I will really try to keep this light on spoilers. Happy Halloween!
I’m halfway into this show and I can’t stop (Updated: Now I’ve watched the entire season so there’s some updated opinions ahead). There’s a no holds barred, everything goes, nothing is sacred attitude to it. It has some roots in the comics, some in the 90’s TV show but almost everything has been rewired to be completely irreverent and even shocking. The show focuses primarily on Sabrina (Kiernan Shipka) and her aunts Zelda (Miranda Otto) and Hilda (Lucy Davis). And let’s be clear, they’re really witches and the witch world is really dark in this show. Then again, the occult side of this show is what I find the most entertaining, twisted and hilarious aspect.
Yes, the show will mix in Wicca with Satanism and sprinkle some make believe for good measure. I’m sure I heard someone quote Aleister Crowley at some point. It’s a good old everything-goes melting pot of movie-style black magic.
The show is dark but colorful. The palette is sprinkled with reds and greens that jump out in a Halloween-esque fashion. The characters are sweet and/or evil in that way that reminds you of The Addams Family or Beetlejuice. The show immediately draws comparisons to Buffy and Harry Potter for the irreverent mix of magic and pop culture. And yes, almost every teenager is a fan of old time horror films. The camera work often plays this trick where the main action is focused but the sides are blurred. You’ll either find it annoying or get used to it.
Shipka shines as the titular Sabrina Spellman. She doubts, she reconsiders, she loves her human boyfriend Harvey (Ross Lynch) and her friends Rosalind “Roz” Walker (Jaz Sinclair) and Susie Putnam (Lachlan Watson). Her Aunts Hilda and Zelda are not same characters from the TV show, although they’re clearly identified. In this version, Hilda (Lucy Davis) is the bumbling, overly-sweet, maternal type while Zelda (Miranda Otto) gives commands more than advice, smokes cigarettes using a holder and is all about the Dark Lord and the Church of Night. To use a Hogwarts analogy, if Hilda is a Hufflepuff then Zelda is definitely a Slytherin.
And now, let’s talk about Madame Satan. Michelle Gomez is in this show! She starts as Sabrina’s introverted teacher Miss Wardwell but that doesn’t last until she undergoes a transformation (you can always tell by the hair) and becomes a major player in the Dark Lord’s army against Sabrina. This is Michelle Gomez at her crazy best, dialed up to 11 and chewing through scenery.
To get Satan’s will done, she’s often “helping” Sabrina fight her causes, such as puritanical principal Hawthorne (Bronson Pinchot) drawing the young witch further into the use of black magic to cause more problems. She’s also in league with Father Faustus Blackwood (Richard Coyle), the High Priest of the Church of Night, although they both seem to be in competition for the Dark Lord’s favour. And chewing the scenery. There’s over the top and then there’s Satanic over the top.
I know it won’t work for a ton of people, the show lies it on thick with the usual Devil-style imagery. But it’s a lot of fun, and I couldn’t help but laugh out loud at some of the way that things were mixed up. Aunt Hilda and Aunt Zelda say “Praise Satan” instead of “Hail Satan” somehow subverting the meaning to mean nothing (and, I suspect, to prevent any association to that other name that also tends to follow the “Hail…” salute).
There’s a lot of amazing, dark and funny characters sprinkled about. Ambrose, a warlock under house arrest, is Sabrina’s cousin and works in Hilda and Zelda’s mortuary. Prudence is the leader of the Weird Sisters, a trio of witches that are the clique in charge at the Academy of Unseen Arts (yes, we get a Hogwarts as well!). Actually, very early on they do have a moment where Prudence (Tati Gabrielle) lets it slip that the Dark Lord offers power but not complete freedom. When Sabrina asks why can’t they have both, Prudence snidely retorts that the Dark Lord wouldn’t like that, adding that he’s a man after all. There’s more to the Weird Sisters than mere antagonists.
The show has its weak points. It’s a lot more effective when it tries to be subtle than blunt. I find that it initially draws you in with the almost comical way that it deals with witchcraft/Satanism/movie-magic as a full out religion of doctrine and ritual. However, when it goes back to the mortal world, sometimes it drags down a bit. I’m all for the underdog fight against the system, but I’m also glad that we get Michelle Gomez causing havoc and trying to draw Sabrina more to the dark side like a frigging Sith Lord because if not, it would be a dull scene for me. Don’t get me wrong, Roz is amazing and I really wanted the jocks that bully Susie to suffer a fate worth than death, but Harvey is bland as a character.
I love this Salem incarnation. You kinda wished this cat could talk, but in all seriousness the fact that he’s a goblin and can go medieval on a scarecrow-monster but we don’t exactly see his true form works as well. Of course, he’s Sabrina’s familiar and one that came to her voluntarily.
At first, I found it funny that Satanism is referenced in a ritual where you’re supposed to pledge your eternal service and obedience to anything (a satanist does not serve, obey or follow anybody or anything but their own will). The truth is that this depiction of Satanism is a little less hypocritical that the tired trope that we get in the movies, although they’re in constant contradiction. Faustus Blackwood talks about freedom of the will while trying to indoctrinate Sabrina into a religion that demands eternal obedience.
Looking a tad deeper, this Church of Night is just both a parody and an allegory for the religious zeal that takes itself a little too seriously to see their own contradictions. In losing sight of their intended ideals of freedom of thought for their rituals, we should see how religions of the world lose sight of their objectives (love and forgiveness) to enforce their tradition and their truths (branding). I make a distinction between religion, which is mostly dogma, and faith which is the personal belief stripped of all the pomp and ceremony.
Update: After watching the second half, I can now add that there’s episodes with obvious filler where you can see obvious too-close-for-comfort stories taken right off Harry Potter, Buffy and The Hunger Games. The second half feels a lot less solid than the first half, to the point that the show comes very close to getting lost. The last episodes seem to wrangle up the loose ends trying to bring it all about full circle, and for the most part they succeed in making for a satisfying open-ended finale with appropriate dark tones. It’s not perfect, and obviously all the dynamics are compromised, but we gotta leave some room for the next chapter.
After watching the entire first season, I’d still highly recommend it as something new to watch with the irreverent theme of occult and horror aspects to it. It’s not scary per se, although the whole Satanic aspect will definitely scare away religiously-minded households. As foretold, it loses some momentum in the middle so there’s a few episodes and storylines that seem to be pure filler from other properties, but the end feels fairly decent although obviously open-ended for a follow-up. All that being said, it’s rare that a series can keep up the pace without some filler here and there. It’s rarer still that I’m cheering for it. Praise Satan!
That will do for now.