Author’s note: Five of the ten episodes were provided for review by Netflix. The first season arrives October 26th.
Netflix delivers fantastic entertainment with Chilling Adventures of Sabrina, a coming of age story full of young love, friendship over adversity, obligation over the freedom of choice… and on the flip side, dark baptisms, promises bound by blood, and horrible secrets and nightmares. It’s a complicated time for anyone, but for Sabrina, it’s hellishly so. It’s a good thing it’s so much fun to watch, as these terrors inflicted upon its characters threaten to tear the goodness they come to love.
Kiernan Shipka stars as Sabrina Spellman, fitting into this world with an excited, wide-eyed performance which really sells her character as a person born of two worlds and conflicted over which is right for her. Sabrina loves her boyfriend Harvey (Ross Lynch) and her best friends at her regular high school, while duties at the Academy of the Unseen Arts and becoming a witch is always gnawing away at her, demanding her full attention.
The show balances its worlds just right, with the high school and social life of Sabrina against the push for her to join the witching world that awaits her. The darker world is a constant threat for Sabrina, and navigating its depths of hellishness proves to be quite difficult in these five episodes. There are demons, satanic rituals, curses, all done in dark and horror-style fashion. It’s not all bad, however, with home life full of great characters.
Lucy Davis is so much fun as Aunt Hilda: always cheery, helpful, and kind. Miranda Otto is just as great as Aunt Zelda: poised, sarcastic, and forceful. Chance Perdomo plays Ambrose, Sabrina’s British cousin who is housebound and always willing to help her; Perdomo plays it witty and with a wink. Richard Coyle as Father Blackwood is a threatening force, Coyle playing it with deceiving slipperiness. Michelle Gomez plays Mrs. Wardell, one of Sabrina’s teachers at her normal high school who hasn’t been acting normally lately. Gomez plays it over the top, but joyously so, becoming a strange and fun presence.
This is a show almost out of time, where apart from certain instances of a stray laptop and a sudden cellphone, its date would be impossible to ascertain. Everything from the clothes, the cars, the movies, the music, the schools, even some of the dialogue, it’s all ripped right out of the ’50’s and ’60’s, giving the backdrop a lot of character and a certain charm in its presentation. The production itself is gorgeous and lavish, the Spellman home (and mortuary) a wonderful set. The show is full of satanic imagery, demonic players, and strange decisions, even playing with focus in some shots that are effective illusions to the eye by way of spells in the show.
The main title’s sequence deserves special mention, one of the best in ages. The comic design and elaborate hellscape it encapsulates is visually arresting and pairs perfectly to the music choice, becoming something impossible to skip in this age of streaming.
It’s not always perfect, however. Salem the cat, while incredibly important to Sabrina as her familiar and present in a lot of scenes, isn’t given a lot to do in this half of the season, when the introduction leaves a lot of intrigue. The fifth episode suffers a little from some shoddy creature work, not quite translating well on the screen. And at times there can almost be too many threats thrown at Sabrina, impediments against her path forward, when some more time spent with friends could benefit those characters and Sabrina herself.
But Shipka helps keep the show in focus. She is a great Sabrina, and with the help of the production and her fellow cast, Chilling Adventures of Sabrina succeeds in a darker portrayal of this character and the world surrounding her. Greendale is a fiendish place, full of nasties and creepy crawlers. This show promises to summon them forth for dark purposes, and with Sabrina at the forefront to vanquish them, it’s all the better for it.