“A children’s story that can only be enjoyed by children is not a good children’s story in the slightest,” said CS Lewis.
As with children’s books, so with teen television series. Dawson’s Creek was a soapy joy for anyone. Gossip Girl could get your venal glands juicing no matter how much age had otherwise withered you. Pretty Little Liars only becomes more addictive when you know you’re old enough to know better. The seven seasons of Buffy the Vampire Slayer, of course, stand shoulder to shoulder with any more ostensibly adult offerings, from The Sopranos to Breaking Bad.
The Chilling Adventures of Sabrina is unlikely to trouble their ranks. It’s technically a reboot of the massively popular mid-90s series Sabrina the Teenage Witch, although it is so different in content, tone and aesthetics from the chirpy, saccharine offering of two decades ago that apart from the very basics (themselves taken from the comics both are based on), they have virtually nothing in common.
Sabrina Spellman (Kiernan Shipka of Mad Men fame) is once again a half-witch, half-mortal teenager who must struggle to reconcile her dual nature and try not to drown in adolescent metaphor. She lives in Greendale – site of a Salemesque witch hunt back in the day – with her aunts Hilda and Zelda. This Sabrina has long been aware of her heritage and is preparing for her Dark Baptism on her 16th birthday, which will bring her into into full wiccahood and require her to leave Greendale and all her friends at Greendale Totally Normal High School for a new witchy life at the Academy for Unseen Arts.
The ingredients for a spellbinding show are all there – a blood curse; hints that her parents did not die in an accident as she’s been told; the academy’s mean girls apparating in the forest to warn Sabrina of the world of new-girl pain that awaits her; magical hallucinations; a witch-hunter on the move – but the magic never happens. It remains almost impossibly leaden – the lack of chemistry between Shipka (a fine actor but too earnest for the part) and Ross Lynch (as Sabrina’s boyfriend, Harvey) emblematic of that dogging the rest of the collation.
The script is woeful. Great gouts of exposition spew forth, interspersed with emotional scenes during which the actors (Lynch here) are burdened with lines such as, “You were just going to leave? This is all feeling kind of shady … almost like you’re hiding something from me. There’s nothing we can’t handle as long as we’re being honest with each other.” Even Dan Humphries could have come up with something better than this.
Things only really come alive – and how could they not? – when the ever-magnificent Michelle Gomez strides on screen as Sabrina’s mousy teacher, now possessed by a demon bent on visiting hell on Sabrina because her father married a mortal. No one does glittering-eyed madness like Gomez, and she is so far tapping into about 1% of her reserves of bonkersness – so it might almost be worth staying with it to the end of the series just to see how much she will be allowed to unleash.
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