Netflix’s “Chilling Adventures of Sabrina” is easiest to describe to a newcomer if they are familiar with “Riverdale.” It’s like “Riverdale” but with witchcraft and likeable characters. Those two elements are what make “Sabrina” the more interesting show, but it shares “Riverdale’s” foundation of moody cinematography and an ephemeral sense of time and place. As a horror-tinged show (though not a scary one), those elements work perfectly on “Sabrina.”
A block of “Riverdale” and “Sabrina” on The CW would be cool for those who like both shows, but if a streaming home allows for “Sabrina’s” edgier elements — like the fact that Sabrina and her family worship Satan (see below) — I’m glad it’s on Netflix.
Because it features empathetic heroes rather than self-centered protagonists – to such a degree that it must be a conscious choice by showrunner Roberto Aguirre-Sacasa – it’s already better than “Riverdale.” It all starts with Kiernan Shipka as Sabrina Spellman. Shipka’s demeanor and look are similar to Melissa Joan Hart’s in “Sabrina, the Teenage Witch” (which itself follows the tradition of “Bewitched”) in that she’s casual about witchcraft. That comes off as an appealing confidence in the early episodes at Baxter High in Greendale, so much so that Sabrina never feels threatened by rival classmates or stuffy administrators. Everything is an issue to be solved, calmly and rationally.
That changes when Sabrina starts to also attend the Academy of Unseen Arts, meets the bluntly antagonistic and bigoted Weird Sisters and wades into the less savory policies of the school, her coven and her religion (which again, is not Wicca, it’s Satanism).
In the middle episodes, we get to know and like the people in Sabrina’s circles better, and this is a stellar cast. As Aunt Hilda, Lucy Davis transitions from her trademark role as Dawn on the U.K. “The Office,” going from introverted to bubbly, but still a bit shy. Miranda Otto’s Aunt Zelda starts as the stern one, but we see evidence that she loves her niece. Cousin Ambrose (Chance Perdomo) is a source of wisdom, although he also goes through teenage issues.
At Baxter High, Rosalind (Jaz Sinclair) and Susie (Lachlan Watson) are great friends, and Harvey (Ross Lynch) is the perfect boyfriend. Harvey is destined to follow his family into the mines – the lifeblood of Greendale – but hates it. The women in Rosalind’s family have a history of going blind at a young age, and gaining a second sight called “the cunning.” Susie wants to be a boy, but the understated nature of her transgender journey, which plays out through conversations with a ghost ancestor, makes it less politically charged than it could’ve been.
(SPOILERS FOLLOW, so stop here if you haven’t finished the season yet.)
While “Sabrina” features many familiar horror elements – nightmare sequences, demon hauntings, possessions, etc. – the narrative often grabs my entire attention. Notably, in “The Burial” (episode 8), Sabrina murders her classmate, Agatha (Adeline Rudolph) in a shocking moment. There are reasons for this act, but it doesn’t change the fact that Sabrina kills in cold blood. It’s a risky choice, because a viewer could legitimately say “Well, the writers have lost their handle on the main character; time to bow out.”
But Sabrina’s journey coincides with the people of Greendale gradually realizing witches and other realms exist, with the mines that supposedly go straight to Hell paralleling Sunnydale’s Hellmouth. It’s tidy that Sabrina’s coming-of-age coincides with the town’s awakening, and it also allows “Sabrina” to be a supernatural show in the same universe as the non-supernatural “Riverdale”: We see an organic transition happening through Season 1.
The closing episodes of this initial batch of 10 are reminiscent of the Dark Willow arc in “Buffy” Season 6. After a well-meaning spell to resurrect Harvey’s brother goes wrong, Sabrina goes deeper into a rabbit hole of problems and keeps trying to fix them with magick even as every wise adult – except the sharply manipulative Ms. Wardwell (Mary Gomez) — tells her it’s a horrible idea. I like how the breakup with Harvey makes Sabrina’s outsized confidence collapse: She realizes, too late, that there is something that can devastate her; this reminds me of the end of “Buffy” Season 2 (here in regard to Buffy, not Willow).
They’re all Satan worshipers. That’s not a joke.
