As much as the first season of Netflix Original Series ‘Chilling Adventures of Sabrina’ is a duality story — a half-mortal, half witch, who must come to terms with her dual nature and the two worlds she wants to be a part of — this review of the first season will be split down the middle.
There are a lot of things to not like about ‘Chilling Adventures of Sabrina’ as there are many things I found enjoyable as well. The uneven part about this is that it took half the season before all the aspects of the show that I like began to appear.
The first few episodes of the dark, supernatural teen drama tries to balance a cheeky, campy tone that does not ever really commit to its dual genre of horror and its high school coming-of-age narrative. It’s very self-aware from its opening where we see Sabrina, her boyfriend Harvey, and best friends, Roz and Susie coming out of a cinema at the last full show of a zombie film where they bump into one of their teachers, Miss Wardell.
The friends talk with the dialogue of today’s teens language of contextualizing pop culture, which is a clear message that they know their politics and you can see it in the progressiveness of the show’s moral center. All the feminist undertones and inclusivity is laid bare for everyone to consume whole-heartedly. And Miss Wardell is the typical mousy conservative school teacher with the affectations to boot.
But it’s four days to Sabrina’s birthday and she must take the Dark Baptism, a sacred rite of witches to leave the mortal world behind and become a full-fledge witch. But there are darker forces at work and Miss Wardell is transformed into a vivacious vamp to help ensure that Sabrina leaves her friends and the life she knew behind.
That is the crux of the show, and the first episodes stumble along, balancing a world of witches and mortal men and women. It feels unbalanced because it never really shows us why Sabrina would want to stay in her old life. It fails to make the mortal world interesting. Her friendships with Roz and Susie are underdeveloped — they are only friends because they say it constantly and come to each other’s aid when one is in trouble, but we never get a real sense of their friendship. And the relationship between Harvey and Sabrina is played out heavy-handedly; Harvey is portrayed as a very weak and passive character to the much more spirited and willful Sabrina. What does she see in him?
On the flipside, Sabrina is cared for by her two aunts, Zelda and Hilda, and her cousin Ambrose. As characters, they are quirky and odd enough to grab your attention and they are played wonderfully by Miranda Otto, Lucy Davis, and Chance Perdomo, respectively.
When it gets bloody and gory, it still feels safe and sanitized so it never really feels fully committed to its dark and horror tones. It makes fun of the witch world by being the exact opposite of the Catholic and Christian faith, mimicking many of the traditions but replacing it with the words “unholy” and “dark” and “Satan” or “Satanic.” It’s cringe-worthy at the beginning until the show starts chipping away at it subtly.
That’s when it gets good. Halfway through the season, the show starts to dig deeper into the darker side of Sabrina’s nature and the show begins to tear away at the quirky and sometimes one-dimensional characterization of the witch world that Sabrina operates in. That’s when it starts to get good, because then it becomes gray and nuanced and the obvious progressive politics of the show gets questioned and starts delivering the hard messages.
The human characters don’t get interesting until the last two episodes and so it sort of drags the show down. But it’s kept alive by Sabrina’s journey into her own darkness, and Kiernan Shipka has a wonderful air about her that keeps Sabrina from being too likeable or too annoying (when she gets selfish or self-righteous as she often does in the show).
It’s nice to see a supernatural show that doesn’t treat witches like superheroes or supervillains. They chant, they use potions, perform rituals to create their magic. It’s not a superhero show disguised as witchcraft. And that’s enjoyable for me because it feels more grounded and it keeps it away from being overtly effects-heavy.
It’s halfway through the show when it becomes interesting because it uses the witch religion as an obvious attack on Catholic and Christian fundamentalism. It questions the order of things and the patriarchy. It isn’t subtle about it but it delivers these messages with full conviction, and that’s enjoyable to see.
And while it takes its time to find its stride, 'Chilling Adventures of Sabrina' finds a full gallop, pushing hard at the drama and the darkness and the trials of Sabrina has really just begun.
There is a satisfying ending at the end of the season, but with a whole lot of new possibilities that the show can explore. I’m actually excited to see what the second season will bring. Maybe it will not have the unevenness of the first season now that it’s set up all the pieces in its proper place.