‘Chilling Adventures of Sabrina’ Review: The Witch Is Back!
Netflix’s ‘Riverdale’-like makeover of Archie Comics character smells like teen witchiness — and gives us a Resistance-era heroine
The Chilling Adventures of Sabrina is the latest incarnation of a long-running teen archetype — the half-witch, half-human, all-American girl, fighting to grow up on her own terms and being front and center in an ever-mutating story about girldom and its discontents. Every iteration is different — the Archie comic book, the groovy Seventies cartoon, the post-Sassy Melissa Joan Hart 1990s sitcom, the macabre new Netflix thriller. Like A Star Is Born, it’s a story gets told over and over, because each generation’s Sabrina has a new tale to tell. But there’s always the premise there’s something inherently occult about being a teenage girl in a hostile world — that growing up female means living a secret life the straight world will never know.
And the superb Chilling Adventures is the first version that’s an outright horror story. Showrunner Roberto Aguirre-Sacasa takes the Archie Comics milieu and gives it a dark and edgy makeover, as he did on the CW’s fabulously lurid Riverdale. Mad Men‘s Kiernan Shipka is a truly fearsome teen, trapped in the interzone between high school and the netherworld. This time, instead of tangling with Britney or N’Sync, she’s taking on her devil-worshipping coven and its misogynistic satanic patriarch. “This is totally the Sabrina for 2018, in so many ways,” Shipka told Variety. “She’s a woke witch.”
Sabrina started out as just another bit player in the Archie Comics universe. She made a brief Archie’s Madhouse appearance in in 1962, when it hard to say if America was more terrified of “teenage” or “witch.” But tellingly, she never came into her own as a Sixties character, and didn’t get her own comic book until 1971, after the show became a hit — it was TV, not the comics, where Sabrina blew up into an icon. Her story really starts with the 1970 Saturday-morning cartoon, from the era of Scooby Doo or Josie and the Pussycats. She’s just another fun-loving student at Riverdale High who keeps her witchcraft a secret, hanging with Archie, Betty, Veronica, Jughead and the gang. The occult was huge on kiddie TV at the time, from the Groovie Goolies to The Funky Phantom, but there was something about Sabrina that set her off as a star. She lives in a haunted mansion with her old-school witch aunts, bubbling cauldrons and all, though she uses her ear-tugging magic to battle the forces of evil or just flip the record on the turntable. As the theme song explains, “Her magic power can get her out of trouble!”
The next Sabrina debuted in September 1996 — one of the decade’s funniest and realest teen shows. Melissa Joan Hart, already familiar from Clarissa Explains It All For You, lived her so-called life with a couple of Lilith Fair-era feminist aunties and the gayest cat in TV history, a glorious feline bitch queen named Salem. It was full of the uncoy feminism that saturated Nineties girl culture, with guests from Da Brat to Blondie to Britney Spears. Melissa and Britney teamed up for the epochal 1999 “You Drive Me Crazy” video — clearly a friendship too perfect for this world.
Of all the Nineties’ teen superheroines from Buffy the Vampire Slayer to The Powerpuff Girls, the sitcom’s Sabrina had the most authentic ordinariness. It wasn’t a dark show — it was full of Nineties optimism that these young women were about to take over the world and get their due. (Broomsticks are so last century.) Like the time that Sabrina sneaks off with her friends to a Violent Femmes show — “classic Eighties rockers!” Gordon Gano serenades the girls with “Please Please Please Do Not Go,” after she dazzles him by casting a “half-hour infatuation spell.” The aunts are proud of how Sabrina behaves herself, so they let her take her first solo flight. The perfect song blasts on the soundtrack: Liz Phair’s “Supernova.” Sabrina’s face is pure joy as she surfs the astral plain on her vacuum cleaner, bopping to Liz’s guitar. In a way, this episode sums up all the best hopes and dreams of American pop culture in the Nineties, just as The X-Files‘ “Memories of a Cigarette Smoking Man” summed up what we feared about ourselves. Patriarchy was a nightmare Sabrina was waking up from, along with the rest of Gen X. We believed teen witches were our future.
The Chilling Adventures of Sabrina is a darker show, for darker times — the optimism of the 1970s or 1990s versions would look absurd now. This is Resistance Sabrina. For the first time, our heroine has male authority figures running amok in the witch culture she’s inherited. Shipka’s supernatural adolescent has to battle jock bullies at her human high school, but she also has to battle the Dark Lord, who wants her to sign herself over to him in the Book of the Beast. She belongs to a coven called the Church of Night, who are heavily into devil worship with human sacrifices and flesh-eating. She also attends the Academy of Unseen Arts, where she’s menaced by high priest Father Blackwood (Richard Coyle) and a trio of mean girls inevitably known as the Weird Sisters (the excellent Tati Gabrielle, Adeline Rudolph and Abigail Cowen). And just as the 1990s version had Paul Feig as her high school teacher, now her principal is Bronson Pinchot, from that show’s TGIF predecessor Perfect Strangers.
Shipka has the gravitas to make this Sabrina the toughest yet, a violent femme who comes on like Joan of Arc crashing into a mastermix of Harry Potter and The Craft. Shipka broke out of Mad Men as Sally, Don Draper’s reckless daughter. She became one of that show’s biggest revelations, the rarer-than-rare case of a child performer who grew up into a real actress, capable of pushing the drama further. (When the series began, there’s no possible way anyone could have guessed how lucky they got casting Shipka — her chops made the historic heights of Seasons Four and Five possible.) And just like Sally Draper, her Sabrina is growing up well-versed in the evil that men do. In Chilling Adventures, she’s visibly realizing she’s going to fighting this battle long after high school is over — a young woman already steeling herself to be the bad-ass senior-citizen witch she knows she’ll have to be. This Netflix I-love-you-but-I’ve-chosen-darkness YA scream is more than just a great high-school horror trip. It proudly carries on 50 years of teenage witch tradition.