The newest Netflix original series, Chilling Adventures of Sabrina, is about as far from sarcastic cats and Melissa Joan Hart as possible. The beloved teen comedy was based off a classic Archie comic from the 70s and 80s. This iteration of the teenage witch is far darker than the light and fun comedy from the 90s. That darkness comes from the difference in source material. This Sabrina comes from the horror spin-off from 2014, “The Chilling Adventures of Sabrina”, that is also an Archie comic. The only things that the two have in common are a few character names. Salem, Sabrina’s cat, doesn’t even bare much resemblance to his predecessor. It was these fundamental differences that drew me to the show, a version of the Sabrina that much darker and more intense is appealing.
The setup for Chilling Adventures of Sabrina is pretty straightforward; Sabrina Spellman (Kiernan Shipka) tries to navigate living a double life as a half witch, half mortal. The series as a whole has a few problems that cripple the overall experience, most notably the lack of a clear direction, both in its storytelling and its tone. Creator Roberto Aguirre-Sacasa is created a pretty dark story with plenty of horror elements to it. The problem lies in the lack of focus he has with that. There are also times where the show tries to be self-aware and fun. This is a tough balance to strike and Sabrina is never able to find that balance. In one scene it is taking itself as serious as it can, and in the next it’s winking to the camera after a “praise satan” because it’s so cleverly self-aware. I am all for a self-aware show, one that leans into its campiness and has fun at its own expense. Riverdale does this well and that is one of the reasons that show works. Sabrina, on the other hand, isn’t doing that. It tries to be fun but it is more often than not being very serious. It’s frustrating to watch because, as a viewer, it’s hard to settle into a show that can’t find its tone. This lack of tone makes the whole show feel off, which in turn makes it hard to connect to.
It’s equally difficult to connect because of the unfocused storytelling. Sabrina takes on an episodic feel over the course of its 10 episodes, giving Sabrina different adventures in each episode. This approach makes the series feel directionless and if nothing that is happening really matters. Most of the plot doesn’t carry over to the next episode, neither in consequence nor in context. Several elements of previous episodes seem to have no effect on the following episodes or the overall narrative (which also seemed to have been abandoned early on). This ties into the tone problem because instead of telling a consistent horror/thriller the show seems to be far more interested in flipping traditional religious ideas, phrases and practices into something more satanic. Each adventure gives another experience with the dark arts but none of it makes much cohesive sense. Some episodes are better than others but overall it’s an uneven experience.
The uneven experience stretches to about every part of the show. There are some parts of Sabrina that are very well done and show what the show could be but end up falling short in some way. The cinematography, for the most part, is very well done. The show looks great. It was able to find the perfect medium of being dark but not too dark. The color pallet was beautiful and bounced off the misty backdrop of nearly every scene perfectly. All of this becomes mute when the show gets too clever for its own good. When there is an element of the dark arts on screen the edges of the screen are blurry to signify that. In the proper hands this could be an effective technique but it most certainly didn’t work here. It took awhile for me to catch why this was happening and that is mainly because it is presented in an inconsistent matter. It was disorienting and greatly takes away from the best aspect of the whole show, which was incredibly frustrating.
The performances were another area that presented a fantastic element of the show, while also being uneven. Overall the performances and characters were not very memorable. The only real stand out was the lead, Kiernan Shipka. It took a couple of episodes for the character to take shape but once it did Shipka lit up the screen. She made Sabrina very compelling even though what she was doing wasn’t all that compelling. The same could be said for Chance Perdomo, he shined in the in spite of a hollow character. When he and Shipka were together on screen the show was at its most compelling, unfortunately there wasn’t enough of that.
Overall, Chilling Adventures of Sabrina feels like a missed opportunity. It was smart to place the show in the Riverdale universe because that added a lot of intrigue. This could have been a great companion to that and found success in the same ways. Unfortunately it couldn’t find the balance that Riverdale did, so it ends up being a worse version of that. It’s not bad but it’s not good either, it’s just uninteresting. The second season has already started production; hopefully it can find a clear tone and direction. The camera issues can be overlooked but there has to be a more compelling story for the second season to work. They have the right lead and with better material the secondary characters could be better. This season isn’t something I would recommend but there is still enough there for me to have hope that a second season might work.
Drama 10 episodes (10 reviewed) Netflix, October 26th Creator: Roberto Aguirre-Sacasa Starring: Kiernan Shipka, Ross Lynch, Lucy Davis, Chance Perdomo, Richard Coyle & Miranda Otto