Chilling Adventures of Sabrina (Review)

Hello and, er, hail Satan, I guess? One of the hallmarks of this three-season Netflix revival of Sabrina the Teenage Witch is how the writers have carefully amended every phrase to be more witchy. So we tell our enemies to go to heaven, commend our friends as hell-sent, and so on.

Like most of Chilling Adventures of Sabrina, the effect is unsettling, engaging… and it almost works. But not quite. Let’s talk about the good parts of Chilling Adventures, and the parts where it left me cold.

First, let’s establish our surroundings. Sabrina is set in the same universe as Riverdale, another popular series from Archie Comics which has been adapted by Netflix. You will be relieved to hear that the script and acting are a hell – ahem, a heaven of a lot better than Riverdale. But Sabrina still exists within the same strange cultural bubble.

As someone remarked about another Netflix teen show, Sex Education, these kids use technology from the seventies, dress like the eighties and listen to music from the nineties.

Fair warning, there are going to be a lot of gifs in this review. Sabrina is incredibly gif-able – almost suspiciously so. Is this something that writers’ rooms select for now? Is gif-able writing something I should put on my CV?

Because I love clever, no-context one liners and dramatic scenes. But after a while, it starts to feel like one of those awful parties you went to as a student where people would only talk in Monty Python quotes, even when they were flirting, and even though you love Monty Python you sat there wishing you could explode and die like Mr Creosote.

Deep breath.

Sabrina is saved from its own worst excesses by an incredibly strong adult cast. I’m always happy to see Richard Pryor (see above), as well as the talented Lucy Davis and Miranda Otto. It came as no surprise (spoiler alert) that Michelle Gomez is Lilith, mother of demons and the First Woman: she is a goddess and we have all known this since Green Wing was first broadcast in 2004.

The younger actors are mostly pretty good too, but they’re hampered by some unbelievable character arcs. Emotional maturity and a busy sex life? At sixteen? No one has ever had this.

Oh, and also a weird number of these teenagers are into BDSM. They’re at a secret boarding school! Where do they even get the equipment? Are there no supervisors?

This brings us to my main issue with Sabrina. Let’s talk about Satanism.

Satanism – at least in popular culture – is, essentially, a satire of Christianity. That’s why it uses reversed symbols and cleverly edited prayers and so on: the parody has to be recognizable, but different from the thing parodied.

As a liberal Catholic, I actually have a lot of time for this. Christianity deserves to be satirized! It’s good for us to be challenged. But Sabrina makes the mistake of going too cheap. In this version of Satanism, everyone wears black, is into BDSM, drinks absinthe and smokes. That’s more teenage rebellion than intelligent satire.

Yes, yes, I know, this is a teen show. But the thing is that Sabrina does actually aspire to something more interesting than a North American telenovela. It comes very close to writing some storylines which actually engage with pagan traditions, Christian literature and theology. It draws on a great depth of cultural and film references. But then the writers just sort of… get distracted.

Ultimately, the show felt disappointing. There are some terrific examples in books and television where writers have managed to hit the sweet spot on Satanism. Terry Pratchett and Neil Gaiman are the first people who spring to mind, as decidedly sceptical atheists who engage with religion in a way that is funny, poignant, political and even illuminating.

But Sabrina falls at the last hurdle. In the end – and I am sorry to admit this – I didn’t bother to finish the final episode. The story had become too predictable.

Watch Chilling Adventures of Sabrina on Netflix – it really is worth at least a few episodes – and then come back and tell me why I’m wrong in the comments.

What do you think?

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