The Chilling Adventures of Sabrina Gets Off to a Rough But Entertaining Start

Posted on November 01, 2018

We’ve been working on this review for a while, largely because we couldn’t quite get the tone of it right – which is ironic, considering all the points we’re about to make. The thing is, we have a lot of things to say about The Chilling Adventures of Sabrina and some of them are quite critical, but we can’t honestly say we’re disappointed in the series. We enjoyed it in spite of itself, if that makes any sense. There were more good things than bad, and most of what we’re going to critique isn’t so much “bad” in our eyes as misguided or somewhat sloppy in its execution. This is an unusually explanatory preamble to a review, but there’s a good reason for that: we can’t tell if we just don’t get what the show’s trying to do or if the creators of the show don’t get it. There are reasons to think that there’s a plan and even a possibly too-subtly-applied theme underneath these ten episodes, but the tone veered wildly back and forth so much, and several of the writing and plotting decisions were so puzzling, that we honestly can’t tell if there’s a larger game plan or if the show simply stumbled its way through its first season, dropping some things along the way and tightening up its themes and points in the last act.

We don’t want this review to sound too negative, because we loved a lot of it. The style and look of the series is gorgeous, often evoking late ’60s/early ’70s horror like The Exorcist, Dark Shadows and Dawn of the Dead. There’s a lot of charm in its wind-blown, sweater-heavy, pumpkins-and-scarecrows look, which is consistently carried though the entire ten episodes. The central story of Sabrina Spellman and how she straddles both the world of mortals and the world of witches is an engaging one, even if Samantha Stevens was walking that same path a half-century ago. We can understand why those with strong memories of the ’90s sitcom might have been put off by it, but we actually loved the show’s commitment to darkness in its themes and characters. And it’s an extremely well cast show; so much so that we’re torn on whether Michelle Gomez as Madam Satan, Tati Gabrielle as Prudence or Miranda Otto as Zelda carried the show. Let’s just split the difference and note that all three of these witches elevated the material and clearly had some fun with it. In fact, we’d say these three actresses set the tone for the rest of the show and everyone else either stepped up to their level or looked a bit overwhelmed by it. Ironically, all the things we just listed as the parts we loved also embody the parts that had the most problems.

The mid-Century aesthetic, while fun to look at and charming, is hugely distracting at those times when the show suddenly decides it’s set in the present. Worse, it forces the characters into doing things – like using Polaroid cameras and pay phones – that really don’t make any sense in a world where a smart phone suddenly pops up when the story needs it to. Given the early press materials for the show and the comic it’s based on, it would seem that the plan was to originally set it in the 1960s but the idea got abandoned somewhere in the process. The problem is, the 98% period aesthetic is a bit too overwhelming. Riverdale is a show with a classic aesthetic and lots of throwbacks to mid-Century period styles and designs, but you never lose sight of the fact that those kids live in a world where computers and smart phones and the internet are ubiquitous. Setting a story in 2018 and pretending none of those things exist – or weirdly, that only select characters have rare access to them – is sometimes too distracting to get past.

In a recent podcast where we discussed our non-spoilery impressions of the screeners we’d received, we noted that Kiernan Shipka has a very underplayed acting style and that such an approach made perfect sense coming from someone who literally grew up learning to act from Jon Hamm and January Jones. The problem is that the material doesn’t really support that style of acting. And the writing, at times, doesn’t seem to play into Kiernan’s natural strengths. Sabrina can’t really be a badass; not when Kiernan Shipka’s embodying her. Because of Shipka’s baby face, small size and naturally placid expression, the role of Sabrina needs to have way less Buffy Summers and way more Carrie White in the mix. It’s why we were so excited about Shipka’s casting in the first place, because the comic this series is based on plays up the darker sides of Sabrina’s personality, something Kiernan’s extremely adept at as an actress. She’s pretty, sweet-looking, and capable of a darkly unsettling undertone in her acting. On the few occasions when the show played into that (the wink in the last second of the season would be the prime example), her casting really makes sense and brings the character to life. When she’s spitting threats or vowing vengeance, however, the script is not playing to her strengths. We have to believe that Sabrina Spellman can hold her own in an argument against Zelda, in a fight against Prudence, and in an ongoing struggle for dominance against Madam Satan. Shipka’s right for the role and more than up to the task, but the series never seems to grasp exactly who Sabrina is, which is an impossible thing for an actor to solve on her own.

