Dark and gritty remakes are the plat du jour of TV’s golden age, especially when drawing from comic books. However, Sabrina Spellman’s story earns the imposing shadows and prodigious screams that color her new Netflix series, “Chilling Adventures of Sabrina.” Ditching the bright and cheery tone established in Archie Comics’ original incantation and continued in the 1996 sitcom, “Sabrina the Teenage Witch,” it leans hard into the “witch” affiliations even without the word in its title. While still a teen story at heart — and one built for the masses — Roberto Aguirre-Sacasa’s take is laden with demons, trolls, warlocks, and more, all of which growl with enough menace to evoke a steady stream of shrieks.
What’s even more welcome than effective frights is how eager “Chilling Adventures” is to embrace the genre’s inclusive, progressive spirit. The teens of Greendale High like dissecting the allegories within zombie movies and push back on books banned by their school. Moreover, the main characters are a diverse, open-minded set and their adventures often revolve around rebelling against the oppressive control of others — mainly men. This “Sabrina” not only feels like it’s made with older audiences in mind, but its characters think like grown-ups, too.
Episode 1 wastes no time setting up its decades-old story: Kiernan Shipka offers mercifully short narration to explain that her half-witch, half-human high schooler is about to choose which world she wants to remain in. On the human side are her friends: Rosalind Walker (Jaz Sinclair) is an outspoken minister’s daughter who’s closest with Sabrina; Susie Putnam (Lachlan Watson) is a horror enthusiast and victim of bullying, often because of her non-binary gender identity; and then there’s Harvey Kinkle (Ross Lynch), Sabrina’s boyfriend who’s being pushed into his father’s coal-mining profession, but is otherwise the classic dreamy-boyfriend type.
Sabrina also has a friend on the inside: her pansexual cousin from England, Ambrose, who’s been put under house arrest but tries to help Sabrina navigate both sides of herself. Making the case for the way of the witches are Sabrina’s aunts, Hilda (Lucy Davis ) and Zelda Spellman (Miranda Otto). Hilda is kind, nurturing, and quite the potion master, while Zelda is the disciplinarian who’s utterly devoted to Satan. Hilda encourages Sabrina to weigh her options, while Zelda only sees one path: Sign the devil’s book and enroll at the Academy of Unseen Arts. Who cares about your boyfriend and schoolmates? Sabrina has a greater purpose to fulfill.
If you think that admittedly challenging question will be explored through a full season of television, think again. One of the immediate charms of “Chilling Adventures” is its rapid pace. Though select episodes take a bit of break from the overall arc to have fun with semi-standalone stories, the series moves quickly, avoiding the bloated trappings of other Netflix originals. (The network is well aware of critics complaining about stretched-out running times, and shortened episode orders indicate change is afoot — “Sabrina” seems far more exciting at 10 episodes than it would have at 13.) Along with those quick decisions come changes, too, so long-term fans be warned: This isn’t going to mimic the comics or old series.
The cast is a big perk — Lucy Davis and Miranda Otto, in particular. The duo is as rich and enthralling as each performance is nuanced and touching. The actors elevate the sisters’ unique relationship, bringing out an affecting sibling dynamic, while Hilda and Zelda’s solo attributes keep their individuality from getting lost in the repartee. Little flourishes within their scenes show just how much fun they have in bringing women with agency to life, and that goes for the kiddos, too. Sinclair is sharp and engaging; Lynch plays a prince without losing any authenticity; and Perdomo is commanding enough to carry his own stuff.
Shipka, meanwhile, is a bit of a puzzle. Every so often, the “Mad Men” star lets an arrogant whiff of Sally Draper infuse a line where it doesn’t belong, and her stilted reactions to complicated scenarios don’t always capture the weight of what Sabrina is going through. That said, she’s excellent in close-up and can execute specific emotions without overworking. It’s not the stunning star-turn some long-time Sterling Cooper fans may have hoped for, but she carries the series well enough to keep it all together.
Still, what makes this version of “Sabrina” a worthy addition to the canon is its self-awareness. No, “Chilling Adventures” isn’t an overly meta spin (like its sister series “Riverdale” can be), but it knows its audience is likely to be filled with young women and gives them an unabashed hero for our times. Early arcs position Sabrina as purposefully defiant to untrustworthy authority figures. She’s no snotty kid, ribbing her teachers without reason; she recognizes the weight of the choices she makes and takes them seriously. When called on to give up her friends or family for a life serving the Dark Lord, she demands to know why and refuses to give up her agency. Just because she’s told this is the way of the world doesn’t mean she has to abide by it.
“Chilling Adventures” knows its place in history as well as the ideas it wants to encourage. It pits Sabrina and her young pals against the likes of evil itself, setting a good example for how to stand up for yourself, your friends, and your beliefs when it feels like everyone with any say wants to break your spirit. The ominous setting plays into the high stakes facing Sabrina and her friends, while the efficient scripts and lavish production design build an immersive, exciting space to explore them. To say it’s the best “Sabrina” yet is a bit reductive, but it’s certainly a new series worth screaming about.
“Chilling Adventures of Sabrina” Season 1 premieres Friday, October 26 on Netflix.