Netflix’s Riverdale-tinged take on the teen witch takes itself much more seriously – and that’s a problem.
The first season of Chilling Adventures of Sabrina can be summed up like so:
SABRINA: “I’m going to do the thing.”
ANOTHER CHARACTER: “You can’t do the thing, it would be bad.”
SABRINA: “Well, I’m going to do the thing anyway.”
[Sabrina does the thing, something bad happens]
SABRINA: “Oh no, I shouldn’t have done the thing!”
That’s not a criticism, really, and it’s hardly the first TV show or movie to employ the “this character somehow has the ability to do what’s been forbidden to everyone else” trope. It was an easy thing to overlook, because Sabrina struck a good chord between funny and scary, excellently paced and with a plot packed to the eaves with monsters, occult folklore, and family drama. Just three months after the single episode holiday special, it’s back with nine more episodes (five available for review), but something’s missing this time.
Gone is much of the sense of humor and campiness from earlier in the season, that wink that says “we know this is all very silly.” Now it’s meaner, and less fun, with a tension existing between characters that
Using the phrase “sophomore slump” isn’t quite accurate, because this is technically still the first season, but the decline in quality from the first half of the season to the second is noticeable, and disappointing, particularly its reliance on stale plot elements to keep everything moving along. The cast, particularly Kiernan Shipka as Sabrina, is as strong as ever, and the show’s creepy-cool vintage Halloween party atmosphere remains, which somehow manages to make the diminished plot seem both better and worse.
When we last left Sabrina, she was enrolled in the Academy of Unseen Arts as a full-time student, and discovered that her mortal friends, particularly ex-boyfriend Harvey (Ross Lynch), want nothing to do with her dark magic. That storyline should have reached its conclusion, and yet in the very first episode of part two Sabrina is back at Baxter High, still casting spells to “help” her friends. Perhaps it’s callowness, but considering how a spell Sabrina cast to “help” Harvey before resulted in tragedy and horror, the fact that she’s defying their wishes and continuing to use magic on them now feels intrusive and arrogant.
For a show in which there are appearances by werewolves, Lovecraftian Old Ones, and Asmodeus the Plague Bearer, the dramatic stakes are remarkably low.
Sabrina’s deep-seated desire to always be right is also making life difficult for her at the Academy, where she’s constantly litigating rules and old customs, and making herself an adorably spunky thorn in the side of Headmaster Faustus Blackwood (Richard Coyle), who only just barely tolerates her presence. With cousin Ambrose (Chance Perdomo) tied up in a steamy affair with the shady Luke (Darren Mann), and Aunt Zelda (Miranda Otto) working to get back in Blackwood’s good graces by any means necessary, the only real ally Sabrina has at the school is Nicholas Scratch (Gavin Leatherwood), a dreamy classmate who seems so perfect for Sabrina that surely he must have some ulterior motive that will be revealed later in the season.
Speaking of ulterior motives, Miss Wardwell (Michelle Gomez) is still around, now the Principal of Baxter High, and a character whose motivations and purpose, other than to gaslight Sabrina, remain frustratingly unclear (though Gomez is still great, chewing on the scenery like it was doused with barbecue sauce).
Having signed the Book of the Beast, Sabrina now lies in wait for a visit from the Dark Lord, which could be tomorrow or ten years from now. She’s obligated to do his bidding, knowing that he could ask her to do anything from stealing a pack of gum to murdering someone. That compelling plot is too often set aside for scenes where Sabrina alternately moons over Harvey and dithers over how she feels about Nick. Romance also develops between Harvey and Sabrina’s closest mortal friend Roz (Jaz Sinclair) and man, it just isn’t very interesting.
The actors do their best, but Harvey isn’t an interesting character. Roz isn’t an interesting character. Theo (Lachlan Watson), Sabrina’s newly out trans friend – known as Susie earlier in the season – would be interesting, if the show allowed him to be anything but a victim. It seems to be making the same mistake that season two of American Gods is making, moving away from the source material to focus on supporting characters in a way that ultimately adds nothing to the plot, and even weighs it down.
Things do pick up by episode five, with an appearance by the always welcome Ray Wise (Twin Peaks) as the “Anti-Pope” of the Church of Night, and a murder mystery at the Academy. There’s also a nice episode four appearance from the great Veronica Cartwright (Alien, The Witches of Eastwick) as a tarot card reader who shows some of the characters their potentially disastrous futures. This episode illustrates the primary issue with Chilling Adventures, however–as frightening as these visions are, they’re just nightmares. For a show in which there are appearances by werewolves, Lovecraftian Old Ones, and Asmodeus the Plague Bearer, the dramatic stakes are remarkably low. Most of the scariest moments are dreams or visions. Spells are often reversed, certain doom is always averted at the last minute.
The only time this hasn’t been the case was with Harvey’s brother earlier in the season; not surprisingly this was also the most interesting subplot in the whole series so far. It’s certainly more interesting than Sabrina being tied up in a romantic rivalry with classmate Dorcas (Abigail Cowen) over Nick, or a teacher at the Academy fighting with Aunt Zelda for the attention of Blackwood. That a show purporting to be feminist has not just one, but multiple subplots in which jealousy and hostility simmer between women because of a man is perhaps the most disappointing aspect of the second half of the season.