The Chilling Adventures of Sabrina spends its first 10 episodes caught in a balancing act. Feeling like it can’t quite decide what it wants to be, the show takes the high-school melodrama of Riverdale while leaving behind the Twin Peaks murder-mystery vibes. Combined with a dark — while strangely fun and comedic —depiction of Satanism and the trappings that come with being a Witch, these elements feel at complete odds with each other. Even within this depiction, the show flutters between taking itself seriously and finding humor in its ridiculousness. Nevertheless, The Chilling Adventures of Sabrina has so far managed to strike a delicate balance, and come out all the better for it.
The source material has been interpreted in a very different way this time, as The Chilling Adventures of Sabrina takes the darkest aspects of those comics and throws in some horror sensibilities. The humor of the old sitcom and cartoons is gone, replaced with something heavier and more nuanced. This is then wrapped up in a high school drama. Two different schools with two sets of teenage lives are present, although one has a Harry Potter-like obsession with bloodlines. There is quite a lot going on — although disappointingly, the talking cat is nowhere to be seen.
The story begins on Sabrina’s 16th birthday. It’s an occasion for witches that involves literally signing your life to the devil in ‘The Book of Beast,’ and opens with Sabrina in a wedding dress, ready to pledge to The Dark Lord. The white dress then turns entirely black before being taken off completely for the vows — not exactly subtle. This is pretty embolic of the over-the-top depiction of Witchood in The Chilling Adventures of Sabrina, whose characters are all part of a satanic religion called The Church of the Night. However, the show really gets moving when Sabrina starts attending The Academy of Unseen Arts, which is like Hogwarts for Satanists (and has also managed to upset quite a few actual Satanists).
a set up straight out of a Treehouse of Horror, but with more autopsies and iron maidens
Kierman Skipka is great in the title role, managing to play both high school dating and lynching some Mean Girl witches with the same plausibility. However, it’s her family that does the heavy lifting. Sabrina’s cousin, Ambrose, is initially just a younger witch voice to counteract the more maternal aunts, but as the show progresses, the plot of his backstory becomes more compelling. He’s under house arrest for trying to blow up the Vatican, and while this is played for laughs, his frustration still becomes the most human and relatable storyline. Sabrina’s two aunts also begin as well-worn stock characters — Zelda is serious and Hilda is caring but dim — but despite starting from a cliché, Zelda’s efforts to break out of her sister’s shadow and live a normal mortal life makes great use of Lucy Davis. These smaller side plots manage to avoid the saccharine tone that infects a lot of the teenaged interactions.
Even with the great cast, The Chilling Adventures of Sabrina does have a villain problem. Michelle Gomez’s Madame Satan starts out as a straight antagonist, a demon trying to indoctrinate Sabrina whose motivation is largely kept mysterious — though she has quite a vested interest in winning Sabrina over. Once her nature is revealed to Sabrina, however, she turns into a villain pretending to be a mentor, and too much of the character is wasted on dithering.
The High Priest of the Church of Night has an equally confused role. As a villain, he makes a general nuisance of himself despite the Devil being pretty obsessed with winning Sabrina round. This obsession drives most of the ambiguity, but why these characters are so obsessed with making life hard for Sabrina in The Church of The Night — rather than encouraging her —is too often shrugged off. In the case of the High Priest, it turns out he’s just a dick, and that’s all the explanation we’re given. His ongoing fertility problems and personal storylines are much more interesting than those occasional pantomime turns. It often feels like the villains exist to cause plot points to happen without there being much logic to their actions.
Nevertheless, an anthology episode of bad dreams for the four Spellmans is an early highlight. It takes what could be empty filler and makes an interesting insight into some underdeveloped characters. This episode is also an excuse for heavier horror than usual (though heavier might be a weird interpretation for a show that regularly features appearances of the literal Devil). Ambrose ends up in a sleep paralysis state, being disassembled by himself having been killed upon regaining his freedom, while Zelda and Hilda end up either stitched together or dead at the hands of the other. Their fates are more ordinary horror than the supernatural vibe that The Chilling Adventures of Sabrina usually deals in, a setup straight out of a Treehouse of Horror, but with more autopsies and iron maidens. It makes a good case that the show should spend more time on its horror side.
The teen-drama aspects of The Chilling Adventures of Sabrina are the least enjoyable part of its half-and-half premise. While the dialogue can be clichéd and as groan-inducing as any other teen drama, this is offset by the horror elements and the liberal use of slightly comedic Satanism. The lengths the show will go to in reworking common God phrases into Satanic versions are a treat. However, this is a balance that might become increasingly hard to strike in a follow-up season, as each element becomes more entangled. For now, Sabrina has managed to hit a perfect balance despite some issues with plotting and villains. The teen drama is clichéd and melodramatic, but the other elements manage to combine to make something ridiculous and over the top — and essential viewing.