The original ABC series “Sabrina, the Teenage Witch” first aired in 1996 and continued until 2003. Although it’s been 16 years since the show ended, the sitcom still holds a nostalgic, soft spot in the hearts of American television viewers.
Netflix’s “Chilling Adventures of Sabrina” attempts to redefine the original ABC series, focusing on the protagonist’s coming-of-age as well as incorporating themes such as sex, gender roles and gender identity. Despite the ambitious undertaking to revamp the “Sabrina” series, the show writers fail to reconcile the lighthearted nature of the original series with their desire to explore weightier themes.
The Netflix version features actress Kiernan Shipka in the role of Sabrina Spellman, our half-witch, half-human protagonist who struggles to successfully balance her dual life. In truth, the show may not hit home in delivering a memorable reimagination of the initial hit series, but it definitely keeps its viewers on their toes and remains endlessly engrossing by capturing the comedic quips and the fantastical whimsy that defined the 1996 show.
The show writers make it difficult to decipher their intended audience due to hastily written action plotlines which distract from, instead of contribute to, the social commentary they are trying to achieve.
The first season primarily lays the foundation for the main plot by introducing Sabrina’s family life and her community. Sabrina lives with her two aunts (Miranda Otto and Lucy Davis), her cousin Ambrose (Chance Perdomo) and her familiar, a cat named Salem with whom Sabrina shares a spiritual link.
These expository episodes lead up to Sabrina’s 16th birthday, exploring how Sabrina discovers and develops her supernatural abilities. The first season sets up the second season well by introducing the antagonist who will drive much of the story’s plot down the line.
During the second season, the show departs from the origin story format for Sabrina, diving into the very human issues of sex and discrimination while also crafting a supernatural storyline more in line with its witchy source material.
The contents of the second season led me to believe that the series wanted to offer an engaging dramedy aimed towards preteens, but Director Salli Richardson-Whitfield sprinkles in serious subject matter that feels out of place with the at times naive plotlines.
Even though the social issues addressed sometimes felt awkward, “Chilling Adventures of Sabrina” still offers relevant social commentary that helps to ground the show in the present day and advocate for social change.
It smoothly introduces the importance of establishing gender identity from a young age when one of Sabrina’s best friends, Theo Putnam (Lachlan Watson), comes out as a transgender man. He announces that he feels more comfortable when seen as a boy and proceeds to change his appearance, call himself Theo and begin to wear men’s clothing.
The series is set a couple decades ago, so Theo’s struggle in high school is compounded by a more conservative time period. He faces extreme backlash when he attempts to join the boys’ basketball team as a trans man. The show recognizes that even in a world full of magic, social issues like transphobia still affect the human characters.
Addressing sexism similarly becomes a major part of the second season. Sabrina wants to compete for Top Boy, her school’s equivalent to student body president, where one student, typically a boy, acts as the right hand to the headmaster.
Even though the majority of characters laugh in her face when she announces her intentions to defy gender and cultural witch norms, Shipka’s character firmly establishes the importance of equal rights for girls even in the special context of “Chilling Adventures of Sabrina.”
Unfortunately, the screenwriters drafted the end of the series focusing more on displaying flashy otherworldly action rather than further developing its themes of a world of magic still filled with discrimination. Sabrina’s witch and mortal worlds finally collide in a plot arc that might have momentarily convinced me I was watching a Nickelodeon show for young children.
Although the series seems confused about its audience, Netflix’s “Chilling Adventures of Sabrina” makes a valiant effort to intertwine relevant and important themes rarely addressed in fantasy shows marketed towards teenagers.