Since their 1941 introduction in comic book form, Archie and the rest of the Riverdale gang have proved surprisingly mutable. In 2015 the entire line of comics was revamped, modernizing the art and writing style. In 2017 The CW debuted “Riverdale,” its mature, revisionist version of the venerable comics. Now Netflix is airing its dark and bloody spinoff series “Chilling Adventures of Sabrina.”
Introduced to comic-reading audiences in 1962, Sabrina is probably best known for her live-action sitcom incarnation. The family-oriented “Sabrina the Teenage Witch” ran on ABC from 1996 to 2003 with Melissa Joan Hart in the title role. Though “Chilling Adventures of Sabrina” borrows a few tropes from that long-running sitcom, it takes more inspiration from the somewhat grisly Archie Comics revamp of the same name.
“Chilling Adventures” pays tribute to its comic book roots with its bright colors and graphic visuals. The show includes occasional jokes and a few campy, self-referential elements, but takes itself mostly seriously. Fans of “Buffy the Vampire Slayer” will feel right at home. The show starts by introducing audiences to 15-year-old Sabrina Spellman (Kiernan Shipka from “Mad Men,” getting a well-earned spotlight). Sabrina is being raised in small-town Greendale in a creepy old mortuary run by her aunts, Hilda and Zelda (Brits Lucy Davis from Wonder Woman and Miranda Otto from the Lord of the Rings films). All of the Spellman family are witches, and dedicated black magic practitioners Hilda and Zelda are eagerly awaiting Sabrina’s 16th birthday, when she will become a full-fledged bride of Satan.
But Sabrina is starting to have doubts about selling her soul to the Big Red Source of All Evil. For starters, she’s only half witch (her mother was a mortal). Also, she’s dating a nice human boy named Harvey (Ross Lynch of Disney Channel’s “Austin & Ally”). She doesn’t want to give it all up to follow the Church of Night’s dark teachings. This indecisive stance ticks off the Prince of Darkness, who sends one of his minions (Michelle Gomez—Missy from “Doctor Who,” having a lot of fun) to steer Sabrina in the right (wrong?) direction. This coming-of-age search for purpose and identity drives the first 10-episode season of “Sabrina.”
Satanic rituals, witch covens and murderous demons aside, “Sabrina” is surprisingly progressive and inclusive—addressing hot button topics like racism, bullying and the LGBT community. Sabrina’s cousin (Chance Perdomo) is gay, while her best friend is trans (played, refreshingly, by non gender-binary actor Lachlan Watson). The overall theme of the show, in fact, seems to be a rejection of fundamentalist religious thinking. In this case, the religion happens to be Satanism, but still. Occasionally, the show’s writers get a little preachy in their messaging, but it doesn’t bog down the show’s overall sense of horrifying fun.
The overarching, non-episodic storyline does encourage binge-watching, but it’s probably a bit too much plot-juggling for a show about teenage witches. By the time Sabrina ends up in a secret magical boarding school fighting off snobby witches and warlocks who denigrate her “half-breed” orphan roots, “Chilling Adventures of Sabrina” ventures dangerously close to Harry Potter territory. Still—with the frequent bloodletting, hints of sexual activity and wall-to-wall demonic shenanigans—it’s clear this is not your grandparents’ Sabrina.