Kiernan Shipka as Sabrina Spellman
Kiernan Shipka as Sabrina Spellman (Photo: Netflix)

TV

We can all relax, the new Sabrina is really good

Netflix’s reimagining of the Teenage Witch is fiercely feminist, effortlessly diverse, surprisingly scary and wonderfully camp, says new fan Emily Baker

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By Emily Baker on

OK, let’s get this out of the way: no, Salem does not talk in the remake of Sabrina The Teenage Witch. There are no 90s flatform sandals or pointy witch hats. The spells don’t consist of cringe-inducing incantations like “the popular girl is not a fruit” – an actual spell from the first episode of the original series. Hilda and Zelda aren’t the cool, single, funny aunts they were and Harvey doesn’t dress like your dad. If you’ve come to Netflix hoping to find the same sitcom about a young witch and her sassy cat, sorry, you’re out of luck. But what you will find is so, so much better.

Chilling Adventures Of Sabrina isn’t really a remake of the 90s show at all. Rather, it’s a darker, spookier, altogether more dramatic story of a young teenager, torn between her normal, high-school life and her obligation to follow the Church of Satan. In this iteration, Sabrina is a half-witch, born of a high-priest warlock and a mortal woman, who on her 16th birthday must decide whether to go ahead with a dark baptism in the middle of the woods, leaving her best friends and boyfriend behind, or give up her witch-powers and her affinity to the church. Unlike Melissa Joan Hart’s Sabrina, this teenage witch grew up knowing her family were magical, saving us all the hilarity (and, let’s be honest, tedium) of spell-learning. It means there’s no time wasted in thrusting us right into a so-macabre-it’s-camp world of demons and hexes.

It’s a pretty Shakespearean, and therefore perhaps well-trodden, narrative arc, but with this Sabrina, the devil is truly in the details. And by that I mean the actual devil, who appears as the classic biblical goat-like creature to the Spellmans and their extended coven. In one episode, he literally comes round for dinner. Spoiler: he doesn’t like onions.

The wickedness in the series comes straight from the 2014 Archie comic book of the same name, which itself was a much darker, occult-esque rehash of the original story published in the 60s. There are slight references to the world of Riverdale, too, another Netflix series reworked from the Archie comics and that shares the same executive producers. Honestly, you don’t have to really know any of this to enjoy Sabrina’s new chilling adventures, but it’s this sort of context that softens the blow of having no talking cat. Think of it as Charmed meets Dawson’s Creek, with a bit of Stranger Things thrown in.

Her aunts are very different from their earlier incarnations. Zelda is a mean, uptight woman, especially towards her younger sister Hilda, who she finds incessantly irritating, though it’s clear her disdain is coming from a place of love. Either that or she’s blinded by her loyalty to the Dark Lord and is trying to protect the Spellmans from his wrath. Hilda, on the other hand, is almost too soft, too allowing of Sabrina’s teenage antics. Together, with their added witches’ powers, they make for a great good cop, bad cop team.

Within the first half of the series, everything from university initiation ceremonies to teenage sexuality, from no-platforming and censorship to women’s safety is not only addressed, but deconstructed and questioned by our teenage witch

And if you’re still upset because Salem doesn’t talk, your woes will definitely be quelled with the addition of Ambrose, Sabrina’s cousin who is on house arrest because he once tried to blow up the Vatican. He more than makes up for Salem’s wit, companionship and famous sass, and he’s thankfully offered his own narrative when he meets a fellow warlock who he fancies. Yes, that is a gay storyline you’ve picked up on here, but it’s handled so nonchalantly and deftly that it is rightly treated as any heterosexual relationship would be. As Ambrose spends all of his time in the house, he works full-time in the basement morgue (naturally, the Spellmans’ genius cover-up for their creepiness is a funeral business, which conveniently offers them access to all the dead bodies they could ever need).

That’s perhaps the most striking difference between the old and new Sabrina – the dead bodies. Along with the creepy Victorian ghost children, the demons that look like the unholy spawn of It and Gollum, and the poor mortals who keep getting possessed by the devil while sinister nursery rhymes play on nearby radios. In summary, new Sabrina has to deal with some pretty nasty shit. But nothing is more terrifying than The Weird Sisters: Dorcas, Agatha and Prudence. In the original series, it was Libby and her gang who teased Sabrina, but now, they appear in the woods to torment her with their favourite tricks of disappearing, threatening to murder her and being generally spooky. Sure, their sartorial game is enviable, but imagine your high-school mean girls had magic powers and also worshipped the devil – every teenage girl’s worst nightmare.

It’s through tackling these frights that Sabrina becomes a true hero. As with all good TV shows in 2018, Chilling Adventures Of Sabrina isn’t just an empty shell of entertainment – it has something to say. Within the first half of the series, everything from university initiation ceremonies to teenage sexuality, from no-platforming and censorship to women’s safety is not only addressed, but deconstructed and questioned by our teenage witch.

Kiernan Shipka’s Sabrina Spellman is, for want of a better word, an enchanting alternative to the hopeless but hard-working witch we grew up with. For starters, she actually looks 16 – it’s completely believable that she’s a student at Baxter High, with lessons and homework and bullies and all of the other excruciating parts of being a teenage girl. Her boyfriend, Harvey Kinkle (yes, everyone’s names are that brilliant) is a dreamboat from the Peter Kavinsky school of charm – kind, loving, understanding and protective of Sabrina. Of course, he has no idea she’s a witch. Neither do her two best friends, bookworm Jaz, who wears her afro hair naturally, and Susie, who is played by non-binary actor Lachlan Watson. She’s also unapologetically, authentically feminist, and when she begins a women’s support group at school it doesn’t feel crowbarred into the script to please an audience – though it does. Very much.

When the series was first announced, you could almost hear the sighs of a thousand millennials, hoping their childhood memories of afternoons watching CITV weren’t about to be bulldozed. And, praise Satan, they haven’t, as The Teenage Witch and Chilling Adventures are two separate entities, both to be enjoyed for exactly what they are – bright, determined, brilliant witches.

@emilyrbakes

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Kiernan Shipka as Sabrina Spellman (Photo: Netflix)
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