Debuting later this month on Netflix, Chilling Adventures Of Sabrina already has a built-in audience. Fans of Roberto Aguirre-Sacasa’s work in the world of Archie Comics, both on the page and screen, will definitely want to see what kind of magic the Riverdale creator casts away from the land of network standards and practices (not that his maple-covered CW series seems to fuss over them much). Though the aesthetic sharply deviates from that of the TGIF sitcom that came before it, there’s also plenty here for viewers who grew up with Melissa Joan Hart’s portrayal of the teen witch and enjoyed the witchy hijinks and family dynamic. But even if you have no knowledge of the blond spellcaster, you’ll find a visually innovative supernatural drama about a rebel with a cause.
Kiernan Shipka leads the series with growing confidence as Sabrina Spellman, who is half-mortal, half-witch, and wholly a teenager, which means she’s also idealistic, occasionally brash, and skeptical of authority. When season one begins, she’s facing a not-so-typical teen dilemma: stay in the mortal world with her boyfriend Harvey Kinkle (My Friend Dahmer’s Ross Lynch) and friends Roz Walker (Jaz Sinclair) and Susie Putnam (Lachlan Watson), or sign her name into Satan’s book and gain previously untapped power. Sabrina’s Baxter High classmates are blissfully unaware of this rite of passage—though they’re not without their own woes—so she relies on the counsel of her aunts Hilda (an effervescent Lucy Davis) and Zelda (Miranda Otto, in a refreshingly vampish turn), and her housebound-against-his-will cousin Ambrose (series breakout Chance Perdomo). As far as Salem, the chatty, animatronic cat who sparred with Joan Hart on ABC (and then The WB), though the casting director found a handsome black cat to fill the role, it’s a non-speaking one as Sabrina’s helpful familiar.
Sabrina may have top billing, but there are plenty of Chilling Adventures in store for her friends, boyfriend, and family. All these roads lead back to the question of Sabrina’s identity and agency: does she really have to choose one way of life over the other? And, just as important, why? Aguirre-Sacasa finds a way to turn that battle for Sabrina’s soul—which is at stake along with her free will—into a war, one fought on multiple fronts and featuring all manner of allies and enemies. One of the show’s greatest tricks is avoiding the bloat and pacing issues that plague most of the other series on Netflix, but early on, it’s hard not to want to make Sabrina’s choice between the magical and non-magical world for her. There’s just so much more potential on the other side of the veil, at the Academy Of The Unseen Arts (a Hogwarts-like institution, only with way more menacing spirits) with the infernal Father Blackwood (Richard Coyle) and the Weird Sisters (led by Tati Gabrielle’s Prudence). The casting doesn’t help matters—Lynch, Sinclair, and Watson are endearing, but the otherworldly team is stacked with actors like the magnetic Perdomo, who gives his pansexual character a slinky, almost feline energy. When they’re not mentoring their onscreen niece in the unholy ways of the Church Of Night, Davis and Otto have a relationship that makes the events of Whatever Happened To Baby Jane? look downright affectionate. Compared to these fiendish subplots, Sabrina’s high school concerns look like child’s play.
It’s not until the sixth episode, when Aguirre-Sacasa and team start to delve into the dark(er) side of Greendale, that the writers’ decision to keep one foot in the mortal realm begins to pay off. But when it does, Chilling Adventures Of Sabrina demands to be binge-watched. The Spellmans’ hometown is nearly as full of colorful characters as Riverdale, only with far more devious intentions (yes, even compared to serial killers) and none of the alliteration. It’s also near this halfway point that Shipka’s performance really clicks—at first, her more naturalistic style of acting seems at odds with Aguirre-Sacasa’s signature archness, but over time, we see how clinging to that earnestness is as much the actor’s choice as it is the character’s. By the end of the first season, Shipka has more than lived up to the teen hellion promise of her famous Mad Men role—but as Sabrina, she’s far more empowered to revolt against regressive social conventions.
The historical subjugation of virtually everyone who’s not a cishet white man clearly informs the series, but there isn’t a hint of dogma in this stylishly frightening story—there are, however, orgies and frequent calls to “Praise Satan.” From the start, Chilling Adventures has a firm grip on its darkly comedic tone, and like its ersatz predecessors Buffy The Vampire Slayer and Charmed (at their best, that is), the series presents a nuanced fight between good and evil, or oppressor and oppressed. Sabrina comes up against tyrannical forces in all kinds of forms in Greendale and at the Academy: In addition to locking horns with an overbearing principal played by Bronson Pinchot (who has a dash of Mr. Kraft, the school administrator played by Martin Mull in the TGIF series), Sabrina must contend with the devilish Ms. Wardwell (Michelle Gomez), who might just as easily lead her to an Ivy as to hell. Even Sabrina’s lifelong companions aren’t quite as innocent—or helpless—as they appear.
Aguirre-Sacasa applies a light touch all around, building up the bigger themes without sacrificing character-driven moments—and without giving into the excessive twists that threw Riverdale off course in its sophomore season. Occasionally, this leads to an overcorrection, like Ms. Wardwell being sidelined in the first half. But when Gomez, who was once menace incarnate on Doctor Who, finally comes out of the periphery, Chilling Adventures becomes spellbinding.