Netflix will debut its latest supernatural horror series, The Chilling Adventures of Sabrina, this coming Friday. The series, a darker take on the usually family friendly Archie Comics character, is a mixed bag in its first five episodes with the potential for greatness woven into its DNA.
The Chilling Adventures of Sabrina is about the titular teenage witch who, while dealing with your average high-school dilemmas – must also contend with her satanic origins. Born into a cult of devil worshipping witches and warlocks, Sabrina is a half-breed among her kind – born of magic and humanity. With one foot in and one foot out of the dark world her family inhabits, Sabrina must fight for a chance to live her own life.
Sabrina’s fight to control her own life is the most compelling part of this series, with the young Miss Spellman being a relatable protagonist facing real-world demons as well as fictional ones. The season’s villains all have one thing in common, besides being evil, that they all seek to manipulate Sabrina – to turn her into the thing she never wanted to become. The main protagonist feels trapped because of this, with the horrors of being a teenager amplified by adding a demonic bent to the usual angst that comes with that. As a minor, Sabrina is subject to the influence and needs of the adults around her, with the character facing an uphill battle most people should be able to relate towards. Essentially, it’s a CW teen drama with a surprising amount of intelligence included in each script.
Kiernan Brennan Shipka’s performance as Sabrina Spellman is quite good. She plays the series’ lead as cool and collected, despite everything that transpires around her, which makes Sabrina a very endearing character that audiences can easily fall in love with. The actress’ performance also balances the good-natured side of the character with the darker aspects of her personality, which is only teased in the episodes available for preview. For all her attempts to remain on the side of good, a relative term here to be sure, Sabrina has a mischievous side. With the proper misguidance, she could be quite the villain.
Those that would lead the main protagonist down a path of evil inhabit a dark world that is beautifully brought to life with some great production design and cinematography. The set pieces and creatures each carry a haunting atmosphere that dials up the eerie feeling the show is striving for. It makes the viewer uncomfortable when Sabrina is living in the world of magic and horror, while the scenes set in the human part of her life feel peaceful and warm.
Sabrina’s aunts are an entertaining pair and each are fully fleshed out characters that quickly become one of the series highlights. They act as the angel and devil on Sabrina’s shoulder, with Hilda being far more sympathetic to her niece’s unease with the world of witchcraft and demons. She offers the perfect balance as Zelda is a devoted member of the Church of Night, and said devotion gives her a very compelling storyline. Zelda lover her church, but she also loves her niece: a young woman who consistently defies the organization and seeks independence from the world of magic. While the two have been easy to balance thus far, the more Sabrina moves away from her ‘faith’, the more internal conflict enters Zelda’s story.
Chance Perdomo plays Ambrose Spellman, a character only fans of the comic would be familiar with. She is Sabrina’s cousin who has found himself trapped on the Spellman property indefinitely. He doesn’t have the most compelling story arc in the first five episodes, but the actor’s charm largely makes up for it. Serving as the comic relief, Ambrose is one of the most likeable of the series leads and frequently splits the best lines of each episode with Zelda.
The main problem with The Chilling Adventures of Sabrina, and the thing that keeps it from being a truly unique series, is its dual focus on the mundane aspects of Sabrina’s life as well as her affiliation with the church of night. The latter element of the series lacks the clever writing and intensity of the former. In the five-episode preview, Sabrina’s cast of high-school friends are two-dimensional bores. It’s as if the writers got lazy after creating all the fantastical characters that inhabit Sabrina’s world and settled for characterization out of a lesser Disney Original Series. The characters in Dog with a Blog being simplistic is fine, but the ambition shown in the first half of the season requires far more attention to character motivations and quirks to make the entirety of the series engaging. There’s a lot of potential in the idea of looking at regular high-school as a nightmarish horror through the small connections each human character has to the church of night, but poorly written characters and cliché-ridden subplots make for inattentive viewers.
Where this weakness really hurts the series is the characterization of Harvey Kinkle, who is by far the least interesting character on the show. He’s a poorly defined written love-interest whose relationship with the Sabrina seems more forced than natural. The writers have done a good job in getting the viewer to invest their attention in Sabrina, but Harvey essentially exists to be her human boyfriend. Considering the fact that their relationship is an important component of Sabrina’s motivations, its poor execution hurts the series considerably.
Overall, The Chilling Adventures of Sabrina has a lot going for it. Shipka’s Sabrina Spellman is a great lead, the world is fully realized visually and brings with it some genuine terror. The issue remains that everything mentioned in the previous sentence is only one part of the show, as Sabrina’s human life is so dull it makes this reviewer want to skip them altogether. That is not a good sign for this series, so hopefully the remainder of the season offers a series that is consistently worth watching.
Rating: 7/10 – Decent start, but needs improvement.