Taking cues from the comics rather than the sitcom, Riverdale creator Roberto Aguirre-Sacasa has traded in camp comedy for a mixture of black humour and genuine frights.
While it sometimes veers into darker territory than even Buffy dared to, it explores many of the same themes, including the fight between good and evil and gender power dynamics.
Perhaps most importantly, the exceedingly talented Kiernan Shipka has the on-screen presence to become a genuine icon as the righteous and principled half-witch Sabrina Spellman. On this evidence, she more than measures up to Sarah Michelle Gellar’s ass-kicking vampire hunter.
Like any good coming-of-age tale, Chilling Adventures of Sabrina begins on the eve of Sabrina’s 16th birthday. It is also, not coincidentally, the eve of her dark baptism – the ceremony which will see her sign her life over to the Dark Lord (the devil, basically) and tap into the full extent of her magical powers.
However, Sabrina’s not so sure she wants to go through with it. The ceremony means giving up her mortal life – including her friends and her doting boyfriend Harvey (Ross Lynch) – and packing in her stint at Greendale High School for the darker pastures of The Academy, a sort of evil Hogwarts.
Plus, she isn’t all that keen on handing her soul over to Satan. “I want power and freedom,” she says early on in the series; one of the show’s many laudable battle cries.
If you’ve seen Mad Men, you already know that Shipka’s a star – she was stealing scenes from Jon Hamm and January Jones while most people her age were struggling with their times tables – but her performances here still represents a level up.
She handles the pressure admirably in her first leading role, vigorously inhabiting the character and running every scene she’s in (which is most of them).
Like Buffy, Sabrina is the odd one out among her friends, with a toe in the supernatural world, but a group of normies around her keeping her grounded.
However, while Buffy was outed as a slayer early on, Sabrina is intent on keeping her secret guarded. You know, to avoid a witch hunt.
In lieu of a Giles-like mentor, Sabrina makes do with her aunties: Hilda, played by The Office alum Lucy Davis, and Zelda (Miranda Otto). The former is incredibly charming, providing laughs in almost every scene she’s in, while the latter is icy and intimidating – and the strongest force pushing Sabrina towards the ‘Church of Night’.
Completing the Spellman household is cousin Ambrose (British rising star Chance Perdomo), a warlock on house arrest for attempting to blow up the Vatican. He’s more liberal and forward-thinking than Sabrina’s aunts, but he’s still institutionally enveloped in the witching world, and he can’t understand his cousin’s apprehension. He speaks with a Shakespearean lilt, and toes the line between intrigue and absurdity admirably.
Visually, the opening episode establishes the show’s deeply satisfying aesthetic of reds, greys and blacks, gothic mansions and fog-drenched forests. It’s set around Halloween, but they don’t need to tell you that: the vibe is almost pungent.
It also sets up the main thrust of the narrative for season one and beyond: the lengthy battle for Sabrina’s soul. This is brought to life by the primary antagonists, former Doctor Who star Michelle Gomez – playing a demon who inhabits Sabrina’s mousy teacher Mrs Wardell – and Richard Coyle as the high priest of the Church of Night (the witches’ devil worship works exactly like Christianity, but they holler “praise Satan!” and other such things during ceremonies instead).
Both have been tasked with ensuring the young witch bows to the Dark Lord.
That’s not to say that it doesn’t have its teething problems. As in the early years of Buffy, some of the dialogue and storylines are quite on-the-nose, almost to the point of parody – but it’s all part of the pageantry.
Roz (Jaz Sinclair) and Susie (Lachlan Watson), the fringe members of Sabrina’s Scooby Gang aren’t given quite enough time to endear themselves to the audience, despite having morsels of storyline all to themselves. And a storyline involving a demon in a local mine feels a bit too 1890s for the relatively modern world evoked here.
But as a whole, it’s a hugely promising debut.
What is more, it is refreshingly the closest thing Netflix has come to truly episodic TV drama, with a couple of brilliant self-contained episodes cropping up in the eight episodes made available for review.
The most memorable of these – and arguably the best episode of the bunch – features a sleep demon invade the Spellman household, inducing Sabrina and co into torturous nightmares and hopping Freddy Krueger-like through them.
The monster is reminiscent of the kind of borderline comical foes that plagued Buffy and her pals – think Moloch, the villain from season one’s I, Robot… You, Jane, or the creepy Der Kindestod from season two’s Killed By Death. The monster’s low-rent make-up also appears to be something out of the Buffyverse: this is likely an aesthetic choice rather than a budgetary one, coming over two decades after Whedon’s series debuted and with the might of Netflix behind it.
Whether intentionally or not, Aguirre-Sacasa and co are filling the Sarah Michelle Gellar-shaped hole in our lives, and we’re entirely here for it.
Chilling Adventures of Sabrina is released on Netflix on Friday 26th October 2018
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