TV Review: ‘Chilling Adventures of Sabrina’ is ‘Riverdale’s’ Witchy, Bloodthirsty Sister

“Chilling Adventures of Sabrina” (CAoS) finally dropped on Netflix, just in time for Halloween. If you were expecting the show to be a “Sabrina the Teenage Witch” (StTW) reboot, think again. Sabrina’s got a lot more goats to slaughter and people to save. Salem may not talk in the new series, but Kiernan Shipka’s Sabrina is back with extra guts, gore and Satanic ritual that horror fans will adore.

While (CAoS) does have echoes of (StTW), the similarities are few and distorted. Instead of a Hannah Montana double-life like Melissa Joan Hart’s Sabrina juggled, this Sabrina must instead sign her name away to Satan in a sweet sixteen dark baptism. Emphasis on dark, because these witches wield black magic, with rituals entailing pentagrams, demon banishment and cannibalism. To reach her full potential as a witch, Sabrina must renounce all her connections to the mortal world. Will she ultimately choose power, freedom…or both?

Shipka’s performance is what truly makes this reboot successful. With a story that’s completely different from its predecessor, it’s a hard sell for StTW fans. But Shipka’s scrappy, determined and believable portrayal of the half-witch, half-mortal keeps the series relatable for new and original fans, while allowing Sabrina’s darker roots to spring forth. She’s not a scream queen, she’s a girl who loves (and is) the thing that goes bump in the night.

The better parts of CAoS are the nods to vintage horror flicks, which earn pride of place in every episode. There’s an “Exorcist” demonic possession (projectile vomit included), a sleep demon with major Freddy Krueger vibes, and even a “Night of the Living Dead” date at the movies, with Harvey Kinkle copying the famous Barbara scene. The CGI and prosthetics are well done, to the point of inducing nausea every time someone slices a throat out (which happens quite often). So, if you’re into that, queue up Netflix now.

But the setting, a throwback to the comics just like The CW’s “Riverdale” series, falls flat. With fashion and set design blaring kitschy ’50s vibes and a soundtrack to match, it’s a little too campy to believe. It makes sense, as CAoS hails from the team behind Riverdale,” but it’s definitely not CAoS’s best selling point. Sure, it connects CAoS and “Riverdale” just like the comics, with lots of room for crossovers down the line. But do we really need them all to be pseudo period pieces? I would have loved to see if witches can write spells in computer code or something. Not every story you adapt for TV has to be set in the ’50s, y’all.

The town’s still supported by coal mining (because again, it is the pseudo ’50s), so we’ve got most of the town’s men working in the mines. Here, the comics throwback does work in Harvey Kinkle (Ross Lynch), who works the mines after long schooldays. He’s charmingly sweet like Nate Richert’s ’90s Harvey, with Lynch still playing him as loyal, kind and respectful to all women (even with his family heritage of witch-hunting, the most patriarchal job of all time). It’s a nice baseline for appropriate male behavior in CAoS, which delves fairly deep into the struggles witches and mortal women face.

A running metaphor is the avenging woman, come to take her pound of flesh from the men who have wronged her. From the Thirteen Witches, eager for the blood of their murderers, to Miss Wardell, the avenging woman of Bible lore, to Sabrina’s WICCA club, set up to combat her friend’s bullies at school, the women of Greendale have had enough of the patriarchy. CAoS is decidedly feminist, killing men who abuse their power, and seeks to elevate Sabrina as a witch of a new generation, who can choose whether or not to sign her name in the Book of the Beast instead of being forced into it (like her Aunt Hilda).

Sabrina isn’t the only fresh, creative take on the Greendale comic to the credit of CAoS writers Matthew Barry and Donna Thorland, and Roberto Aguirre-Sacasa (the writer of the CAoS comic, by the way). Sabrina’s mortal friend Roz (Jaz Sinclair) is a member of the Walker family, whose family curse turns the women into blind psychics. But the character with the most interesting story is non-binary mortal friend Susie (played by non-binary actor Lachlan Watson, yes!), who struggles with their gender identity and their own connection to a ghostly, witch-friendly ancestor. It’s rare for a character’s gender identity struggles, and perhaps their coming out and transition (looking at you, Season 2), to be portrayed on TV, and such great LGBTQIA+ representation is to CAoS’ credit. The series also turned heads with Sabrina’s pansexual cousin Ambrose (Chance Perdomo), spotlighted in GLAAD’s annual representation on TV report. He’s smart, caring older brother Sabrina needs, with enough quips to lighten every situation and a boyfriend to boot (yay, pansexual characters actually being pansexual! This literally never happens on TV!)

But not every character is a winner. Sabrina’s aunts Hilda (Lucy Davis) and Zelda (Mirando Otto) are more victim/bully than sister/sister, with Zelda literally killing Hilda whenever she bugs her. It does make you miss the genial pair of StTW, who would squabble but still clearly loved each other. In CAoS, they probably love each other, but that love’s buried underneath a Cain-pit of baggage. Oh, and Salem doesn’t speak! Why have you denied us Salem’s bitter snark, the shining light of StTW??? Perhaps the decision was made for sake of time (each episode is a tight hour), or writers thought Ambrose’s advice was enough guidance for one witch. But when in doubt, always let the talking cat actually talk.

The verdict? If you were hoping for a reboot of your ’90s fave, this is not the show for you. But for horror fans who’ve been wanting some meatier plot, diverse, morally grey characters and homages to ye scary movies of old, this is a good Halloween treat to sink your teeth into.

GRADE: (★★★½)

What do you think of “Chilling Adventures of Sabrina”? Let us know in the comments below!