Screen Time

My Kids Aren’t Ready for Buffy. So I Found the Perfect Gateway Show.

Photo illustration by Slate. Photos by Paramount Television and WB Televsion Network.

One of the greatest pleasures of parenting is introducing things you love to your kids. Since the birth of my two girls, I’ve been anticipating the day I would gift them with the best show of all time, Buffy the Vampire Slayer. Then my girls stopped watching TV.

Once upon a time, we monitored TV time like hawks. We granted the girls two hours on Friday evening, enough for a family movie, and one hour Saturday morning while I made waffles—a throwback to my own childhood when Saturday morning was the only time children’s cartoons aired. Then one Christmas, a grandmother gifted both girls with Kindle Fires, and while their screen time didn’t change in permissible hours, it changed in nature. Rather than gathering around the TV for a movie or cartoon, each girl slipped away to her room, device in hand. They would not be seen or heard from again until I hollered upstairs, “Screen time is over! Get down here so we can have some quality family time in front of the TV!”

At least that’s what it felt like. As soon as the girls graduated to hand-held devices, the TV shifted from something to be guarded against to a wonderful gathering place for the entire family that must be protected from the siren call of Minecraft, Scratch, and YouTube. To woo the girls back, I sought out the kinds of rich, complicated stories you can’t find in a slime video, family shows like Once Upon a Time and Doctor Who. They walked out of the living room 10 minutes in, preferring to play outside, a choice I couldn’t argue with—and they knew it.

While technically their screen time had not increased, I missed our time together. I had enjoyed introducing them to my favorite children’s shows and singing theme songs together in the car. But mainly, I despaired what this meant for the future. If I couldn’t get my kids to commit to I Love Lucy now, how would I ever get them to watch seven seasons of Buffy the Vampire Slayer with me?

Then we happened upon Sabrina, the Teenage Witch. I never watched Sabrina when it originally aired in the mid-1990s. I was over a decade past the target audience, for although the show is set in high school, it has the aesthetic of the Disney Channel: bright, easy to follow, determinedly inoffensive. But Sabrina is funnier and campier than most programming aimed at tweens, and is also a clear precursor to Buffy. Like Buffy, Sabrina is a blond, average teenager navigating the treacherous hallways of high school, who (as the parallel titles make clear) learns she has supernatural gifts. Both girls have absent fathers and spend an inordinate amount of their magical energies on crushes. But while Buffy is operatic in theme, tone, and metaphor, Sabrina is simply goofy. When Buffy has sex for the first time, her boyfriend transforms into a serial killer. When Sabrina experiences her first kiss, her boyfriend turns into a frog.

My favorite episode occurs in the first season. Sabrina’s crush accepts another girl’s invitation to the high school dance, so her aunts Hilda and Zelda—delightfully played by Caroline Rhea and Beth Broderick—magically fashion a date for her out of “man dough.” My kids and I cackled as the aunts wrestled the magical dough into a life-size human shape. After they cover the dough with a beach towel, Brian Austin Green rises from the counter like Frankenstein’s creature to take Sabrina to the dance.

Sabrina, the Teenage Witch clearly predates the golden age of TV. The laugh track and production values harken to bad sitcoms from the ’80s, but Melissa Joan Hart’s laid-back nonacting keeps my daughters engaged, and nuggets of comic absurdity keep us all laughing. Pleased with how Brian Austin Green turned out, the aunts mix up their own dream dates, only to discover they’ve used expired ingredients. One loses an arm in the kitchen, and Aunt Hilda pounds a particularly bad batch to its floury death with a rolling pin; meanwhile, Brian Austin Green melts into dough on the steps of the high school, like Cinderella’s shoe.

My kids love that they can follow the story without effort. I appreciate the Debbie Harry cameos and the nostalgic ’90s fashion. But of course what’s most important is that Sabrina keeps us together on the couch, preparing half-hour by half-hour for what shall be the peak experience of my life mothering girls: binging on Buffy the Vampire Slayer the year the younger turns 13.

There will be no playing outside.