The Netflix series The Chilling Adventures of Sabrina, based on a comic book by the same name, is a horror tale. It is nothing like the Sabrina, the Teenage Witch cartoon and comic we all remember, and certainly not like the old ABC sitcom. It is not a campy comedy but rather a gory tale for mature audiences. The show is gritty and serious, but also fun at times. It is dark and not for the weak at heart, but also full of rich characters brought to life by a cast of wonderful actors. Kiernan Shipka as Sabrina adds the right amount of levity and innocence to the lead role so it keeps you from getting bogged down in all the gore. And it's a delight to see Michelle Gomez, Missy from Doctor Who, as the mysterious Miss Wardwell.
In the series opener, we find that Sabrina's father was a warlock (that's what witches call a male witch) and her mother was a mortal (that's what witches call someone who is not a witch or warlock). Sabrina's parents died when she was young, and she was raised by her two aunts, who are both witches. She turns sixteen in the pilot episode, and must choose the path of witch or mortal. If she chooses to become a witch, she must sign her name in the Book of the Beast, literally a book, thereby signing her soul over to the dark lord (Aka the devil). In the first episode, she chooses not to do so, but she does agree to attend witch school on weekends. The rest of the season is spent by Sabrina finding out what it means to be a witch. In most of the first season, she rebels against witch traditions while embracing more of the ethics and values of mortals. This is very much her coming of age story.
The show portrays witches as devil worshipers, which seemed odd to me. A quick look at Wikipedia confirmed my suspicion that while real life witches are varied and have many different beliefs, very few of them are devil worshipers. Not that I am judging, and, well, let’s face it, fiction is fiction. While the supreme being is in male form, the show has strong female characters who dominate the screen both in beauty and inner strength. And it's interesting to note that the most evil person is not a witch, but a mortal. The father of Sabrina's boyfriend is a rich businessman who cares more for himself than his employees or his family.
There are other witch/mortal contrasts that deserve mentioning. In mortal school, Sabrina has a friend who is bullied for her androgynous look, but Sabrina is very much accepted at this ordinary school. But at witch school, Sabrina is bullied for being a half-witch. It's no wonder she can't fully accept the witch lifestyle. She seems to have been raised on mortal values and is only just beginning to learn the customs and values of witches. The two lifestyles are so different that it is no wonder she rejects the less familiar one for the one she has always known. But having bullies in both schools tells us how witches and mortals are more alike than either would like to admit.
Magic is shown as a useful and dangerous tool. One of her forays into witchcraft involved Sabrina using black magic to bring her boyfriend's brother, who recently died, back to life. This wound up having predictably evil consequences. So Sabrina learned the lesson of don't-bring-someone-back-from-the-dead, whereas we all learned it from Pet Sematary and other horror movies. It's one of the things I wish the show hadn't done, because bringing back the dead has become a supernatural storytelling cliché. But at least the writers made the resolving of the consequences into a compelling story.
And let's not forget the "weird sisters", a trio of witches who are not really sisters, but who are best friends who hang out together and do evil things together. (I love the onscreen tradition of witches in three's, ala Hocus Pocus, Witches of Eastwick, Charmed.) The traditional fashion choice of the weird sisters is black dresses with a lace collar, giving them a creepy yesteryear look of Wednesday Addams in her babydoll dress from the Addams Family. The weird sisters seem more ethereal and evil in the pilot episode, but throughout the season, they become more well-rounded characters.
Most of the characters seem to have deep family connections. Sabrina herself lives with her two witch aunts and her cousin Ambrose, who is a warlock. They all seem to love her and care deeply for her, even if they show it in different ways. So yes, through the dark and macabre stories, we still get to see a show redeemed by familial affection. The entire first season tries to be an allegory for growing up and finding out the world isn't what you thought, that you have to make tougher decisions than you ever thought possible. It's a good watch if you have the stomach for it. Not as deathly serious or suspenseful as Stranger Things, but obviously made for the same audience. Netflix has released the multiple seasoons, so binge watch away!