Few new TV shows have to navigate as much pre-release hype as Netflix’s new 10-episode series Chilling Adventures of Sabrina. It’s immediately associated with the iconic ‘90s show Sabrina the Teenage Witch, it’s a sister show to the CW’s wildly popular teen drama Riverdale (helmed by the same showrunner, Roberto Aguirre-Sacasa), it boasts a stellar and established cast, and it’s a show about dark magic that’s premiering the weekend before Halloween. Basically, the hype couldn’t be higher.
Hype can be a blessing; it can build momentum and guarantee you a fanbase. But it can also raise expectations to an impossible level. Hype can inadvertently promise viewers one thing and then deliver another, especially when the new show is already being compared to two very established and successful shows. But Chilling Adventures won’t have to worry about that, because as good as everyone thinks this show is going to be, it is better.
Chilling Adventures Doesn’t Rely on Riverdale
Sabrina Spellman (Kiernan Shipka), half-witch and half-mortal, is like most lead characters in a teen drama: She’s on a journey to find herself, caught between the path her family wants her to follow (pledging allegiance to Satan on her sixteenth birthday, signing over her namesake, and severing all ties to her mortal friends) and the path she wants to follow (something in between full witch and full mortal).
Set in Greendale, Riverdale’s neighboring town across Sweetwater River, Aguirre-Sacasa and his creative team cherry-picked and transported the best parts of Riverdale to Chilling Adventures — young love, sleuthing, teens talking like seasoned playwrights, female friendship, saturated colors, and meticulously curated costuming and set design.
Like Riverdale, Chilling Adventures is based on a comic series (all eight issues of the series, also called Chilling Adventures of Sabrina, were penned by Aguirre-Sacasa). Both filmed in Vancouver, Riverdale and Chilling Adventures share a bloodline, moody aesthetic, and gorgeous casts (who are already playing baseball together), but they’re distinctively different shows.
Greendale is decidedly magical, whereas Riverdale might just be dipping its toes into the supernatural realm during its current third season. Chilling Adventures is, like Riverdale, sure to garner a number of new ships — it’s no secret that fans are already pledging allegiance to Sabrina’s canon mortal beau at Baxter High School, Harvey Kinkle (Ross Lynch), or her mysterious warlock classmate at the Academy of Unseens Arts, Nicholas Scratch (Gavin Leatherwood).
Chilling Adventures does include several references to its neighboring town, and will surely spawn fan theories galore. (Why, oh why, is Harvey’s hair a reddish brown instead of blonde like it is in the comics, unless he’s related to Archie?)
Chilling Adventures Works Best When It’s Bloody
With 10 roughly hour-long episodes, Chilling Adventures is an addictive but slow-simmering potion. It loses some steam early on, but truly takes flight around Episode 4 when the reigns come off, everyone remembers this is Netflix (and not the CW, where the show was originally set to air), things get bloody, and Fiona Apple blasts. The entire soundtrack is killer (featuring the likes of Creedence Clearwater Revival, Blondie, and Electric Light Orchestra), but Apple’s “Criminal” has never been better utilized.
When the show delivers, it delivers: There’s a steamy witch orgy, an Exorcist-inspired episode complete with a terrifying demonic possession, and many graphic murders (and resurrections). The action builds to the final two episodes, which are as close to a perfect season finale two-punch as we’ve gotten since “Becoming,” Buffy the Vampire’s Season 2 two-part finale.
You’ll Fall in Love With Sabrina’s Friends and Frenemies
Very much like Riverdale, Chilling Adventures serves us a mortal Core Four: Sabrina, Harvey, and her two best friends Rosalind Walker (Jaz Sinclair) and Susie Putnam (Lachlan Watson). Unlike Archie, Jughead, Veronica, and Betty, Greendale‘s Core Four seem to have known each other for years, enjoy a lived-in dynamic. They’re also different in their diversity: Rosalind, like Veronica, is a woman of color, and Susie is navigating the beginnings of a gender-identity journey.
Sabrina acts as an ally for her friends — she uses her privilege as a conventionally attractive, white, cisgender woman to try and protect Susie from jock bullies when the Baxter High principal turns a blind eye, then co-founds the school’s WICCA Club (Women’s Intersectional Creative and Cultural Association) alongside Rosalind — but her friends aren’t plot devices.
They have their own storylines that address disability (Rosalind has myopic degeneration and is going blind, like all the women in her family) and family demons (both literally and figuratively). They’re also smart, normal teens who love horror movies and are refreshingly supportive of each other.
On the magical side, Sabrina has three powerful frenemies in Prudence (Tati Gabrielle), Agatha (Adeline Rudolph), and Dorcas (Abigail Cowen), collectively known as the Weird Sisters. Perfectly costumed like lace-collared Wednesday Addams triplets, they’re devout dark witches led by Prudence (who’s sure to become an immediate fan favorite). When their interests align, Sabrina and the Weird Sisters are nearly unstoppable — early in the season they join forces and gift us a scene that’s very reminiscent of Veronica and Dark Betty’s first scene together in Riverdale. But Sabrina and the Sisters are too often at odds and pitted against each other, unable to fully explore their combined powers.
The Bad Witches Truly Steal the Show
Like Riverdale, Chilling Adventures doesn’t just showcase teen talent — in fact, more often than not, the adults steal the show. Sabrina lives with her two aunts, Hilda (Lucy Davis) and Zelda (Miranda Otto), who own and run a mortuary out of the family home. Sabrina also has a mentor in her Baxter High teacher Miss Wardwell (Michelle Gomez), who’s actually a satanic demon in disguise.
Davis is a delight as Hilda, fully utilizing her natural charisma and softly scattered comedic timing. She’s maternal and kind, always bustling around the kitchen and trying to avoid conflict with her tempestuous older sister, Zelda. Otto cuts a formidable figure as the devout Zelda, fully committed to serving Satan and perpetually always draped in furs and lace. Zelda’s always smoking a cigarette, reading her newspapers in multiple languages, and barking orders in a husky voice reminiscent of Lauren Bacall. And Gomez, the powerful Mother of Demons disguised as a meek schoolteacher, tucks the show neatly under her arm and runs away with it.
After her demonic possession, Miss Wardwell acts as Sabrina’s mentor of sorts — but her true motives and identity aren’t revealed until the season finale. Their dynamic is the richest part of the show. Gomez is at once a murderous demon and a fierce feminist who wants Sabrina to embrace and own her power. She gleefully sinks her teeth into the show’s best one-liners — her enunciation of “Let’s not be catty bitches,” alone deserves an Emmy nomination.
It’s clear that Wardwell is acting out Satan’s orders, but it’s impossible to tell just how much of her interest in Sabrina is strictly professional and how much has turned into genuine affection by the season’s end. Only time — and, Satan willing, a second season — will tell.
Chilling Adventures of Sabrina premieres globally on Netflix October 26.