Nickelodeon’s programming shaped much of my childhood, and Sabrina the Teenage Witch was probably one of my favourites. The new incarnation of Sabrina on Netflix borrows much more from the current trend of gothic teenage dramas like Riverdale, The Vampire Diaries, and countless others by this point. It’s a beautifully produced, creepy/fun show. Some of the characters are delightful.
The Spellman sisters (Miranda Otto and Lucy Davies) and their niece Sabrina (Kiernan Shipka) prepare for her dark baptism into the Church of the Night. This is proper New England witch craft, with witches’ marks, familiars, and the goat-headed devil. The witches receive “delicious” gifts from the Dark Lord in return for signing their name in the Book of the Beast. A reference to the fantastic movie The Witch (2015), perhaps?
Spoilers ahead for the first five episodes.
The tone of the show has a bit of a split personality. On the one hand it wants to have fun with the idea of actual Satan-worshipping witches casually saying “praise Satan” like we would say “thank God.” At one point Zelda murders her sister Hilda with a shovel, and it’s played off like Death Becomes Her (1992). Exploring such a world is great fun. Had the show held onto its cards slightly longer, it might have explored the idea of Satan as a misunderstood demi-god. A true alternative to Jesus. A choice that brings you free will and powers in exchange for becoming a church member. It might have delved into the rituals, playing with the tropes. It does this of course, but at a cost. It reveals far too early that the Dark Lord really is the Devil. And by that I mean he wants you to burn in a pit for hundreds of years.
Actual witches signing the Devil’s book could be fun, but the show’s other side is the horror elements. Netflix has gone all out, pushing the show into pure horror. One element of this is the show’s obsession with undressing its sixteen-year-old protagonist. At one point she’s forced to stand outside in a sensual nightgown, being psychologically tortured for the entire night. There is no doubt that Satan really is evil, and that the Church of the Night is kind of fucked up. It produces the Weird Sisters, who have no problem with murder. The witches or warlocks that are good are far between, and are good in spite of signing their name in the Book of the Beast. It begs the question: those thirteen witches hanged back in the 17th century, might they have had it coming?
I love a good horror. But the horror in the show should perhaps had been more Evil Dead horror. The show wants it both ways. A quirky performance by Michelle Gomez, doing an American Missy impression, but also visions of Satan so terrifying they drive a man insane.
It is not this aspect of the show, however, that makes me wish for a better one. A show can be two things at once, after all. The major problem is the world-building. It almost wants to be a Harry Potter world, full of witches and warlocks living their lives worshipping Satan, but it’s too small for its ambitions, and often falls flat.
The show wants us to assume a world in which the witches of Salem were actual Satan-worshipping witches, and that thirteen more were hanged in Greendale in 1692. There are clearly multiple High Warlocks since Sabrina’s father is referred to as “a High Warlock”, and Zelda says Hilda is banished from “all Church of Night properties”. They have a coven, not The Coven, and we must also assume there are witches all over the world since we see both Asian, African-American and European witches and Warlocks. On the surface it’s a great idea to turn the Harry Potter world into a true dark, twisted version. Witches that should be hunted, at least from the perspective of the witch hunters who fear Satan.
The witches and warlocks, however, all appear to live in and around Greendale. The High Warlock, Father Faustus (Richard Coyle) is both a High Warlock of the Church of the Night, the principle of the Academy of Unseen Arts (where Sabrina is suppose to meet witches and warlocks from all over the world), chief prosecutor in their courts, and the officiant to Sabrina’s Dark Baptism. When he first shows up in their living room it is treated as a great honor. We get the impression it’s rare to even meet the High Warlock, let alone have him give you advice in your home. The Weird Sisters are shocked when they learn this fact, yet it turns out they attend trials led by him, visit his office at school, and conspire with him without being struck by that initial awe at all.
The world feels small, the school seems smaller than the average small town high school, not the Hogwarts of Greendale. They both have their Dark Lords after all, so the comparison is inescapable. Compare the two trials of Harry and Sabrina. When he is charged with underage magic he is scared, alone and confronted with high-ranking people he barely knows or doesn’t know at all. The trial itself is led by the grown-ups and from his perspective it’s overwhelming. Sabrina is in a tiny local church and everyone she knows is there. The judges are creepy, but they do not speak, even to render judgement. The whole thing feels more like a school drama than an actual trial. Yet they drag it out over three nights.
Chilling Adventures of Sabrina bills itself as a quirky dark horror, with the poster looking like the dark cooking show of a similar title. But once you accept the fact that Satan is real and has a burning pit downstairs he might throw you, his supplicant, into, it becomes somewhat difficult to accept the two bumbling aunts who just want the best life for their teenage witch.