Fans of Roberto Aguirre-Sacasa and Robert Hack’s gorgeous gothic comic Chilling Adventures of Sabrina have been waiting for the series of the same name to hit Netflix for months now, and all ten episodes of the first season landed Thursday at midnight, just in time for Halloween season binge-fests. Aguirre-Sacasa (likely better known as the showrunner on Sabrina‘s very slightly more grounded big brother Riverdale) brought his comic to life in fun and cheeky ways, resulting in a show that doesn’t quite feel like any other, tonally or visually.
In atmosphere, Chilling Adventures of Sabrina is probably closest to something like Hocus Pocus or Trick ‘r Treat: drenched in colorful Halloween spirit in every frame. Sabrina’s opening voice-over in the first episode tells us that in her town of Greendale, “every day feels like Halloween,” and that’s true of the series, even though we sprint past All Hallow’s Eve by the third episode. I love the tone of this thing so much, dark and vivid, fun and scary, some wholesome candy-corniness met with, well, full-blown Satanic rituals. That tone is best captured in the opening credits, which are phenomenal and built from Robert Hack’s breathtaking artwork for the comic:
The atmosphere is helped along by a tremendous soundtrack that could go down as a Halloween fave every year: retro spooky classics like “Monster Mash” and “I Put a Spell on You” bump up against a few edgier choices like Velvet Underground’s “Venus in Furs” and Fiona Apple’s “Criminal.” It’s a great-looking show, colorful and stylish, all beautiful coats and vintage storefronts. I’m seeing a ton of viewers complain online about the background blur effect the show employs, but I like it. It’s an easy shorthand nod to Hack’s comic art, and gives the witchier scenes an unsettling, uneasy feel.
The casting’s great here. Mad Men‘s Kiernan Shipka is really lovely as Sabrina. She’s plucky and principled, ferociously independent, even to a fault. It’s cool that Sabrina isn’t perfect – it’s so important to her to be able to fix everything on her own, to take care of her loved ones with no help from anyone else, that she ends up making a pretty spectacular mess of things by the end of the first season, which ends on a cliffhanger (Season 2 is already scheduled for next year). Lucy Davis and Miranda Otto are by far my favorite part of the show as Sabrina’s aunties (Hilda and Zelda, respectively). They have such a complicated relationship with each other, with their niece and witchhood at large, and I’d happily watch an entire prequel series about the two of them in their prime, before they gave up gallivanting around Greendale to take care of their late brother’s infant daughter.
Chance Perdomo rules as Sabrina’s sly but loyal cousin Ambrose, and Richard Coyle continues his tradition of being perpetually delightful as Father Blackwood, the Dark Lord’s representative on Earth. Tati Gabrielle, Adeline Rudolph, Abigail F. Cowen, Jaz Sinclair and Lachlan Watson are all interesting and cool as Sabrina’s witchy frenemies and mortal friends. There’s some light intersectional feminism happening here – nothing terribly deep, but that’s sort of nice, this casual representation that doesn’t spend too long patting its own back about it. The boys fighting over Sabrina’s heart – Ross Lynch as her mortal boyfriend Harvey and Gavin Leatherwood as the warlock who’s crushing on her, Nicholas Scratch – are both pretty boring, but that’s fine, because there are so many provocative roles for women, people of color and queer characters here that it feels okay that the straight white teen boys are mostly underwritten, for at least the first half of the season.
And then there’s Michelle Gomez as Mary Wardwell, who seems to essentially be Evangeline Porter from the comic – both various names for my favorite character, Madame Satan. Gomez is so delicious in this role, at once sinister and deeply appealing, and though we only get a glimpse of where the character is headed in the very last moments of the last episode, it makes for a VERY satisfying reveal.
There’s an issue inherent in Sabrina’s half-witch, half-mortal life: any time spent in mortal Greendale feels like it’s taking time away from the darkly magical aspects of her far more interesting life as a witch. I want to see more of the Academy of Unseen Arts, of witch court and witch traditions like the Feast of Feasts, of Hilda and Zelda’s day-to-day lives, of literally anything the Weird Sisters are up to at any point in the proceedings, because they (and especially Gabrielle as Prudence) are the coolest. I can’t help but sink a little every time Harvey’s onscreen, because there’s so much more fascinating stuff going on here, and Sabrina’s preoccupation with her humdrum high school boyfriend leads her to make some incredibly questionable decisions by the end of the season.
But all of that is certainly intentional: Sabrina never sounds scarier than when she states, “There are no limits to what I’d do to protect the ones I love.” While that sounds like an admirable sentiment, Chilling Adventures of Sabrina teaches us by the end that there’s a dark side to it, like there is to everything. Sabrina spends most of the series using her dark powers for good, supporting her friends and banishing dark forces from their lives. But she’s also able to be manipulated through her loyalty, with her stubborn refusal to fall to the Dark Lord’s machinations leading her to do exactly that.
It’s a compelling dynamic that I can’t wait to see explored further in Season 2. Sabrina’s a hell of a character: she challenges the answers she’s given, she fights the seemingly impossible battles before her, and she never stops protecting her own right to have a choice in what her life is and the kind of witch she wants to be. (And not for nothing: she loves horror movies.) Choice is a big thing in Chilling Adventures in Sabrina, and Sabrina makes some bad ones by the end. But everything she does, she does with conviction, and that’s the kind of character I want more of in my life.