Netflix recently released a new series, The Chilling Adventures of Sabrina, based on the comic book series of the same name. I don't generally get into television much but I decided to give this show a try for three reasons: it's a sort of spin off of Riverdale which is one of my oldest child's favorite shows, pre-release buzz said there'd be a non-binary character in the show, and the previews seemed to depict an intriguingly dark story (I love horror). It came out on 26 October and had 10 episodes.
So, first a bit of content warning. The show is firmly in the horror genre in my opinion and it has graphic violence that might be upsetting to some people. This includes hanging/lynching, throat slitting, suicide, and cannibalism including of a child. There is also a fairly graphic autopsy scene, and some bullying of a gender non-conforming student which includes physical assault.
The premise of the show is that the main character, Sabrina, is a half witch and half mortal who is supposed to fully commit to the witch side of her nature but doesn't want to give up her mortal life and friends. In the show witches are clearly defined as supernatural beings who live much longer than humans and have supernatural powers, taking them out of the realm of reality and into fantasy. In this aspect it reminded me of some urban fantasy I have read. The witches in Sabrina's world are not in any way pagan or neopagan witches but are based solidly in Christian mythology, fashioned from historic diabolism and theistic Satanism with some early modern witchcraft elements, which I liked. The course of the season follows Sabrina's life as she struggles to deal with this conflict, while being pressured to conform to her family, manipulated by outside forces to follow a certain path, and while she is trying to hide her secret from her friends while also trying to help them in various situations.
The show is set in a timeless period that evokes earlier America of the 50's through 70's without quite being specific. It is styled well and has a great soundtrack which is one of the best I've heard for being perfectly fit to the mood and feel of the show. It also isn't afraid of humour, both subtle and more obvious, and there's a lot of popculture and comic references worked in. The show more generally has a macabre and snarky humour to it that I really appreciated and doesn't seem afraid of mocking itself or the topics its featuring. I particularly love the little idioms the witches use that reflect their own culture yet are mirrors of the dominant Christian one they are clearly created to reflect, darkly as it were.
Before we get further into why I like the show let's look at a few cons. There are a few scenes that include partial nudity of the actresses which I did not like in a show where we are supposed to believe these characters are 15 and 16 year old children. I'm well aware the actors are all over 18, but the idea that they are playing younger teenagers still bothered me in context. It was unnecessary. I also felt like naming the school's women's group W.I.C.C.A. was unnecessary and while I'm sure it was supposed to be some sort of joke I found it annoying especially in context. Generally the special effects were good but there are points where they are so bad it's obvious, such as the apple trees (in full flower and with barely any apples, during apple picking supposedly in late October?). There are also a couple plot holes that really nagged at me, I don't want to post spoilers, so I'll only offer this small example: how is there a list of well known familiars and named familiars in books if they die when their witch dies? Finally there are some glaring mispronunciations including Samhain and Macha, which I would have expected to be correct in a production like this.
So that's some of my criticism. You'll notice I'm not criticizing the Satanic/Diabolic elements and that's because those things don't bother me. Firstly because its framed as clearly fantastical - I mean seriously people come back from the dead - and I give fantasy a freer reign in creating its world. Secondly though and just as importantly because those elements, at least the ones that aren't pure fiction or commentary on fundamentalist religion, are based on history and folklore. The idea of witches marks that don't bleed? The idea of blood pacts with Satan? Cannibalism? Those really are from historic witch hunting texts and accounts of diabolism. There are witches who worship Satan as the fallen angel who challenged the Christian God and who follow a real world religion based on what is shown in the show, minus the murder and mayhem. There are other aspects that reflect early modern witchcraft and practices that people who identify as witches today may still engage in. 'Goblins' (aka fairies) as familiar spirits who take animals shapes to aid the witch? Blood pacts with spirits? Cursing ones enemies? All things we find in history and folklore.
In fact the show includes quite a lot of genuine folk magic and folklore which was a nice change from most witchy tv that's pure made up nonsense. I loved seeing all the yarn magic. Without the horror aspects the magic and witchcraft here is closer to my own than anything in Charmed or Bewitched and I honestly enjoyed seeing it, seeing a tv witch using eggs to divine if a curse was placed, and using protecting charms, and looking to little folk omens to foretell the future. I get that the witchcraft in this show isn't everyone's cup of tea, but quite frankly - just like tea - witchcraft is too diverse for any one flavor to please everyone. I don't get into the Satan worship or diabolism for myself (I take my tea without sugar) but I loved seeing the early modern witchcraft aspects and the folk magic. I also quite enjoyed the Latin and the occult references that are worked in.
Now as to what I liked. The cast is very diverse, and the show really emphasizes women and women's power. There's a refreshingly good number of people of color and particularly women of color in the show and two of these are significant and powerful characters (Roz and Prudence). The show embraces various expressions of sexuality from the expected heterosexuality to pansexuality and queerness which I loved; it even touches on monogamy and polyamory. There is one character who struggles with their gender identity and we get to follow that struggle through the episodes, as they slowly seem to embrace who they are. It challenges ideas about free will and choice in our lives and questions what it means to be a good person in an ambiguous world. In making the witches and their Church of Night just as rigid and religious as any Christian fundamentalist the show makes some very good commentary on the dangers of blindly following any tradition for its own sake and of trusting a higher power or authority figure that has its own agenda. The story arc is strong and builds well over the episodes and I think that the characters themselves are well developed within what is a fairly short amount of time. But most of all I loved the message - verbalized in the final episode - to "own your power" because that is something we all need to hear right now.
I'll finish this out by saying, for those of you who have watched the show - my two favorite characters are Ambrose and Hilda ;)