It wasn’t quite Garbo Talks, but the 2017 premiere of Riverdale boasted a for-the-ages pop hook: Archie fucks. The jolt of that, plus the awesome power of the series’ Betty and Veronica, made Riverdale a hit, or at least close enough to stay on the air and dominate my Twitter feed. Now, Netflix’s Chilling Adventures of Sabrina arrives, seeming to promise a pop shock of its own. The first episodes of the 10-part series concern nothing less than this question: Will Sabrina marry Satan?
Based on a short-lived, spooky-beautiful 2014 comic book series, this new Sabrina dives headlong into the dark, weird truths that smart kids — and alarmed evangelicals — always assumed ruled the life of America’s favorite teenage witch, her sorcerous aunts and her black-cat familiar. Yes, here’s a coven in thrall to a cloven-hoofed Dark Lord, performing blood rituals in the woods. Sabrina’s aunts (played by the delightful Miranda Otto and Lucy Davis) casually scoff at “the false church” — i.e., Christianity. Pentagrams adorn the opening titles, and a T in Adventures is an upside cross. When Sabrina casts a spell, early on, to give a fright to a mortal adversary at her high school, the process isn’t a wink and a nose crinkle, as in old Sabrina comics, and the result is the opposite of mischievous. She unleashes 30 seconds of the most scarifying spider horror that the producers can afford.
In short, the show has been crafted to inflame the parents and church leaders who spent a couple of years of my childhood insisting that Dungeons & Dragons or the She-Ra cartoon were on-ramps to damnation’s expressway. The rest of us might be pleased to learn that, despite its pointed hellishness, Sabrina proves much less invested in outrageousness than sexy, stupid Riverdale. Though betrothed to the devil, our lead, played with guileless good spirits by Mad Men’s Kiernan Shipka, is a happy virgin, by her own choice. She can’t believe that anyone would even think she might not be. She pals around Greendale with friends from a diverse crew from her high school, including boyfriend Harvey (Ross Lynch), watching out-of-copyright horror films and trying to make everyone’s lives better, all while keeping secret the fact that she’s a witch. Real teenagers play most of her crew, and in contrast to the proud Archie Comics tradition of peddling cheesecake as wholesome Americana, the camera doesn’t leer at them, even when the story continually demands Sabrina wear a nightgown while shivering in the woods.
The series takes several episodes to reveal itself, and even then the creators continually tease and add new aspects to it, like a witchly Hogwarts-like academy (run by a sulfurous Bronson Pinchot!) where Sabrina eventually takes secret classes. The show’s heart concerns Sabrina’s efforts to reconcile her life as an everyteen mortal with the demands of being a promising witch. (Her father, a warlock, married a human woman, and Sabrina gets taunted, by her wicked academy classmates, as a half-breed.) There are hints at a chosen-one plot line, suggestions of some mysterious inheritance from her father and much ado about the bylaws of the coven, but that’s the series’ least interesting aspects. What works best, here — what makes this Sabrina ultimately so cheering — are scenes of Sabrina chatting with her aunts, fighting demons with them, solving problems at her schools or helping her non-magic pals face some terror themselves.
The horror sequences are too intense for young children, but the show’s true tension comes from the uncertainty it stirs about just how far it will go when it comes to blood, guts and terror. One demon in the middle of the season looks hilariously unimpressive, like if the Deep Space Nine makeup department made an alien Keith Richards, but moments after showing up, that goof has a key member of the cast performing a grisly autopsy — on himself.
Though it’s set in a vague 1980s, Sabrina and her best friend Roz (Jaz Sinclair) talk casually of patriarchy and intersectionality, a pair of aspirational anachronisms that say much about the creators’ intentions. They’re after horror, yes, but of an uplifting, communitarian sort. Inspired by some positive aspects of her coven, Sabrina starts a women’s group at school, calling for her friends to stand up together against book banners and horndog bully dudes, forces just as nefarious as the (literal) demons she faces at home.
With so many disparate elements to showcase, Sabrina’s quality inevitably varies. I adored the pilot, grew restless in the second episode and almost bailed entirely during the third, which spins a hoary “The Devil and Daniel Webster” scenario in an infernal courtroom. But the fourth lives up to that Chilling Adventures title, and the fifth is a demented, gory treat, digging deep into the minds of characters just when the show had finally made them compelling. From there, the series steadies and flowers, balancing serialized storytelling with compelling, old-fashioned, crisis-of-the-moment episode structure. At least, I think it does — I’ve seen seven of the 10 installments, and I’ll eagerly watch the rest when I get the chance.
That it mostly coheres is a testament to the exaggerated Halloween production design and Shipka’s genial warmth. (I hope Sabrina’s vintage autumnal sweater collection sets real-world trends.) Despite the blood that flows and the goat-gods who romp around her, Sabrina is very much related to the likable, decent teen that Melissa Joan Hart played on the ’90s sitcom Sabrina the Teenage Witch. The character is modest and genial, not the hex-spinning bombshell of the old comics. She’s trying to get through her days the way so many of us are: talking to her cat and hoping all hell doesn’t break loose.
Chilling Adventures of Sabrina premieres October 26 on Netflix.