Irreverent, dark and nostalgic - Sabrina doesn't need a talking Salem to shine
When it was announced that the producers of Riverdale would be creating a new televised take on Sabrina the Teenage Witch, I was sceptical to say the least. It is, after all, pretty uncontroversial to say that the execution of the Archie universe is a mixed bag.
On the one hand, Riverdale boasts beautiful cinematography, clear direction and a genuinely impressive cast. Although it is often absurd, the absurdity works well and is one of the more redeeming and entertaining features of the show. On the other, though, the show suffers from inconsistent storylines, flimsy characterisation and an inability to decide what genre it is and what target audience it hopes to attract. Seriously, Roberto Aguirre-Sacasa - are you making a teen drama, a dark thriller or a musical?
(It also doesn’t help that so much screen-time is spent on the mind-numbingly dull Veronica and Archie storyline, which is enough to bore even the most romantic of twelve-year-olds to tears. It’s criminal that genuinely interesting couples like Cheryl/Toni and Alice/FP are put on the back burner while we have to endure “Varchie’s” cringe-inducing monopoly of the show).
Chilling Adventures of Sabrina, however, has mostly avoided falling into the trap that Roberto Aguirre-Sacasa constantly pushes Riverdale into. Like its sister show, Chilling Adventures of Sabrina is beautifully directed, masterfully acted and irreverent. Unlike its sister show, however, the show seems to have a strong self-awareness of its genre and target audience.
If anybody binge-watched this new take on Sabrina and expected a PG-friendly adaptation, they were quickly proven wrong: viewers are immediately warned by Netflix that the show contains strong bloody violence, gore and threat. True to its word, within ten minutes, we watch someone’s throat get slashed. The tone is set, and the tone is dark.
Unlike Riverdale, though, Chilling Adventures of Sabrina doesn’t then dwindle existentially with what exactly it’s trying to do or say. Throughout the ten-episode first season (which I watched in twenty-four hours), it remains consistently dark and irreverent. Women are killing and eating men (with no gore spared) left right and centre, the good guys are simultaneously unambiguously the bad guys, and the show exhibits a shocking but welcome lack of reverence for religion (“praise Satan” is uttered multiple times per episode).
Of course, Chilling Adventures of Sabrina isn’t outright horror; the show is still mostly told through the lens of teenage perspective, and there are several points throughout the season that are corny beyond belief. I would argue, though, that this is intentional and effective - Sabrina is quite successfully emulating other Netflix hits like Stranger Things, where viewers can expect to be both scared and heart-warmed by a narrative that balances horror, teenage drama and nostalgia.
A particular highlight of the show is its unabashed feminism; it can be a little on the nose at times, but on the nose is necessary when a considerable chunk of its audience will be young women. Whether they’re heroes, villains or something in between, all of the women on this show have their own agency and none of them are defined in any way by a man or romance (although, I’ll admit that the Sabrina/Harvey romance gets very tiresome very quickly). Particularly encouraging was the character of Susie, a young non-binary character who suffers misogynistic bullying, only for her friends to form an intersectional feminist society in retaliation. It’s also admittedly quite entertaining to watch Michelle Gomez’s incredible Madam Satan terrorise and murder patriarchal men.
What’s even more refreshing, and arguably quite rare, is the fact that none of these women can be characterised as “good” or “bad” - pretty much all of them are anti-heroes. Madam Satan is hilarious and empowering but also pure evil; Zelda and Hilda are morally questionable at best; the "Weird Sisters" are like the Mean Girls trio if that trio were Satan-worshipping murderers; and even Sabrina unflinchingly slits someone’s throat and commits mass (ghost?) murder by the end of the series. Normally, women - especially in teen dramas - are lumped with a holier than thou protagonist with moral standards that make the best of us exhausted. To put it bluntly, having multiple characters to root for that could never be described as unequivocally “good” makes for fun watching.
Of course, the show has its faults: sometimes too much time is spent on an uninteresting storyline (*cough* Harvey Kinkle *cough*), and a fair bit of suspension of disbelief is required, even for a show about witches. Still, these flaws are pretty easy to overlook when you’re already hooked on the show’s hilariously irreverent darkness, spooky nineties aesthetic and nostalgic soundtrack.
The show currently boasts a 90% rating on Rotten Tomatoes, so the naysayers and killjoys lamenting the series aren’t having quite the impact they’d hoped. So, if you haven’t quite gotten over the spooky season yet and you fancy a Stranger Things-like show to sink your teeth into but not take too seriously, give Chilling Adventures of Sabrina a chance.
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