Riverdale meets Harry Potter in Netflix’ Sabrina re-imagining which makes for a breezy, enjoyable binge with the promise of more to come.
As the clock strikes midnight on her 16th birthday, Sabrina Spellman (Kiernan Shipka) has a choice to make: a mortal or magical life, one which would see her leave Baxter High and her plucky friends and her goofy but sweet boyfriend, Harvey Kinkle (Ross Lynch).
So far, so familiar to 90s kids who grew up with Melissa Joan Hart’s Sabrina the Teenage Witch but this show, inspired by the Archie Comics series of the same name, is a much darker watch yet it retains a sense of fun.
Witches and warlocks are governed by the cult-like Church of Night where they pledge their lives to Satan, in an effective allegory for self-suppression in certain groups, that’s mined across the season in a hit-and-miss plot.
Kiernan Shipka’s Sabrina, the daughter of a High Priest and mortal women who died under mysterious circumstances, is a thoroughly modern half-witch who clashes with the Churches traditions, namely cannibalism and complete devotion to the devil.
Shipka perfected the role of a headstrong young women as Don Draper’s daughter, Sally, on Mad Men and comfortably steps into the lead role with the first two hours hinging on her performance.
It takes a few episodes to warm up to the roster of supporting characters, especially Sabrina’s adoptive Aunt Zelda, this time played by the stellar Miranda Otto. Zelda is a one-note woman of faith and Otto delivers countless magical lore exposition with theatrical conviction.
The fifth episode, ‘Dreams in a Witch House,’ a Buffy-style monster-of-the-week episode, is a turning point largely thanks to Otto’s powerful, emotional breakdown, which fuels the Spellman family story-line in the seasons’ back half.
Lucy Davis is the much-needed heart of the show as the bumbling and bookish Aunt Hilda, a contrast with the often cold, always camp performances from Scottish actress Michelle Gomez and Richard Coyle, the other older cast members and resident hissable villains.
Best known as Dawn in The Office, Davis has spent her post-Wernham Hogg career in scene-stealing, smaller roles like Etta Candy in 2017s Wonder Woman and Chilling Adventures is no exception; she quietly elevates Shipka and Otto’s on-screen bravado and her simultaneously tragic and tender relationship with Zelda is a dramatic high point.
A welcome addition to the Spellman family is Ambrose (Chance Perdomo), a charming warlock under house-arrest for magical misdemeanour who frustratingly gets trapped in unresolved sub-plots, such as the strange death of a fellow warlock and a relationship that gets little screen time.
Sabrina’s best friends, Rosalind Walker (Jaz Sinclair) and Susie Putnam (Lachlan Watson), are refreshing and strong supporting players who have engaging adventures outside Sabrina’s orbit. Particularly, ‘Witch Academy,’ which serves as a full introduction to Sabrina’s Hogwarts-light Academy for the Unseen Arts, but is better in the creepy B-story where Sabrina’s pals confront a demon.
The entire academy plot is severely underdeveloped and points to an odd problem the show shouldn’t have – there isn’t enough magic! Apart from the occasional hand-hold summoning, the series needs to embrace more inventive storytelling with the unlimited possibilities of witchcraft and to devote less time to coven politics. Credit then to Tati Gabrielle for injecting a fiery, fun energy into a conventional bitchy ringleader role as Prudence Night.
Chilling Adventures manages to avoid the identity crisis sister-show Riverdale is having, possibly due to a shorter episode count, but mainly because it revels in the more ridiculous aspects and the perils stem from character, whether that’s Sabrina’s determination or Harvey’s trauma, which former-Disney star Lynch really sells.
The lavish production design, the obscene use of smoke machines, candles and the on-the-nose music choices, such as ‘I Put a Spell on You,’ and ‘Devil Woman,’ really animate the witching world and the Vancouver woods dubbing for Greendale.
Production is appropriately underway on ‘part two,’ as episode ten certainly has a mid-season finale quality, but left enough intriguing threads dangling that’ll keep me watching.
Bolstered by a likeable cast and great lead performances from Shipka, Otto and Davis, Chilling Adventures is a perfect binge for the long winter nights and worth jumping on board before a promising season two.