“The Chilling Adventures of Sabrina” presents the titular teenage witch (Kiernan Shipka, “Mad Men”) with what we’re told is an impossible choice: Should the half-mortal, half-witch accept her birthright, pledge herself to Satan, attend a magical school and join the Church of Night? Or should she keep on living a quiet life in Greendale, with friends she loves at Baxter High School and her doting boyfriend? It’s the tension in every adaptation of the Archie Comics series: The allure of magic perpetually in conflict with the adolescent desire to fit in.
Watching “Chilling Adventures,” though, it’s hard to shake the feeling that the foul world of the coven is really much fairer than our own. It’s deliciously morbid, enlivened by off-kilter dialogue delivered with sinister bravado — what language might sound like in a minor key. Sabrina’s quarrelsome aunts and guardians, Hilda (Lucy Davis, “Better Things”) and Zelda (Miranda Otto, “24: Legacy”) are the best reminder that the Church of Night is as fun as it is frightening. “Where’s Aunt Hilda?” Sabrina’s cousin Ambrose (Chance Perdomo, “Killed by My Debt”) wonders in the second episode. “She annoyed me, so I killed her and buried her in the yard,” Zelda replies matter-of-factly. A short while later, Hilda claws herself out of her grave and heads back to the kitchen in a huff, saying: “You’ve got to stop killing me!”
Resplendent with classic horror influences, the show shares some visual DNA with fellow gritty Archie Comic reboot “Riverdale.” But “Chilling Adventures” is on an extra dose of macabre; in the third episode, a vampish clique of witches helps Sabrina carry out a revenge plot that would make even Dark Betty blush.
It’s inevitable that the two worlds tugging at this heroine aren’t quite evenly matched. Once we’re given a taste of witchhood in all its glory, the teenage trials Baxter High throws at Sabrina are all a bit too pedestrian. Her relationship with the dopey Harvey (Ross Lynch, “Austin & Ally”) is so vanilla, we’re left practically begging her to choose Nicholas Scratch (Gavin Leatherwood, “Grown-ish”), the handsome young warlock competing for her attention. Sabrina’s mortal friends are sweet, but not much else. And Sabrina’s principal adding “The Bluest Eye” to a banned books list, though arguably a satanic act in itself, doesn’t hold a torch to the problems she has involving the actual Satan. In the effort to keep Sabrina down-to-earth, “Chilling Adventures” forgets that it’s far more interesting when those adventures are beneath the Earth.
Shipka’s Sabrina feels akin to her comic book predecessor, plucky and earnest, as if a big smile and can-do attitude might just keep the Dark Lord at bay. But it’s her mortal teenagerness, her disdain for authority and tendency to question everything, that adds some psychological depth to the show. The coven is presented as a path to empowerment, a way for Sabrina to become a great, unstoppable witch. But really, Sabrina points out, isn’t it all just in the service of the man down below? What’s so empowering about the choice between freedom and power?
Being branded a witch, once a punishment inflicted by the patriarchy, has recently been reclaimed as a feminist badge of honor — a way for women to signal their strength and defiance. It’s not so simple in the Church of Night, a rigid institution filled with the same kinds of jockish bullies that lurk the halls of Baxter High. “When will the world learn?” laments Sabrina’s possessed teacher Miss Wardwell (the fabulous Michelle Gomez, “Doctor Who”). “Women should be in charge of everything.”