Roberto Aguirre-Sacasa brings his dark vision of teen drama and twisted Americana to Netflix for the latest re-invention of a title from the Archie Comics catalog. This time, the writer-creator gets to dive headfirst into the occult and the supernatural with Chilling Adventures of Sabrina, a decidedly less family friendly iteration of the comic character than the one who starred in her own TGIF fantasy sitcom starring Melissa Joan Hart. This time around, Sabrina is played by Kiernan Shipka of Mad Men fame, and it looks as though all those years playing Sally Draper have paid off, as this Sabrina’s dealing with some ultra-dark themes that reimagines the character and her story into something more contemporary, while still delivering the same fascinatingly eerie anachronisms on display in Riverdale.
This isn’t Riverdale (though Sabrina wastes no time in confirming they exist in the universe), which means Aguirre-Sacasa is free to let his imagination run more wild (yes, that’s saying something considering all that’s gone down on The CW’s Archie show) and to push the limits of the series’ content. To be clear, Chilling Adventures of Sabrina doesn’t slap on a TV-MA, anything goes rating, but it does take advantage of the lack of content restrictions in a way that’s suitable for its intended audience, while also affording the series a noticeable edge.
That edge is cuts between the show’s inherent campiness and the execution of its various horror elements, most of which have to do with the series’ witches and warlocks being bound to the dark lord himself, and of the violent, apocalyptic visions Sabrina encounters as she struggles to choose which path she’ll walk once her 16th birthday approaches. Sabrina’s path, either the dark or the light, will have a huge impact on her moving forward; it dictates whether she’ll become a full witch and have use of all her witchy powers, but it also means leaving behind the life she’s cultivated for herself in the quintessential Middle America town of Greendale. That means losing her friends, Ros (Jaz Sinclair) and Susie (Lachlan Watson), as well as her wholesome and devoted boyfriend Harvey (Ross Lynch).
The weight of Sabrina’s decision is felt throughout the first two episodes of the series, which clock in at more than two full hours. It’s here that Aguirre-Sacasa demonstrates an ability to shift from the broadcast network model of television to that of Netflix’s streaming, binge-inducing way of doing things. The first two hours don’t exactly fly by, but they do pack a lot of story and information into a feature-length package. The series draws its characters and its world slowly, knowing that it’s pushing the same content to fans of the comic (and ABC sitcom) and those with no foreknowledge of Sabrina and her witchy world whatsoever. The result, then, is a twisted remix of sorts, something well within Aguirre-Sacasa’s wheelhouse, as he demonstrated with the Twin Peaks-inspired Riverdale.
Perhaps because of its subject matter and proximity to the supernatural, Chilling Adventures of Sabrina bears a much stronger resemblance to the world of comic books. As such, the series differentiates itself from Riverdale a variety of ways, though it still turns sharply into entertaining teen melodrama when the occasion calls. But Sabrina also delivers a delightful level of campiness that outdoes even the likes of American Horror Story, mainly because it does so with an eye toward an actual story populated with more than just disposable one-dimensional characters. Part of that is because Sabrina is intended to be a more traditional, ongoing series, rather than an anthology (season 2 is already filming), and part of that is in how Sabrina utilizes some of the most useful tools in its tool box; namely, Miranda Otto (Homeland), Lucy Davis (Wonder Woman), and Michelle Gomez (Doctor Who).
Otto and Davis play Sabrina’s adoptive aunts Zelda and Hilda, respectively, and they also serve to leaven the series, but in smartly different ways. Davis’ Hilda is good-natured and sweet, though she borders on bumblingly naive at times, whereas Otto’s Zelda is a human (or inhuman, as the case may be) straight razor, a woman with sharp command of her authority who likes to take time from her work as a funeral director to sit out on the front porch wearing sunglasses in overcast weather, luxuriating over a sinful cigarette and looking like she’s descended from Lauren Bacall. Otto and Gomez deliver complimentary arch performances, even though they don’t share the screen in the first two hours. Zelda and Ms. Wardell (formerly a bookish schoolmarm with a taste for classic horror films before becoming, well, something else) are both affectedly, wickedly playful, and even with fine performances all around — particularly from Shipka who quickly proves herself capable of playing the lead role — they both quickly steal the show.
Chilling Adventures of Sabrina makes a smart choice at the end of the second hour by resolving the central question of which path Sabrina will choose on her 16th birthday. But it’s also smart in how that resolution is the inciting incident for the show moving forward, something that becomes clearer as the season moves along, when its pace quickens and the storytelling structure gets noticeably tighter. That has a big impact on the high school portion of the series, which was offset by the focus on the supernatural in the early going. The “mortal” side of things, featuring the likes of Bronson Pinchot as Principal Hawthorne, Ros, Henry, and Susie Putnam, a non-binary student and subject of an early storyline about bullying, all felt as though they were given the short end of the stick in the first two hours. But it is a problem amended by Aguirre-Sacasa and his writers’ room soon enough.
In all, Chilling Adventures of Sabrina makes for a welcome and well-made addition to the expanding, reimagined television world of Archie Comics, one that takes proper advantage of the Netflix all-at-once format and the freedom afforded the series in terms of subject matter and content. With a charming cast that sees Shipka as good as she’s ever been, and two devilishly fun performances from Otto and Gomez, this series seems like a Halloween home run for Aguirre-Sacasa, Warner Bros., and Netflix.
Chilling Adventures of Sabrina season 1 streams on Netflix beginning Friday, October 26, 2018.