There was conflict in Sabrina at the beginning of the series, when she was being forced to choose between her mortal and witch lives and there was conflict in her at the end of the series, when she’d embraced the latter and struggled with letting Harvey go, but in that vast Netflix middle, the character mostly bopped back and forth happily and competently between both worlds. In retrospect, it was a mistake to solve the issue of her refusal to sign the devil’s book so early in the series. We suspect the writers would say that the entire series was about Sabrina’s conflicts, but it really wasn’t. There was no sense of inevitability when she signed the book; no feeling that everything we’d seen had led to this moment. Don’t even get us started on so much of her conflict centering around her boyfriend, who’s kind of a drip and definitely not worth any girl denying herself opportunities or exploring more possibilities in life. Sorry, but Harvey’s not a good enough reason for Sabrina to be wavering on any decision. The underlying tone of her spending so much time worrying about her boyfriend was severely at odds with the series’ attempts to cast the lead as someone with power and agency.

And unfortunately, we have to address some parts of the story that felt a bit problematic. The most glaring was the scene in the second episode when Sabrina and the weird sisters bewitched a group of bullies into making out with each other and taking pictures of it. Now, this happened in a series where the lead character slit a girl’s throat and in which a some of the supporting characters tore a woman’s body to pieces eating it. Obviously, the moral codes of a great deal of the characters are screwed up, if not downright evil – Sabrina included. But we were meant to question the throat-slitting, meant to be revolted by the cannibalism. The gay panic response to the bullies was not meant to be presented as something bad on Sabrina’s part, but something triumphant and righteous. Even worse, Hilda’s later  outing of one of the boys to the other one was presented as something comical and deserved instead of the cruelly dangerous thing that it was. These tropes are old and outdated and damaging. And honestly, kind of weird when they were deliberately positioned against Suzie’s gender identity journey, as if gayness and non-binary identities are in violent opposition to each other. It feels like someone didn’t think through the implications of these scenes.

In a similar vein, the racial optics of the show were sometimes questionable at best. On the surface, there was something appealing about the racial blindness of the show in its casting choices, but again, there’s a sense that certain things weren’t exactly thought though completely. From Sabrina triumphantly hanging Prudence from a tree to Zelda abducting a biracial baby, there was this odd sort of … sloppiness surrounding how the characters of color were framed or portrayed. Any time a writer wants to have a white character hang a black character from a tree or abduct a black character’s baby or slit the only Asian character’s throat, they really have to stop and consider how they’re portraying that and more importantly, why they’re doing it – especially if the white characters are being portrayed heroically and the characters of color in these situations have been portrayed villainously.

And yet we enjoyed the hell (you’ll pardon the term) out of this. There were certain moments, when the show seemed to realize it was telling a story about women being subjugated under an oppressive patriarchal system and moral code that forced them to claw at each other to keep them from uniting, that were downright thrilling. The feminist exorcism. Sabrina teaming up with the weird sisters or slowly befriending Prudence. Michelle Gomez wanting desperately to eat Bronson Pinchot. Zelda’s slow realization of what her devotion to the Church of Night has done to her. Hilda’s struggle to assert herself. Any time the show stuck to these ideas and moments, we felt like we were seeing the true potential of it.

This is a really weird comparison to make, but we feel the same way about this show as we did about the first season of Amazon’s The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel; a similarly charming, richly stylish, well-cast show with a fantastic central conflict that kept us wildly entertained throughout its run, even though we could see a lot of weakness or contradictions in the writing as the series stumbled its way to a point. There’s a lot to love about The Chilling Adventures of Sabrina and we suspect it’ll come back for its second season with a bit more of a handle on what it’s trying to say and do, but there was a lot of roughness around the edges.

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