The Chilling Adventures of Sabrina
Evidently, Netflix has a non-standard definition of “Original”. The impetus for The Chilling Adventures of Sabrina could well have come from a machine: take an old favourite from the ’90s with an established fan-base (yes, we know it’s actually based on the earlier comics), keep the characters but skew dark – those fans aren’t twelve any more. Then make sure the cat doesn’t speak because it will both generate controversy and ensure the series is at least an improvement on the original. It’s formulaic, like a fair share of garbage on the streaming service, that strange background cruddiness of Netflix, the depthless feeling it exudes out of the corners you’re not looking at. With Part 2 of Sabrina now out, however, I have to say: sometimes it works.
This second batch of episodes was filmed back-to-back with the first and forms a whole with them, completing many of the storylines begun last year. The new set is largely better disciplined, however – perhaps because more driven by plot than world-building. The acting style was previously more uneven, the theology less under control. Now, the bumbling manner and arch haughtiness of sisters Hilda and Zelda (Lucy Davis/Miranda Otto) pairs better – they feel more like sisters than competing comedians. A less bubblegum Sabrina (Kiernan Shipka), Harvey et al. fit better into the ghoulish scheme of things. And, as before, Michelle Gomez is magnificent as Lilith/Miss Wardwell.
Underneath it all, Sabrina is an empowerment drama, clustered around a central group of outcasts: Sabrina battles the engrained sexism of the Church of Night, her mortal friend Theo (Lachlan Watson), who is transitioning, defies prejudice at Baxter High, and Roz (Jaz Sinclair) is coping with the gradual loss of her sight. It succeeds in delivering its messages without turning preachy largely because of the black humour, undercutting any didacticism, and through well-developed metaphysical systems that deny the characters any easy solutions to their problems. The writers also know how to have fun: how many popes and primates did Faustus Blackwood paraphrase in saying “Witches can ascend to a multitude of coveted fellowships within the Church of Night. But the position of High Priest has been held by a warlock since the first stones were laid”?
The presence of Satan here is, in the show’s terminology, “a hellsend”. Broadly, the arc of this first season follows Sabrina as she discovers, first, that the parallel world of witchcraft has its own deep-seated problems, and second, that every time she tries to do good, she is in fact fulfilling the Dark Lord’s Plan. There is a pleasing ambiguity to the action here that defies any simplistic dark/light oppositions: the witch/mortal plane is in fact acted on by numerous extraneous forces, none of them uncomplicatedly good or evil. Even while Satan’s church tries to suppress Sabrina as a woman, Satan is raising her up; while Lilith acts as an agent of the Dark Lord, she has her own agenda. The Christian God, meanwhile, is represented both by friend Roz, the daughter of the local minister, and by His savage, murderous, witch-hunter deputies.
As the first generation of Harry Potter readers ages, empowerment fantasy is keeping pace. The search for a “Harry Potter for Grown Ups” has brought us, among other things, Cassandra Clare’s Mortal Instruments series (Clare began her writing career as an author of Potter fan fiction), televised as Shadowhunters, also distributed by Netflix and now in its fourth series. Here too, a girl, Clary, finds out on a key birthday that she is a member of a parallel society – this time of rune-tattooed do-gooders who refer to the ordinary people as “mundanes” and who are recovering from the effects of a recent internecine war against an evil, racial-purity-obsessed shadowhunter called Valentine. Spot the connections.
Shadowhunters has none of the charm of Sabrina, lacking any sense of humour or production values. Stripped of the distracting, ornate trappings of children’s literature – J.K. Rowling’s forte – the message of racial equality it shares with its source material (though in this case between werewolves, vampires, warlocks etc.) is exposed as patronising: its protagonist seems to be a member of a white saviour caste whose job it is to keep all the other races under control, while occasionally dating them to infuriate their parents. In the second part of her Chilling Adventures, Sabrina is to make an identical stand against the segregation between witches and mortals. (That Netflix algorithm certainly knows what it wants, and what it wants is more of the same.) In this case, though, the attachment of the devil to Sabrina’s actions makes this something more than simplistic posturing; far from setting her up as a saviour, she is ordained as a deliberate mockery of the Messianic. The supporting characters are also never given an easy time: chief frenemy Prudence (Tati Gabrielle), for example, has to balance loyalties to her father, the misogynistic Father Blackwood, and her sister orphans, with shifting allegiances to lover Ambrose (Chance Perdomo) and Sabrina herself. Throughout, the influence of the teenage witch on all who surround her, though well meant, is rarely totally positive.
This series is not a totally smooth ride – ambition occasionally spills into overreach. There’s an astonishingly crap song and dance for you to look forward to; the parodic cuteness occasionally makes moments of attempted import fall flat; the sets and colours are lovely but sometimes seem to make Hilda’s face go yellow. And there seems to be a worrying penchant for anthology episodes (two in one season and hopefully no more to come). But these are mere side issues, considering what Sabrina is: that rarest of creatures, a successful reboot.