The Chilling Adventures of Sabrina – Season 2

I was pretty negative in my review of the first season of Sabrina. My biggest complaint was that there was no real commitment, everyone was claiming they were dark and satanic, but in reality no one was actually doing anything. The series claimed Sabrina was being forced to make an impossible choice between being a mortal and being a witch, and yet there seemed to be no restrictions on her actions based on what she chose. At the end of my review I wrote:

One of the weird powers that Netflix seems to have is that it doesn’t matter that I didn’t like the series, I still watched the whole thing, and may well end up watching the second season. It’s like some kind of dark spell, because heaven/hell knows, there’s nothing in this series that actually rewards the time.

And yup, I came back and found all the same problems present and some exciting new ones.

One thing that was maybe implied, but not called out explicitly for season 1 was that I don’t really like Sabrina. She’s an annoying little princess who swans through life as the centre of attention. She is sanctimonious, goes looking for arguments, doesn’t listen to those around her and digs holes that make chaos for her friends and family. She’s a terrible friend – using people when she needs to, and making decisions for those around her, jumping to conclusions about what is right for other people without actually talking to them. I know she’s the star of the show, but the character doesn’t know that and yet always makes herself the centre of any story.

There’s a similar lack of charm in the other main characters, who are clunkily presented. Lord Blackwood is a pantomime villain, while Hilda and Zelda are given little to work with. In the background some of the supporting characters are actually having very interesting stories of their own. The three Weird Sisters get a bit more material and Prudence in particular is a much richer character; the developing relationship between Roz and Harvey is well told (even if Harvey is still a boring drip), Mary Wardwell has an interesting arc and the portrayal of Susie’s transition into Theo is carefully delivered. There are some very talented actors doing good work. They just don’t get to do it very often.

There’s a lot of meandering about for the first 2/3 of the season, stories that I can barely remember. There’s something about a prophecy, a lot of boys and girls chasing each other, an obligatory weird dream episode and not much actual Evil (or school work). Everything came to a bit of a head when the last couple of episodes seemed to have some kind of breakdown. It felt like everyone suddenly realised they’d been bumbling along all season and run out of time to build anything up gradually. The lurching gear change came so suddenly and awkwardly that I actually spent a lot of time assuming it was going to pull a magic trick – reveal that it was all a hallucination, or an alternate reality or something. It wasn’t, it was just bad writing. On the plus side at least it meant something actually happened… but it didn’t make much sense.

Still, I’m sure I’ll be back for Season 3 and will have yet another chance to complain.

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Chilling Adventures of Sabrina: Season 1

I have vague memories of the original Sabrina television series, probably about the perfect amount as far as the creators of the new series are concerned – a mildly curious nostalgia without a defensive reverence. I immediately liked the idea of taking the teenage witch element and making it much darker and the show certainly on the surface delivers that with dark satanic rituals and casual references to pretty dark stuff, but I found if you really paid attention, it was all smoke and mirrors.

The pilot gets off to a good start with an immediate hook that Sabrina must soon decide between life as a human like her mother, or life as a witch like her father. Being raised by her father’s sisters following her parent’s death means that it’s assumed that she’ll commit to being a witch, taking a dark baptism on her 16th birthday and pledging loyalty to the Dark Lord Satan. But that would mean leaving behind her human school, friends and boyfriend and Sabrina is not so certain, questioning what it really means to commit to the Dark Lord.

The thing is, it quickly becomes apparent that the writers don’t really know the answer to that question either, and really don’t want to have to commit to anything. Sabrina doesn’t really seem to have to give anything up – she uses magic, keeps the boyfriend, goes to both schools (although never has to do any actual work) and seems to have no real problem doing whatever she wants to do.

The show never really reconciles what it means to “commit to the Dark Lord” in terms of morality and principles. After a while it becomes apparent that although Sabrina’s family are full members of the church, they don’t seem to act on anything. There are dark things occasionally done by other witches, but it feels like that’s because they’re “bad guys” rather than because they’re witches. It felt all talk no action, like teenagers saying they’re satanists, drawing a pentagram with a sharpie and then going home to do their homework .

In addition to these problems at the heart of the concept, there are more mundane issues on the surface too. Characters are completely under-used (Ambrose, Salem the cat) and the less said about the utterly dreary Harvey the better. The directing/cinematography annoyed me from the very start and I didn’t really get used to it. There was some sort of effect being used that only a small amount of the screen would be in focus at any time and it drove me to distraction. Some of the sets felt incredibly artificial and cheap and some of the acting and/or script writing was pretty clunky, and even the costumes and make-up annoyed me at times.

One of the weird powers that Netflix seems to have is that it doesn’t matter that I didn’t like the series, I still watched the whole thing, and may well end up watching the second season. It’s like some kind of dark spell, because heaven/hell knows, there’s nothing in this series that actually rewards the time.