Netflix's 'Chilling Adventures of Sabrina' moves at a glacial pace

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·Critic-at-Large, Yahoo Entertainment
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Kiernan Shipka plays the title character in <i>Chilling Adventures of Sabrina.</i> (Photo: Netflix)
Kiernan Shipka plays the title character in Chilling Adventures of Sabrina. (Photo: Netflix)

Sabrina the Teenage Witch is a character co-created by artist Dan DeCarlo and writer George Gladir in the early 1960s for the Archie Comics company. Sabrina was primarily an excuse for DeCarlo to draw new variations on Betty and Veronica, Archie’s gal-pals, in his distinctively sexy style. In the 1990s, the character became a TV show — a family-friendly ABC sitcom starring Melissa Joan Hart as Sabrina and fondly recalled by some for the dour snarkiness of Sabrina’s cat, Salem, voiced by the clever writer-performer Nick Bakay.

In the same way that Batman went from being a brightly colored, amusing superhero to a grim, dark, brooding mare in his Dark Knight period, so have Archie (in the CW’s Riverdale) and now Sabrina become moody, bleak characters frequently situated in gloomy rooms. Netflix’s new Chilling Adventures of Sabrina, which commences streaming on Friday, has cast a graduate of Mad Men — Kiernan Shipka — as the title hero, and the TV show does its best to be a live-action version of the comic book it is based on, by writer Roberto Aguirre-Sacasa, who also developed the new show.

This complex origin backstory is necessary to relate, because it gives you a sense of the very mixed tone of the Netflix series. In Chilling Adventures, Shipka’s Sabrina is a highly serious young woman grappling with the implications of being a half-witch — the product of a warlock father and mortal mother. She’s being raised, however, by her aunts, Zelda (Miranda Otto) and Hilda (Lucy Davis), who are a pair of squabbling sisters used frequently for comic relief. The two tones — Sabrina behaving as though she’s caught in a teen soap opera; the aunts dithering animatedly — are frequently jarring.

The show also arrives with a truckload of its own mythology to unpack. Many minutes are spent with dialogue explaining what a Dark Baptism is, what the Church of Night is, who the Dark Lord is, and what the Book of the Beast, Wicca, a Harrowing, and the Academy of Unseen Arts are. You have to know what the rules are in this fictional universe, and Chilling is going to school you in those rules, at an all-too-appropriately chilly, glacial pace. Early on in the 10-episode season, Sabrina is put on trial, an event at which nothing is really at stake for the viewer, because we know nothing serious can happen to our hero — it’s only the third episode, for heaven’s/hell’s sake. Similarly, an entire episode devoted to nightmares various characters are having stops whatever narrative flow the show was working up.

The best performance is given by Miranda Otto, who manages to make all of Zelda’s various, often contradictory characteristics — flighty aunt, menacing witch, alluring vamp, etc. — unite as one vivid creation. Shipka is good but limited in her expressive range; she delivers most of her lines with the vocal equivalent of a bored yawn, which I think she thinks makes her sound world-wearily sophisticated.

Chilling Adventures was picked up for two seasons right from the start of its production, so Aguirre-Sacasa and his writers know the general shape of the overarching narrative they’re telling. It’s obvious that a considerable amount of stretching and padding had to be done, so binge with as much patience as you can muster.

Chilling Adventures of Sabrina is streaming now on Netflix.

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