Which Witch?

Sabrina and Charmed return, just when we need witches most.

The Chilling Adventures of Sabrina
The Chilling Adventures of Sabrina. Netflix

It is a particularly potent metaphorical moment for witches. The new versions of old witchy favorites The Chilling Adventures of Sabrina and Charmed arrive at a timely juncture for stories about women who want to express their power, even as others would suppress it—and both shows dive into this subtext with all the restraint of trick-or-treaters before an unattended bowl of candy.

In the rebooted Charmed, which premiered on the CW earlier this month, the creepy professor who has just been reinstated at the local college is not just a sexual harasser: He’s a demon of sexual harassment. “When it comes to consent, I can change my mind at any time!” one of the trio of sisters shouts as she fells an evil spirit. In the first episode alone, the line “This is not a witch hunt—it’s a reckoning!” is uttered not once, but twice. Despite the timeliness of this dialogue, Charmed plays like a throwback to the schlocky original, which aired in the 1990s and to which it is surprisingly faithful in spirit. Though it is produced by, among others, Jane the Virgin creator Jennie Snyder Urman, Charmed is more supernatural procedural than serial drama. The new set of sisters, played Madeleine Mantock, Melonie Diaz, and Sarah Jeffery, are not exactly like their predecessors—for one thing, they’re Latina, which the show does not make a fuss about—but they are still fighting B-movie monsters each week.

Netflix’s The Chilling Adventures of Sabrina, adapted from the Archie Comics character by Roberto Aguirre-Sacasa, who also created the Archie adaptation Riverdale, is more ambitious and contemporary: a supernatural teen soap, orbiting around Sabrina (Kiernan Shipka), a bright, good girl torn between her mortal friends and her dark birthright. Sabrina, who loves to go to horror movies with her friends and sweetie-pie boyfriend Harvey (Ross Lynch), lives with her two aunts, Zelda (Miranda Otto) and Hilda (Lucy Davis), at the family mortuary. On the edge of 16, she is readying for her dark baptism, a ceremony in which she would make permanent her allegiance to the dark lord, and then go to witch school and cut ties with her mortal friends. Needless to say, she has doubts. (Sample line: “I have reservations about saving myself for the dark lord. Why should he get to decide what I do with my body?”)

I don’t think it gives too much away to say that Sabrina finds a way to keep a foot in both worlds: to start learning about witchcraft while staying tight with her high school pals—and then increasingly crossing the two. At school, where jocks are bullying her trans friend Susie (Lachlan Watson), she starts the Women’s Intersectional Cultural and Creative Association—that’s WICCA for short—and makes plans to overthrow the patriarchy, while also recruiting some slightly evil teen witches to scare the bejesus out of said bullies. (In what seems to be a not–entirely considered plot point, the witches lure the boys into mines—Sabrina is set in a laughably unrealistic mining town—trick them into making out with each other, photograph them, and threaten blackmail. Nothing like shaming some homophobes with … homophobia?)

The best, most archly funny thing about Sabrina is how dark the witchcraft is. In the Archie comics, in which she first appeared in 1962, and then in the late-’90s sitcom Sabrina the Teenage Witch, Sabrina was the cute, helpful variety of witch, and her aunts, while cranky and weird, were barely more threatening. Not so in this new version, where witches eat human flesh, worship freaky stuff, and obey the dark lord—who really might be Lucifer. The dark lord’s sales pitch is that he’s not good or evil but that he’s all about free will. His emissary on earth, Father Blackwell (Richard Coyle), compares it to any other religion. It’s a trip to watch the show explore these ideas so it can drum up a real conflict for Sabrina between staying human and joining … an actual satanic cult.

This is probably slightly funnier than it is meant to be because of Shipka, who jumps into the part with the can-do cheer of a child actor, for whom working hard counts just as much as dramatic chops. Shipka was very good in Mad Men, in which she played Don Draper’s daughter Sally, a girl wise beyond her years. But she didn’t have to carry that show. Here, she gives the bright, slightly canned line readings of a mediocre network sitcom. It’d work pretty well in a show trying to re-create the original comics’ vibe, where everything is cartoonish and sunny and ends in happy hijinks—but The Chilling Adventures is not trying to be that show. It’s trying to be the moody, teen-tastic interpretation of it. As Sabrina keeps using dark magic in situations she probably should not, Shipka’s bright professionalism wards off any real tension.

If I’m being entirely truthful, though, for all its flaws, this show really only needs one thing to make me watch it some nights on Netflix: a compelling teen romance. I’ve watched—and loved—a lot of teen dramas in my time, but I have never seen one built around a romance as dramatically inert as Sabrina and Harvey’s. The two are in high-functioning, very supportive puppy love. It’s incredibly boring, a total narrative dead end. Is it too much to expect that a show about the difficulty of deciding between the light and the dark would, I dunno, literalize that conflict with a swoony bad influence? Given Riverdale’s success in bucking canon to make a beloved super couple (Jughead and Betty), I expected more. Sabrina doesn’t seem to understand that Harvey is the good-guy first love whom the heroine is supposed to dump for the inexplicably alluring bad boy. I kept waiting for that guy to pop up, the only dark lord I’m really interested in seeing on a show like this. Alas, the show did not cast a spell for that.