Netflix’s ‘The Chilling Adventures Of Sabrina’ Is A Horrific Hoot And One Of The Year’s Best New Series (Review)

October 15 2018

From film to television to podcasts, horror is in right now. So it makes sense that a dark, gritty and highly-anticipated television adaptation of The Chilling Adventures of Sabrina is set for release this week at Netflix.

First off, let’s get some misconceptions out of the way about the series, which was initially developed at The CW as a Riverdale companion series, and, for all intents and purposes, exists in the same universe. It is not a dark horror reboot of the ‘90s comedy series starring Melissa Joan Hart, so don’t in any way think of it as such. It uses elements from the original, early ‘50s/‘60s comic book and heavy doses of its main source material, the horror comic book series that it is named for, which has been running since 2014.

With that out of the way, let’s get ghoulish and dig into The Chilling Adventures of Sabrina — a charming, horrific, witty and downright haunting new series whose end result is a fantastic series. It’s arguably Netflix’s best first outing for a show since the debut of Stranger Things back in 2016.

The series stars the perfectly-cast Kiernan Shipka as our titular witch, struggling with her dual nature: half-witch and half-mortal. As her parents are deceased, she lives with her aunts Hilda and Zelda (the also perfectly-cast Miranda Otto and Lucy Davis) and cousin Ambrose (relative newcomer Chance Perdomo) a pansexual, old warlock imprisoned in the Spelman house who is Sabrina’s companion and confidant. The trio runs the Spelman Mortuary inside their manor, while blending in with the rest of Greendale, but at the same time, belonging to Greendale’s coven, The Church of Night. With her 16th birthday approaching, Sabrina must choose whether to follow the Spelman tradition and sign her name in the Dark Lord’s book and receive her full witch powers, abandoning her mortal life and committing to serve Satan. This push and pull serves as the basis for the first season.

She’s torn between both worlds. One world is Baxter High, that has her boyfriend, Harvey (Ross Lynch), her best friend Rosalind Walker (Jaz Sinclair), a feminist/social justice activist who happens to be the daughter of a prominent Greendale preacher) and Susie Putnam, their other friend who is taunted by jocks as they come into their own identity as non-binary (portrayed by Lachlan Watson, who identifies as non-binary themselves).

Jaz Sinclair as Rosalind, Kiernan Shipka as Sabrina in 'The Chilling Adventures of Sabrina.' Netflix. Jaz Sinclair as Rosalind, Kiernan Shipka as Sabrina in 'The Chilling Adventures of Sabrina.' Netflix.

But still, she’s intrigued and can’t help but feel a pull to the witch and warlock world of her coven. She gets a bit of leeway with Hilda, the “fun aunt” who’s not as bound to the Church of Night, but Zelda, the “stern aunt” is a devout worshipper who wants Sabrina to follow suit. Sabrina has dealings with the coven’s leader and dean of the Academy of Unseen Arts, Father Blackwood (an outstanding Richard Coyle), a trio of witches that attend the academy (led by Tati Gabrielle), one of which has a deadly grudge against Sabrina and Sabrina’s favorite teacher Miss Wardwell, who becomes possessed and obsessed (campy scene-stealer Michelle Gomez).

Tati Gabrielle as Prudence in 'The Chilling Adventures of Sabrina.' Netflix. Tati Gabrielle as Prudence in 'The Chilling Adventures of Sabrina.' Netflix.

All around, the show hits from every angle. From the sharp writing to the off-kilter, blurry cinematography, The Chilling Adventures of Sabrina goes through it all — from demonic possessions to feminism and misogyny to ritualistic killings and much more. Also, you'll fall in love with the unorthodox family pairing of Sabrina, Zelda, Hilda and Ambrose. The setting, which seems snatched from the ‘50s and ‘60s but is still in a very modern time period (sometimes you forget they have cell phones in Greendale), fits the series perfectly. Not to mention the warm and cozy Spelman manor is where everyone will want to live when watching. The true intent of characters is never revealed from the jump, yet the show paces and times it so viewers will remain intrigued and pulled in. There’s a lot to explain here, considering the ton of exposition we need to know about the church, the coven and how all of this stuff works, but it never feels draining.

Most Netflix series suffer from narrative bloat and consisting of too many episodes. This isn’t necessarily the case with Sabrina, and while a bit of it could probably have been left on the cutting room floor (there is a clear filler episode around the mid-way point of the season), most of it fits as a cohesive unit and almost every episode and moment has a purpose. While things are rocking and rolling most of the season for everything dealing with witches and the coven, Sabrina’s mortal, Baxter High side isn’t as impactful. Luckily, the characters of Rosalind and Susie come into their own with solo storylines as the season hits its final stride. This is especially lucky for Susie, who seems a bit out of place in the beginning (the character is non-canon as well), but she and Rosalind become equivalent to characters like Prudence and Ambrose — fully-developed with their own motivations, and not talk-tos. One character that doesn’t come into this is Harvey, who is woefully boring. And Lynch doesn’t make it any better. On the other hand, a would-be warlock suitor of Sabrina’s, Nicholas Scratch (Gavin Leatherwood), is much more interesting and Leatherwood is a treat.

Chance Perdomo as Ambrose in 'The Chilling Adventures of Sabrina' Netflix. Chance Perdomo as Ambrose in 'The Chilling Adventures of Sabrina' Netflix.

But aside from that hiccup, the rest of the cast in its entirety is exceptionally strong. Perdomo will be a breakout star and certainly a fan favorite as Ambrose. He’s truly a delight to watch and undoubtedly the best character on the show. Perdomo is absolutely great here and could become the heart of the show. Tati Gabrielle firms her place as one of the most underrated actors in the industry in an excellent performance as the devious Prudence. She’ll probably come out as one of the best villains on television this year, although Prudence and the rest of the witches aren’t necessarily “villains” by a long shot, and represent a moral grey area a lot of the show exists in as far as good vs. evil. Gabrielle is great at representing this dichotomy and is brilliant. Sinclair brings it as well, and of course, all of the adults shine from Otto to Davis to Gomez to Coyle. I’m preparing to write a letter to all voting entities as to why the series needs an award for best ensemble cast and you’ll understand why when you tune in and see these performances.

The series is also very diverse and presents diversity and representation in a way that doesn’t seem like it is pandering or being insincere. Perdomo’s  approach to Ambrose and his sexuality doesn’t feel forced one bit, and neither does Watson’s arc as Susie. Sabrina’s not letting anyone decide for her what she wants to do, and the current climate in this country, she even serves as the hero of sorts that we need. While some may point to the show having an uneven tone, I think it matches what the powers-that-be are going for. With Sabrina literally challenging the Dark Lord, it’s only right that we have these moments of laugh-out-loud humor, equally mixed with moments that are dark and, quite honestly, terrifying. The first season ends on a note that will have you wanting the second season (which was already ordered by Netflix when they picked up the series) immediately.

The Chilling Adventures of Sabrina is too good for its own good. You’ll be obsessed. You’ll be surprised. Don’t miss out.

The series debuts Oct. 26 on Netflix.

by Trey Mangum on October 15 2018

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