I liked what I saw of Chilling Adventures of Sabrina, which wasn’t much.
That’s not to say I haven’t watched much of Netflix’s dark-and-stormy interpretation of the Sabrina the Teenage Witch Archie Comics series, which arrives on the streaming service Friday, 15 years after the popular TGIF sitcom went off air. It’s that the series is too dark and stormy. You literally can’t see most of it.
Call me crazy, but I find television to generally be more enjoyable when I can see what the hell is going on. Apparently I’m old fashioned that way, at least gauging by the recent trend in prestige television—Mr. Robot, Halt and Catch Fire, Game of Thrones, Ozark, Ray Donovan—in which TV directors all seem to be in agreement that the one true key to signaling to audiences that your show is good is removing all light switches from set.
The impulse to dial down the dimmer when it comes to Chilling Adventures of Sabrina is arguably understandable given the hook behind this adaptation and its subject matter. It’s a dark take! About witches! Things should be spooky. Spooky means shadows. But, as I’ve come to learn in the past few years as a TV critic and general fan, shadows mean squinting and straining with every micro-muscle in your eyeballs in order to make out a damn thing that is happening. At this point, the Directors Guild of America should be subsidizing our optometrist bills.
Chilling Adventures of Sabrina casts Mad Men alum Kiernan Shipka in the titular role of spunky, conflicted teen Sabrina Spellman. It’s the dawn of her Sweet Sixteen, which doubles as her Dark Baptism. Yes, Sabrina is half-witch, half-mortal, born to one of the most powerful warlocks in the immortal realm and the human woman he fell in love with. Now that she’s turning 16, she much choose between the two worlds: the witch world of her family and her destiny, and the human world of her friends and gee-golly boyfriend, Harvey (Ross Lynch).
She lives with her two witch aunts Hilda (Lucy Davis) and Zelda (Miranda Otto), as well as her disgraced warlock cousin Ambrose (Chance Perdomo), in the town of Greendale, “where it always feels like Halloween.” At least from what we’ve watched, that means that its residents’ lives take place almost exclusively at night. It’s just as well, as the sun never seems to come up in the day, anyway—which none of the residents seem to mind or, like, turn on anything more than a tiny lamp in a corner to accommodate.
A scene meant to be terrifying in the first episode, in which Sabrina casts a vengeful spell of spiders on her principal, is so overshadowed you can’t see what you’re supposed to be scared by. There are two major set pieces in the first batch of episodes—Sabrina’s Dark Baptism in the woods, in which she has a showdown with the Dark Lord, and a trial she’s put on for defying him—which take place in near total darkness, supposedly to establish excessive eeriness, but instead sparking viewer confusion: Who is speaking? What is happening?
As Vanity Fair critic Sonia Saraiya tweeted, “[The] second episode takes place mostly at night and basically I’m listening to a podcast [right now].”
This is not an original complaint of ours. If you happen to lurk around TV critic Twitter—is that a thing?—you’ll find that an exasperation over how dimly lit TV shows have gotten is a topic of conversation second only in popularity to all things Chidi from The Good Place. Several articles have been written about it. Enough is enough!
But this issue is exceptionally frustrating when it comes to Chilling Adventures of Sabrina because it echoes a creative misstep for the show: the presumption that it needs to pander to some idea of what is edgy or, in this case, “dark” in order to gratify the fanbase for the series. The show should be—and often is—way more fun that. It’s those moments of levity and cheekiness (which don’t negate any of the darkness, by the way) that make the series worth watching.
Right off the bat, Shipka crafts a bewitching Sabrina. She’s got a wry intelligence softened by an empathetic heart. By virtue of her supernatural DNA, she’s preternaturally composed, but bolstered by her human gumption and the courage of her convictions. It’s been pre-determined that she will pledge herself to the Dark Lord, attend a school for witches, and bid adieu to all of her human connections, but she doesn’t accept that fate.
She struggles with the idea of devoting her life to the Devil, him being evil and all. Fair point, Sabrina!
She’s got a sturdy head on her shoulders, which turns out to be as powerful as magic as she refuses to bow to authority, tradition, or actual Satan, and is unafraid to express her incredulity and crusade for change when the status quo is unjust—in either realm. But at the same time, she’s still a teenager in cute puppy-love with Harvey, her impetuousness and mischief-making as reckless and naïve as it is bold and empowered.
This is very much a feminist show, which, at least for me, was unexpected but very welcome, and quite makes sense. When her butch friend, Susie (Lachlan Watson), is bullied and assaulted by football players and the school administration has no interest in helping, she starts a club for young women to “topple the patriarchy,” as her friend, Ros (Jaz Sinclair) says. If this sounds like a coven, that is purposeful. It’s even named WICCA.
That energy extends to the witching world. When a demon takes over the body of Sabrina’s teacher, sent by the Dark Lord to help manipulate the young witch into choosing her supernatural destiny, she boosts Sabrina’s mission to combat the town’s culture of “puritanical masculinity.” When Sabrina seeks magical revenge on the football players who hurt Susie, a trio of teenage witches agree to help torture the boys, even though they hate Sabrina. They just want the catharsis of seeing the boys squirm.
You’ll delight when Sabrina refers to the trio as “Succubitches.” Or when the perfectly cast Otto as Zelda is asked where the equally perfectly cast Hilda is, she responds by deadpanning, “She annoyed me. So I killed her. And buried her in the yard.” The show is witchy and weird, and it’s when the darkness manifests in campiness and humor instead of a literal lack of light that it feels most magical.
In the end, the show isn’t that dark, that edgy, or that twisted, despite what we’re promised. There are scary demons and real blood, and some gruesome images. But it’s all style, when the substance, in a surprising turn for a comic-book show, is deeper than that.
The early run of episodes seems unsure where it fits between the winking, sardonic tone of Scream Queens or American Horror Story: Coven and the soapiness and melodrama of Riverdale. (And, like too many streaming series, episodes could be half as long and the narrative could move twice as fast.) But fear not. A creative light bulb seems to turn on as the season hits its final stretch. If only an actual one would turn on, too.