The Chilling Adventures of Sabrina, my rambling review

Brought to you by the people who think The Monster Mash sure is a spooky song

Image: a sexy robot woman

Sabrina. Image probably copyright of maybe Warner Brothers? CW Network? I don’t know. Used without express permission. Please don’t sue me.

(Spoilers in the most general way, up to the end of the first season.)

Apparently there was a Sabrina the Teenage Witch TV show about twenty years ago, but it had that brightly lit, sterile, nineties sitcom vibe, so I never watched it. When I heard there was going to be a Netflix version, I was totally up for that.

I might not be the target demographic, but I grew up reading Archie comics. To give credit where it’s really due, I grew up hooked on the art of Dan DeCarlo, who, as far as I’m concerned, is the only reason Archie comics survived when so many similar comics faded into the past. Anyway, these are characters that I know and have a connection to, so I’m down to see what’s what with them.

Especially if you’re going to go dark with it. That’s the direction they went with Riverdale, the show based, very loosely, on the main Archie comics cast, and so I imagined something similar with Sabrina. I thought maybe there’d be borderline S&M-ish imagery, as Gothic subculture was appropriated into a stylized interpretation of witchcraft. Strong women with super powers are kind of a fetish of mine, so a coven of witches could definitely work for me, if done right. What exactly would be “right”, I can’t say for sure, but it was something modern, something dark with all-too-beautiful adult actors playing teenagers. Again, kind of like what they did with Riverdale.

Turns out, nope.

I mean, the actors all look fine. Though there is that one British woman who is way too tan for a character that lives in a world of gloom and darkness. She’s the same woman who was the comic sidekick in Wonder Woman, and it looks like she moved to California and felt she had to catch up to LA life with overtime in a tanning bed.

But, anyway, the show… it’s a mess.

So, right off the bat, from the opening credits, it’s clear the tone they want to go for is more like an old school horror film than anything in a modern Goth sense. Kind of traditional horror with undead, zombies, vampires, the occult… The kind of thing you’d get in old EC Comics… Fine, fine… Not quite what I was hoping for, but still, could be good.

Then the first scene is Sabrina and her friends at a movie theatre, and the visuals, the way people are dressed, the look and feel of it all, seems like the sixties. So this is a period piece? Sure, fine. Except, just after coming out from watching Night of the Living Dead, released in 1968, they talk about comparing this movie’s zombies to “fast zombies” of more recent films, which is a pretty modern thing. Pretty sure fast zombies didn’t happen until the nineties or so. So this is sometime later, then? The eighties maybe?

A few scenes later, Sabrina wakes up the next morning, and we get a title text that says it’s October 28th… “Of this year”. This year? You mean now? The year I’m in? What?

Later on, at least one character, I think it’s Sabrina’s love interest Harvey if I remember correctly, has a smartphone. But, no one else does… maybe? We almost never see one. I think I remember seeing a computer in the school library… but the internet and laptops and tablets just aren’t an everywhere and always thing in this world like they are in the real world. There are definitely modern songs, though, and I don’t mean just in the soundtrack for the benefit of the viewer. I mean, characters in the show are specifically referencing and listening to songs that have come out only in the last few years.

And it has to be pointed out that there is one main character in the show with deliberately ambiguous gender, and that’s all cool and “woke” and diverse and all, but… would it be in the sixties? I mean, there were definitely some people in the sixties who’d be cool with it, no matter how much some Millennials think all progressive thinking was invented sometime after Bluetooth. But, I don’t think you could stumble across a whole high school of sufficiently woke kids in small town USA in that era to the degree that it wouldn’t be a constant source of daily high level friction. Way more than what we see here.

This is the first problem. I think it’s totally fine to have a show set in one time but with a style from another. If you wanted a show set in 2020, but for whatever reason everyone is dressed in 1920s flapper dresses and zoot suits because they just thought that was cool, then sure, why not? Style is flexible. But technology is much less so. Once you’ve established that you live in a world with mobile phones and the internet, then you’re going to have to address why, in every second scene when there’s a problem and they need to tell someone, why don’t they just text them? Is this some kind of ,a href="https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Luddite">Luddite commune or something?

Certain clues let us know this has to be set in the general “now”, but the show is in denial of what “now” means. The lack of clear commitment to a time period just ends up confusing things, not making a cool new world to explore.

So, in this world, there’s this coven of witches, and Sabrina is going to be joining it from her sixteenth birthday on Halloween. Or at least, she becomes more extra witchy, or something. Like so much of the show, it’s unclear what actually changes for her, in spite of all the exposition that doesn’t support the actions we see. She seems to already have powers, but I guess she gets more powers, or… who knows. I’m already thinking about this more than the writers. What it means to be a witch is kind of muddled because apparently it’s genetic, and Sabrina is “half human,” but I don’t even want to get into trying to think about what that means for a magical practice to be a race. Especially since it’s clear the writers didn’t think about all the implications of that either.

