The Chilling Adventures Of Sabrina Review: The Riverdale Universe Gets Bigger, Better & Spookier

Photo: Diyah Pera/Netflix.
We first met Sabrina the teenage witch on television with late '90s, early aughts gem Sabrina The Teenage Witch. The ABC-turned-WB series of many a millennial’s childhood was a carefree, supernaturally-flavored comedy, down to its memorable, ultra weird musical numbers. Back then the biggest problem facing Sabrina Spellman (played by Melissa Joan Hart at the time) was whether or not she should eat pancakes (the difficult answer was a hard no).
Well, that is certainly no longer the case for Archie Comics’ beloved young witch. On Friday, October 26, Netflix will premiere 2018’s twisty take on Sabrina Spellman with the aptly named The Chilling Adventures Of Sabrina. The new Sabrina (Kiernan Shipka with all of her Sally Draper willfulness and then some) lives in a dark, deadly, and truly witchy world — one that is a perfect companion to the CW’s Riverdale.
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Going into Sabrina, it’s vital viewers take note of the word “companion” there — these two series are not twins. Instead, the Netflix newbie and CW blockbuster are essentially television siblings, sharing a creator (Roberto Aguirre-Sacasa), an executive producer (the preternaturally busy Greg Berlanti), and a vault of source material (both are Archie Comics properties). Even Sabrina’s setting of Greendale (“Where it always feels like Halloween,” to quote Sabrina) is Riverdale's neighbor and is seen throughout the CW series. Yet, Sabrina is scary, supernatural, and sexy, where Riverdale is just murder-obsessed and sexy.
While viewers might question whether a Riverdale curveball can be blamed on the occult (see: the Gargoyle King), regular old boring humans are almost always the cause of Riverdale’s bloodiest tragedies. Sabrina, on the other hand, has no source other than the otherworldly. Satan himself appears in various forms, often in ways that will haunt your dreams. Demons and monsters and creepy crawly spiders abound in moments that will likely gives viewers lasting heebeegeebees. Sabrina’s much-teased Dark Baptism, television’s spookiest sweet 16 to date, is much weirder than anyone likely expects.
The surface reason for this difference is of course thanks to both series’ respective influences — where Riverdale is Rebel Without A Cause meets 90210, Sabrina is all The Exorcist and Rosemary’s Baby, executive producer Sarah Schechter told Refinery29 last month — but, the separation goes deeper than that. As Buffy The Vampire Slayer did before, The Chilling Adventures is a supernatural allegory for the obstacles a young woman faces as she begins to claim her own power. Netflix’s Sabrina is a relentlessly female tale.
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The show opens on the eve of Sabrina's 16th birthday, when she is meant to have that Dark Baptism. There, she is expected to sign her name in The Book Of The Beast. By writing her name in Satan’s ledger, Sabrina will be gifted her full witchy powers, which is a very seductive possibility. Unfortunately, there are also spoilery catches to this deal that half-mortal, half-witch Sabrina doesn't love.
This witchy conundrum leads Sabrina on the 10-episode coming of age tale that is The Chilling Adventures’ first season. It also leads to the entrance of one of Netflix’s best new villains of the year, Doctor Who baddie Michelle Gomez as Miss Wardwell, Sabrina’s teacher who has an agenda of her own. While Sabrina’s relentless stubbornness may wear thin on viewer’s patience by the end of the season, it’s unlikely anyone will tire of Miss Wardwell, an unstoppable slinky terror. One of Wardwell’s greatest strengths is her ability to both be one of Sabrina’s leading feminists and a character who uses the draw of feminism to manipulate everyone around her. I can’t tell you why the character is spinning such a vast web of lies, but I can confirm you’ll be mesmerized the entire time.
Thankfully, Sabrina’s interest in topics like feminism and inclusion aren’t limited to a single perfectly coiffed villain. Sabrina’s mortal best friends are Rosalind Walker (Jaz Sinclair), an outspoken daughter of a Black Panther, and Susie Putnam (non-binary actor Lachlan Watson), who is primed for her own journey of self discovery. Through the girls’ creation of high school group WICCA (Women’s Intersectional Cultural and Creative Association) Sabrina doubles down on its progressive undertones.
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Not only is WICCA a clear example of girls sticking up for girls, but it’s a subversive take on women and witchcraft. Although the moniker “witch” is often lobbied against women as a dig at best and a death sentence at worse — the paranoia of the Salem witch trials hangs over Sabrina down to the name of her iconic, no-longer-talking cat — here, our teen heroines are taking the pejorative back for themselves. Yes, they are “witches” and they’re going to use whatever power they have, whether it be human or supernatural, to protect their loved ones.
Despite Sabrina’s serious or seriously scary subject matter, it can also veer in American Horror Story-style lush camp to keep the proceedings from getting suffocating. Ambrose (Chance Perdomo) is sure to become a fan favorite, as Sabrina’s sardonic cousin who gets the kind of fun lines Salem The Talking Cat (Nick Bakay) would have gotten back in the Teenage Witch day. The British warlock also gets a love story far sexier than anything that cat was allowed to do.
If Sabrina didn’t exist in the same world as Riverdale, it would definitely be Cheryl Blossom’s (Madelaine Petsch) favorite show.
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