sinclair) and Susie (Lachlan Watson). Once you enlist in Satan’s service, you can’t have silly sleepovers anymore.
Sabrina is half witch, half “mortal” — her father was a powerful warlock and her mother a regular human, and since they died, Sabrina has been raised by her witch aunts (Lucy Davis and Miranda Otto) in a musty funeral home. They’re insistent that she do right by the Spellman family name and give herself, body and soul, to the Church of Night.
Like any teenage hero, Sabrina would rather do things her way. “I want freedom and power,” she pleads. Too bad, toots — it’s a man’s world out there, and shivering teenage virgins kneeling in their white slips while powerful older men anoint their foreheads with blood is just how things go.
That ritual, with a vulnerable Sabrina quivering in fear while surrounded by eerie witch folk, is but one gorgeous tableau. As with many modern series, the show is often literally too dark to see what’s happening. But in the rare moments of (again, actual) illumination, it’s as rich as an oil painting, with Shipka practically glowing.
The constant haze and unnatural colour palate make Sabrina a dead ringer for CW’s murder-soaked spin on the Archie comics Riverdale, which is no surprise. The Sabrina character is part of the greater Archie universe, and the two shows share a creator, Roberto Aguirre-Sacasa. In all the ways that Riverdale turns Archie and the gang into Twin Peaks Junior, The Chilling Adventures of Sabrina is more like True Blood for teenagers, with a parade of supernatural entities and an overpresent mythology that threatens to bleed the joy out of the storytelling.
Like most Netflix originals, The Chilling Adventures of Sabrina is the wrong number of episodes. It could have been a taut and thrilling shorter series, or a set-’em-up, knock-’em-down occult procedural like Supernatural. Instead, it’s not quite either, and it burns through its most interesting parts while stalling out during its dullest.
Sabrina triumphs over bullies and monsters and misogynists, with maggot-filled apples littering her path, but the series gets repetitive. After a while, determined women shouting Latin incantations while scowling at the camera starts to feel like Harry Potter runoff. The obstacles are too familiar and too pat, and no one is ever really a match for Sabrina’s derring-do.
When it’s humming along, though, Sabrina is a blast. It’s a horror show, with demons galore and a threatening posse of young witches who dress alike and move in an undulating herd. It knows what The Craft knew, which is that teenage girl rage is a powerful force.
The Chilling Adventures of Sabrina is now streaming on Netflix.