TV Reviews

How Chilling Adventures of Sabrina Turned Its Greatest Weakness Into a Strength

This is a spoiler-lite discussion of Chilling Adventures of Sabrina: Season 1.

When Netflix unveiled the first full trailer for The Chilling Adventures of Sabrina, prospective viewers were treated to a smorgasbord of imagery suggesting, basically, a horror movie version of Riverdale. Telegenic teens and genre veteran adults going up against various creatures of the night while living in one of those Tim Burton towns with monochromatic colors and lingering “What year is this?” mystery? Honestly, you had at me at Horror Movie Riverdale. At the end of the trailer, Kiernan Shipka, Sally Draper all grown up, defiantly declares, “I am Sabrina Spellman and I will NOT sign it away!”

That moment, seen at the two-minute mark above and taken from the end of the third episode (of a total of 10), sums up nearly the entire season. Chilling Adventures of Sabrina, adapted from the 2014 comic book series of the same name and as far removed from the old TGIF favorite Sabrina the Teenage Witch as possible, is essentially the ongoing story of how Sabrina is always right and everyone else – be it her two aunts (patient Lucy Davis, disciplinarian Miranda Otto), coven High Priest (Richard Coyle), or rival classmates (chiefly Tati Gabrielle’s Prudence) – is always wrong. As a half-witch, half-human, she repeatedly brings her more enlightened views into the coven and, well, not so much topples the patriarchy but certainly chips away at it.

To name but a few examples of Sabrina’s march toward non-compromising moral authority:

  • Pledge fealty to the devil and leave her human life behind? Not happening.
  • Stand by as bullies, be they dickwad jocks harassing Sabrina’s non-gender conforming friend or mean girl witches who hate Sabrina for being a “half-breed,” do their thing? Never!
  • Listen to her male cousin Ambrose’s warnings about the immense dangers of astral projection? She eats danger for breakfast.
  • Bite her tongue when outdated rituals like hazing and cannibalistic sacrifice unfold in front of her to the “this is the way things have always been” delight of those around her? Um, have you not been paying attention? Sabrina’s here to make sure that shit stops.

Most of those things are exactly what you’d want the title character of your slice of feminist YA TV to stand up against. In Sabrina, the girls of the world have a new idol and sites like SyFy and HelloGiggles love that about the show, each calling it the “feminist revenge fantasy we need right now.”

But, astral projection? Why does Sabrina need to defy the rules there? Why does just about every episode have to proceed like this: 1. Introduce the conflict. 2. Show Sabrina being told by an authority figure to leave well enough alone. 3. End with Sabrina emerging completely triumphant, her naysayers proved wrong and society advanced in the right direction, even if just a little bit.

It gets to be so repetitive the show even hangs a lantern on it, with Ambrose exploding in response to Sabrina’s latest attempt to play by her own rules:

It’s perhaps the type of thing which jumps at you more upon a binge watch, which is certainly how I and many others consumed the show, and it’s also partially a simple YA genre convention. There’s a fair bit of Harry Potter’s basic DNA in here with Good Girls Revolt-spirit feminism. However, it robs Sabrina of any real lessons to learn. She always eventually get her way because her way is always presented as the demonstrably better option to our modern eyes, even if she’s initially the only one who sees that. Obviously, they’re not going to make an episode where Sabrina is just totally cool with her coven eating one of its own simply because the dude in charge said so.

If that inspires the show’s fans to learn to own their voice and speak up to the bullshit of the world just like Sabrina, then fight the power. However, characters need to be allowed to fail. Buffy Summers wasn’t always right nor did she always win. Her failures made her more interesting. And if all Chilling Adventures of Sabrina wants to be is Topple the Patriarchy: The Show, I’m down with that, but it feels like it could be more. Sure, it’s undeniably charming, a joy to look at, and overflowing with inventive updates of horror tropes (wait till you see their version of an exorcism), but Sabrina Spellman needs to be allowed to fail.

Or at least that’s what I would have argued if I hadn’t actually finished the season. Everything changes in the eighth episode. Sabrina’s streak of always successfully, as Ambrose put it, demanding and earning special privileges from the universe backfires in a big, big way, ultimately impacting everyone around her and threatening to undo everything’s she fought for to that point. You realize perhaps the season was knowingly constructed in such a way to build Sabrina up to feeling like her little constant workarounds of the rules would always prevail. When it, and I’m not trying to spoil what “it” actually is, finally doesn’t, the wide-ranging consequences elevate the show and character into a jaw-dropping finale.

In the end, Chilling Adventures of Sabrina turns one of its greatest weakness into a strength and sets itself up for a far more interesting second season. Maybe then, Salem will finally talk on-screen, if only because that seems to be the one thing everyone absolutely wants.

What about you? What do you want from a second season, if, in fact, you’ve even finished or started the first season? Is my criticism of the slight repetitiveness of most of the season too harsh? Not harsh enough? Or is there something else about the show you love (my vote is for Michelle Gomez’s performance as the very Missy-like secret villain) or can’t quite get past? Let me know in the comments.

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