Anyway… coven. Witches. Women. Witches are a great metaphor for female empowerment and oppression. Yes, I know there’s such a thing as warlocks, but, I mean, who cares about them that much in a story about a girl coming of age? Apparently the makers of this show do, because the head of the whole coven of witches is a dude. A man is in charge. It just feels so weird and out of place because he’s kind of the only significant male character within the world of magic, except for this one other dude who is cursed to stay inside Sabrina’s house along with Sabrina’s two aunts. Other dude is kind of a non-entity who never does a single thing I care about so we’ll just forget about him like I do every moment he is not on screen. The leader warlock dude, on the other hand, has a lot of say in what’s going on with who does what. There are rules to being a witch, and he gets to pontificate about them.

I mean… technically in a post-gender way, why shouldn’t the head of a coven of witches be a dude? But that’s not the feel here, I think because they don’t convey that this world of witches is an even split of men and women and either gender, or someone non-binary, could just happen to be the leader and who cares witch one, pun intended. You see some other dudes around in the background sometimes, but among the main cast, it’s like everyone who counts is a woman, except this one dude, who is in charge. They don’t justify it, talk about it, acknowledge it, or anything that makes it sit right. It just feels like whoever wrote it just kind of assumed that leadership is something that’s for men.

And what exactly is he in charge of? This is where the show is really, really, murky and weird.

The witches, you see, are evil. Except they’re evil in a good way. They’re the good guys of the story. Except that they’re dedicated to evil. But they don’t do evil things. Well, some of the witches do evil things, but the good witches don’t do evil things. The good witches just decidedly belong to the entirely evil group, where they unequivocally dedicate themselves to evil…

They have a literal statue of Satan in the foyer of the witch school that Sabrina goes to, but, Sabrina is a good witch…? Maybe? There’s a group of three bad girl witches, who are the most fun out of the whole series, except one is distractingly named “Dorkas.”

Yes, “Dorkas.” Nobody in the show acknowledges that this is a name that sounds like a variant of “Dork”, it kind of sounds like people are saying “dork-ass”, and that it’s her actual name not a nickname,. That’s a fucked up name for a teenage girl, even if she maybe came from some alternate plane of existence where they speak that gibberish pseudo-Latin you get whenever anyone in a movie casts a spell…

Sorry, tangent.

Anyway, you’ve got these three witches who are set up to be Sabrina’s bullies because they are totally down for being as evil as they feel like, whereas Sabrina is a good girl. But Sabrina’s Aunts are always trying to get Sabrina in line to go along with being a witch, which means participating in all the rituals and abiding all the laws… of a group that openly and consistently declares its absolutely evil intent.

Just to be totally clear in a way that the show never is, they don’t even go down the route of saying something like how they’ve been painted in a bad light by Christianity, that really they just believe in freedom or something, or that maybe they’re pagans who believe in a different set of things that are misunderstood. They do say something about Christianity oppressing them or something, and maybe that’s not justified, but they don’t really lay it all out. They don’t go the route of making clear that maybe there are decidedly good and bad witches with different moral codes that are maybe at odds with each other or something. It’s also not that Sabrina and her immediate family of not-evil witches are rebels within the community for any clear reason or purpose.

There’s no clear explanation of any kind for what the hell is going on, pun intended, again. And it impacts the story because when Sabrina maybe has to go over to the dark side near the end of the series, it’s like, does that matter? Wasn’t she basically operating within an environment of evil anyway? Where are the lines, what are the stakes?

It seems like the makers of this show didn’t want to get tied down with any consistency about what good and evil are in this world because they just wanted to go for style over substance. They wanted to have a likeable character immersed in an evil world, which presents some inherent contradictions that they didn’t feel needed to be resolved. Don’t worry about why this world looks the way way it does, just revel in all the spooky old buildings, dark claustrophobic hallways, rooms filled with dusty ominous antiques, and monsters lurking about.

Which could work, if it was genuinely scary.

But it’s not. It’s kind of dorky and laughable. For example, the aforementioned lead witch guy wears a silk cravat and black cape like a throwback to an old 1930s Bella Lugosi film, and it just looks like the sad echo of something people in another time found scary. The women wear neck to wrist solid black velvet with lace trim that looks more like evil librarians than practitioners of dark arts. I think they were looking for the kind of aesthetic that succeeded in the film The Conjuring, but what they ended up was something closer to The Munsters. The Chilling Adventures Of Sabrina is about as chilling as a bowl of Count Chocula cereal.

Perhaps it’s trying to be a homage to a different era of horror. The thing about homage is that you have to distinguish between creating a sense of nostalgia and creating the results the source material used to have. It’s hard to achieve both. And in this case, if the scariness isn’t there, then what is the value of the nostalgia? I’m way older than what I assume is the target demographic of teenagers for this show, and the horror aesthetic this show evokes is from well before me. I used to see these kinds of images on late night movies back in the day when television was something you surfed through, and even when I saw it then, it was already cheesy, campy, and many other non scary descriptors.

Maybe that’s just me. The show does seem to have its fans, so it must work on some level for some people. All art is pornography, so I can only outline why I’m not interested in season two.

Oh well. I didn’t get the sexy Goth witches I was hoping for, which I could have dealt with if there was something of substance in its place.

Moving on… let’s see how Katy Keene goes…