We should admit nostalgia is choking us all to death.
Thankfully, there are writers like Roberto Aguirre-Sacasa, who rose to prominence when his comic Afterlife With Archie sent the beloved grinning redhead into the undead apocalypse. Aguirre-Sacasa’s ability to radicalize the culturally familiar — plus his appreciation for the transgressive possibilities of camp — also conjured Riverdale, his CW drama about the social blight of sexy snake gangs. Now he’s developed Chilling Adventures of Sabrina, a blistering reconsideration of the Teenage Witch.
Forget the smirking 1960s comic-book character and the blissful family-of-women ’90s sitcom starring Melissa Joan Hart. In 2018, teens have nothing to smile about, so Kiernan Shipka’s sorceress lives in two traumatizing worlds. At regular high school, one friend gets bullied; another protests a book-banning. Now, it’s not all bad — her boyfriend loves comic books; the best baes always will — but Sabrina double-lifes in the Church of Night, a coven that worships, um, like, well, the Devil. The hoof-horned Dark Lord demands that young witches sign their name in his book on their 16th birthday. It’s a gender-abasing Faustian bargain. He gives her power if she gives him everything.
“I want freedom and power,” Sabrina declares, raging against her archaic machine. Sabrina’s Aunt Zelda (Miranda Otto, igniting bloodthirsty Joan Collins realness) is a true believer. But kindly Aunt Hilda (wonderful Lucy Davis) has doubts. Recalling her own initiation, Hilda waxes the opposite of nostalgic. “Us girls didn’t have any options back then,” she says. “It’s just simply what was done.”
When I heard that line in episode 2, I was sold. The rest of this derivative, Netflix-bloated season gave me buyer’s remorse. The saga’s unmistakably Potterized. Sabrina is an orphaned Mudblood, errr, half-breed who attends magic school with predatory Slytherish aristocrats. She seeks vengeance against some athlete tormentors with a honeypot scam requiring teen-girl-squad disrobing. That’s a reused old Riverdale plot — and an example of how the show balances feminist fire with deflating PG-16 provocations. And Sabrina has a Sabrina problem. Called upon to simultaneously perform wide-eyed innocence, Chosen One superheroism, and activist rage, Shipka compromises with blankness.
The production design’s a retro fantasia — Polaroids and cigarette holders and a local theater playing Night of the Living Dead. This will hit big in our Stranger Things-less October. And I’m taken with Aguirre-Sacasa’s belief in Sabrina as a new American myth: The powerful young woman discovering her whole world is some kind of lie. But Chilling Adventures of Sabrina mainly chilled me with fearful nostalgia, recalling a time when supernatural teen sagas didn’t all seem to follow the same script. B-