After the first two parts showed a lot of potential and sometimes were quite fun, “Chilling Adventures of Sabrina” Part 3 (January, Netflix) is more of a slog to get through, even though it’s eight episodes instead of the usual 10. Or maybe it’s because of the lower episode count but slightly longer episodes. The writers lean into the “Gilmore Girls” approach of telling as much story as they feel like in one sitting, but “Sabrina” should ideally use the “Buffy” approach with an act-based structure.
That said, “Sabrina” really wants to be “Buffy” at times. After Vlad the Impaler (Michael Antonakosen) thralls and bites Sabrina, only to be knocked back by blood that’s like poison to him, Sabrina (Kiernan Shipka, continuing with her above-it-all acting approach) adds: “And also: consent. It’s real.” It’s like “Buffy” through a Gen-Z filter, but far too writer-y, not a natural line of dialog.
In overall structure, the soapier “Sabrina” resists being “Buffy” – although a strong final episode creates a springboard to a Part 4 that could see more scenes at Baxter High. In Part 3, Sabrina is the Queen of Hell, and it takes up most of her time. The character and show pay lip service to the fact that Sabrina is also a high school student, but they don’t commit. We get a couple of cheerleader sequences (Sabrina and Jaz Sinclair’s Roz are on the cheer team) where “Sabrina” tries embarrassingly hard to be “Glee,” giving us jarringly real-world songs such as Toni Basil’s “Mickey.”
I should like the overall plot of Part 3 since it features a lively yet suspicious carnival popping up in Greendale. “Buffy” never did the creepy carnival trope on screen, but it did in multiple spin-off novels. There’s some good stuff early on, such as Ms. Wardwell (Michelle Gomez, who does double duty, also playing Lilith) visiting a fortune teller, Harvey (Ross Lynch) being mesmerized by the snake lady, and Theo (Lachlan Watson) having his first romantic Ferris wheel ride with boyfriend Robin (Jonathan Whitesell).
Watson is a girl playing a transgender boy, and it’s confusing on the surface in addition to being confusing why they don’t dig into the confusion. Theo looks like a tomboyish girl – until the wardrobe department gives him baggier clothes in later episodes – but Robin, who is apparently gay, recognizes all along that Theo identifies as male. I know the appropriate modern approach is to not touch transgenderism with a 10-foot pole once you’ve introduced the trans character, but it strikes me as a missed opportunity to explore issues Theo would legitimately confront.
Part 3 moves too fast past the interesting personal stuff and instead slogs through the Hell politics Sabrina has to deal with. There is a point to all of this, though, and it finally coalesces in a boffo final two episodes that are like “Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban” on steroids.
First, “Sabrina” kills off an impressive number of major characters. Even having established itself as a show where death is temporary, these deaths are surprising and darkly humorous. Then time travel enters the picture in the Part 3 finale.
“Sabrina” sometimes forgets to portray consequences to Sabrina’s brash actions, but it’s setting up Part 4 to be all about the blowback from Sabrina’s brashest act: splitting herself in two – one to attend high school and one to serve as the queen of Hell.
Although often artistic-on-a-budget (in short bursts, this is among TV’s best-looking shows), “Sabrina” has enough “ugh” moments that I often play a little game: Which actors embarrass themselves the least when delivering this material? Without a doubt, it’s Chance Perdomo as Sabrina’s magic-expert cousin, Ambrose. Perdomo never acts like he’s in a silly show, just a stylized one, and I suspect he’ll have a tremendous career outside of “Sabrina.”
Although Part 3 is tough going at times, it ends strong and sets up a clash of values between headstrong Sabrina and knowledgeable Ambrose. So I might find it hard to stay away when the next batch of episodes lands.