When Sabrina the Teenage Witch aired on TV between 1996 and 2003, I was between the ages of 21 and 28. It was the least likely thing for me to be interested in. It was, to my mind, some terrible sitcom for kids, with a really crappy-looking talking cat, which heavily reminded me of the pretty bad animatronic cat in the 1989 Survival episode of Doctor Who. Why on earth would I watch it?
Fast-forward to 2018 and Roberto Aguirre-Sacasa – who had been making Riverdale for Netflix for about a year at that time – declared that he’d be taking on another Archie Comics property for the streaming service, Chilling Adventures of Sabrina, which had begun as a comic book in 2014 using the legacy character of Sabrina Spellman, who herself stretched back in comics to the early 1960s.
This had more promise. Not only had I moved into my 40s with a free-and-easy desire to watch guilty pleasure TV in a way my twentysomething self would be disgusted at, but the series was being set up as an altogether darker piece and not a sitcom at all. Throw in Kiernan Shipka, who I thought had great promise as a developing actor in Mad Men, and I was ready to watch with an open mind.
I was really, genuinely surprised with how far the series pushed the boat out. The young witches and warlocks at the Academy of the Unseen Arts (think of it as a Satanic Hogwarts), are portrayed as really sexed-up and even just the way half the characters would say, “Praise Satan!” or “Hail Satan!” at regular intervals made me think just how far we’ve come from the days of the ‘Satanic Panic’ back in the 1980s. This was a mainstream TV series and no seemed to blink an eye at proceedings at all.
Of course, like Riverdale, the series has a strong sense of humour and of its own ridiculousness. So even when things are – in theory – at their scariest, it’s still only one gag or two away from the situation being defused. Buffy the Vampire Slayer used to do this shtick a lot as well and, indeed, there are times when watching the show, that you can’t help but see the Buffy formula hard at work.
Over two seasons (albeit split into four parts), the series covers a lot of ground – it actually feels like a MUCH longer series than just two seasons long – and is still surprising until the end. The penultimate episode, for example, is one of the most delightfully meta things I’ve ever seen on TV – and would no doubt delight viewers of Sabrina the Teenage Witch. As such, I always had the feeling that smart people were writing the show because just around the corner from any moment of teen angst or kissing, would be concepts not out of place in, say, a very good episode of Doctor Who. It’s a big part of why I think Chance Perdomo, who plays Sabrina’s cousin, Ambrose, would actually make a great Doctor. But that’s perhaps a topic for another time and place; maybe my Doctor Who podcast!
Something that surprised me during its run was there was no real crossover with Riverdale. Although the nearby town is often mentioned and there are some really clever Easter eggs here and there, I always thought a little more might have been made of the relationship. Indeed, having Jughead or Archie sitting at a booth in the cafe section of Doctor Cerberus’ bookstore and having a line or two with Sabrina would have been precisely the kind of “so cheesy, but it works” thing that the show could pull off with arrogant ease, as if it was a 1970s sitcom crossover. Really surprised it never happened.
Like much of what I write on this website, I’m steering clear of stories and characters on the whole, as I think that’s something everyone deserves to experience properly. In terms of whether someone would like what Chilling Adventures of Sabrina has on offer, I’d suggest Buffy as one of the strongest signposts. I know the series is a bit old – it ended in 2003, I now realise with some genuine horror at how fast time has gone – and I’m not sure how many “kids” dip into it these days (or indeed how many “kids” are reading this website). But perhaps people within five years of my age will have warm memories of it. If you do, be aware that this series really doesn’t stray too far from the formula. The female lead lives in a small town and has unusual powers; she has a ‘Scooby Gang’; the themes are supernatural; comedy is always present… if you like one, you’ll like the other. And vice-versa.
I’m actually really surprised that Chilling Adventures of Sabrina has ended. Conversely I’m really happy that it’s produced two really great seasons and is going out as strong as it ever was. That sort of thing becomes more important over time, when we look back on shows. A duff series or two, and it can colour the way a whole franchise is viewed. Look at Game of Thrones, for example. The hottest show in the world, but with a wobbly penultimate series, and a super wobbly final series, and it’s going to be remembered, for all time, for that. Despite the fact it was absolutely smashing it for years prior. I’m really happy this series won’t be remembered that way. It deserves to be a cult hit, actually!