For all its strengths, the most fascinating and subversive part of “Chilling Adventures of Sabrina” is its casual approach to the fact that many of its hero characters worship Satan. (Granted, so do the villains.) This aspect of the mythology originated three years ago with the “Chilling” comic, likewise created by Aguirre-Sacasa, but the show’s treatment of religion is fascinating in the modern TV landscape. It’s hilarious to think that parental watchdog groups used to argue that “Harry Potter” is not morally appropriate, because “Sabrina” unblinkingly goes 100 steps further.
A lot of witch fiction takes pains to show that there is good magick and bad magick, sometimes called white and black magick. On “Buffy,” for example, Willow’s eyes turn jet black when she does bad magick, like skinning Warren in Season 6, and she is infused with a white glow when she does good magick, like spreading Slayer powers to the Potentials in Season 7. And on “The Secret Circle,” Cassie struggles to overcome her family line of “dark witches.”
In “Chilling Adventures of Sabrina” lore, all witchcraft – good, bad, neutral — derives from the Dark Lord (a.k.a. the Devil, Satan, Lucifer, Beelzebub and Mephistopheles). That would seemingly soften the fact that the protagonists are Satanists, but it in turn creates another tricky premise: that Satanism is not inherently evil, it’s a perfectly socially acceptable religion, on par with Christianity, Judaism, Islam and Buddhism. (“Sabrina” makes it clear that the good witches are not Wiccans, although it does give a nod to that religion via the name of Baxter High’s women empowerment club, W.I.C.C.A.)
No matter how you slice it, there’s a lot to unpack with “Sabrina’s” approach to religion. Satanists have complained about appropriation. Members of the three main Western religions are likely wigged out that unambiguously good people such as Aunt Hilda are technically Satanists. Interestingly, Sabrina was also baptized as a Christian, so in addition to being a half-witch/half-mortal, she’s also a half-Satanist/half-Christian, arguably.
For an atheist viewer like me, “Sabrina” plays as a broad commentary on religion. The show equivocates all religions by replacing common Western religion phrases with equivalent Church of Night phrases: A casual “Praise God” becomes “Praise Satan” when Zelda is speaking. If the story calls for it, the show expands its internal portrayal of the Church of Night to include something from another religion. So in “An Exorcism in Greendale” (6), the Spellmans perform history’s first witch-administered exorcism, to free Susie’s uncle from a demon, borrowing from the Catholic Church.
At still other times, “Sabrina” goes deeper: Sabrina is horrified that Weird Sister Prudence (Tati Gabrielle) is willing to go to her death on a promise of afterlife riches; conversely, Prudence believes Sabrina’s existence must be intrinsically sad since she doesn’t have faith in a religion. The religion in question is Satanism, but the same thread could play out with any religion.
Once that foundation is in place, it allows for episodes like “Feast of Feasts” (7), where Sabrina is in danger of being chosen as a sacrifice to be killed and eaten by the congregation. Sabrina asks Zelda if she would’ve allowed it to get to that point. When Zelda admits that she would place Sabrina’s well-being above her loyalty to the church, I think it’s a commentary on the core hypocrisy of many religions: Most people would place their loved ones above church doctrine, if confronted with that choice.
Still, “Sabrina” doesn’t merely replace mainstream faiths with the Church of Night for the sake of coded messages. Ambrose is under house arrest because he attempted to blow up the Vatican church. Again, we come to a crossroads: He’s a Satan worshiper who aimed to commit evil. Nothing too controversial there. But that’s contrasted by two facts: 1, Ambrose is noble and likable from what we see in these 10 episodes, and 2, the Church of Night (which has its own laws and government, separate from the mortal world) has put him under house arrest, thus indicating that it doesn’t condone the attempted bombing.
“Sabrina’s” “no big deal” approach to Satanism gives it an air of daring and post-postmodernism. Judging by the shortage of widespread backlash, “Sabrina” might’ve revealed that post-postmodern era is already here, and that most other TV shows are simply scared to offend religious viewers (if they aren’t openly courting them, as with “God Friended Me”).
The fact that it mainstreams a controversial religion isn’t the best part of “Sabrina” (that’d be the deep character roster of likable, good people), but it is the most surprising and gutsy part. And if that’s what it takes to get a good show noticed in the age of peak TV, well, to quote Zelda, “Praise the Dark Lord.”