''Sabrina, The Teenage Witch'' and ''Clueless'' -- ABC lures kids with two additions to its TGIF line-up

By Ken Tucker
Updated October 25, 1996 at 04:00 AM EDT

”Sabrina, The Teenage Witch” and ”Clueless”

Until recently, the biggest draws on ABC’s kid-oriented ”TGIF” schedule were the munchkinish Olsen twins’ munchkinette Michelle on Full House and Jaleel White’s elastic ultra-nerd Steve Urkel on Family Matters. But the network’s once-dominant Friday-night ratings have declined over the past season or so — the shows and their stars are getting old. Full House emptied out over a year ago, taking a voluntary cancellation; Urkel’s still around, but these days he’s looking only slightly younger than Bill Cosby. Of the other TGIF stalwarts, Step By Step, the Suzanne Somers-Patrick Duffy extravaganza, is off the air, in mid-season-replacement limbo, and if much-arrested costar Sasha Mitchell has one more brush with the law, they might as well close down that shop altogether. Boy Meets World is still on the schedule, despite the fact that Ben Savage’s Cory Matthews has sprouted into one of the gawkiest, deepest-voiced adolescents in the history of teen stardom.

Hoping to revitalize the evening, ABC has introduced two new Friday-night shows, Sabrina, The Teenage Witch and Clueless. Sabrina‘s title sums it up; this is, after all, a TV show derived from a comic book. But where the Sabrina in the comics is a winky, slinky minx, the TV Sabrina is a more satisfyingly down-to-earth witch, a girl as anxious about peer pressure and curfews as she is comfortable with levitation and hexes. Sabrina has the great advantage of starring Melissa Joan Hart in the title role. Hart is not only a face familiar to millions of kids — Clarissa in Nickelodeon’s popular Clarissa Explains It All — she’s also the best actor in any TGIF show.

Sabrina lives with her two witch aunts, Zelda (Beth Broderick from The Five Mrs. Buchanans) and Hilda (stand-up comic Caroline Rhea), as well as her talking cat, Salem (voice provided by Nick Bakay). Best of all, she has a worthy archenemy in Libby (Jenna Leigh Green, Saved By the Bell), precisely the sort of mean yet popular girl that young people all over America will recognize. To Libby, Sabrina isn’t a witch but a ”freak,” if for no other reason than Sabrina isn’t a boy-obsessed harpy in the making like Libby herself. In one beguiling episode, Sabrina turned Libby into a pineapple.

Sabrina isn’t the most sharply written show; its idea of wit is to have an aunt sigh, ”Witchcraft in the age of MTV — it’s all quick cuts and funny angles.” But with Hart adding conviction and tart line readings, its underlying message — life is tough for teenagers, even when you can turn your enemies into fruit — must be satisfying for its intended audience.

Clueless, on the other hand, needs to be a whole lot funnier. Producer-director Amy Heckerling has overseen the TV adaptation of her charming 1995 hit movie. Here, materialistic but good-hearted Cher is played by Rachel Blanchard, who goes beyond impersonating Alicia Silverstone — Blanchard seems to have replicated her DNA. Where the movie’s L.A. slang was clever, on TV it’s just repetitive (”Dee, you are so Betty”; ”You are approaching the Uma envelope”), and the idea that Cher’s decency transcends her charge-card limit is often buried beneath ceaseless jokes about envy and greed. Reprising their movie roles are Stacey Dash as Cher pal Dionne and Elisa Donovan as Cher rival Amber. Also returning is Wallace Shawn as put-upon teacher Mr. Hall. At a time when playwright Shawn’s newest work, The Designated Mourner, is getting raves in Britain for its powerfully bleak humor, actor Shawn is mugging and sputtering his way to a weekly TV paycheck. Oh, what a tangled pop culture we weave.

These two series signal a small shift in ABC’s strategy in that both feature plucky teenage girls, not cute tykes or screechy dorks, as their protagonists. It looks as if the network is trying to retain its original, now-grown-older audience rather than offering fresh little-kid fare to replace Full House. But ignoring the current crop of kiddies is a mistake, and if ABC wants to know more about why, I have a very dissatisfied 6-year-old in my house ready to explain it to them. Sabrina has the makings of a small hit (Nielsen ratings have it ranked first among children ages 2 to 11), but Clueless, appealing to older viewers, has fared poorly. Maybe it’s time to scrap the whole concept of TGIF and try praying to God for some fresh inspiration instead. Sabrina, the Teenage Witch: B; Clueless: C-