Chilling Sabrina

I watched the first season of Chilling Adventures of Sabrina (Netflix) with mixed reactions. It had just enough to keep me watching, but I didn’t think much of the writing. It has the same problem as a lot of modern fantasy — random, irrational, downright dumb (and in this case very unoriginal) world building.

The latter season tipped the scales entirely to an Ugh! rating for me. Television shows are rarely known for their intelligence, but this one has given me a new standard of worst-ever.

To be clear here, ‘I come, not to praise Sabrina, but to bury it.’

The show is popular with critics and audiences, although the fourth part did get noticeably poorer reviews. (“Parts” because the show has two seasons, each with two parts.)

A fair question: Why did I subject myself to it?

A big part of the answer: Michelle Gomez, who plays Lilith and Mary Wardwell. Gomez is an exquisite villain. She was riveting as Missy in Doctor Who. (I was so bummed when they killed her.)

There is also that I’m an optimist at heart and willing to give second chances. And I’m someone who, having picked a path or task, wants to see it through to the end. I can’t very well write a post about how awful something is without having seen it all.

The trick here is word count. I have a lot of notes. I could easily write substantial TV Sins style posts eviscerating each of the 16 episodes in season two. (But I’d have to watch them again to do that, and no thanks.)

So instead, selected low points.

§

For a show about witches, the witches are grotesque. The show is deeply attached to the simplistic evil=ugly/gross notion that ruined Baron Harkonnen in David Lynch’s unfortunate attempt to put Dune to film.

If you have the Baron’s wealth, why look like that, especially in the context of royal court finery and luxury? If you were a powerful witch or warlock, why would you look like something the dog dragged in after digging it up?

I got very weary of the fake slime, fake gore, and fake blood. Made me think of Nickelodeon and their love of slime dumps. It may be this show is for the prepubescent. It sure as hell wasn’t for me.

Speaking of Hell (and as someone who crushed on Samantha Stevens and once dated a wiccan), the show is offensive to witches. Here their power comes from worshiping Satan who, minus his goat avatar, comes off a lot like a grumpy hot-bod dad. (They at least got that the Morningstar is beautiful — the seductive power of evil.)

Sabrina, as it turns out, is Satan’s kid, intended as the future Queen of Hell. The show is meant as Sabrina’s journey between evil and good. Had it been better written, that idea might have worked better.

§

The show is dark in tone, but also literally dark visually. I had to adjust my brightness and contrast controls way out of norm to make it watchable.

The production design consists of one-note atmospherics. Lots of candles. Lots and lots of candles. Scattered everywhere. Fireplaces burning away (even in the high school). Lots of fog and Vaseline lens effects. Even heaven is murky and dark. (Except in the series final shot where it’s just a white void.)

The production design is incredibly, claustrophobically, small. The tiny town of Greendale, which we never really see, is apparently all that exists. The show has no sense of the larger world.

It’s as if a bunch of grade school kids decided to write and put on a play. It’s that low-budget, that limited, that dumb, that irrational, that disconnected from truth, sense, or sensibility.

The occasional musical number provides some (unintentional) hilarity. Suddenly this dark ugly teenage horror show turns into a silly choreographed musical.

(Also, the characters clearly cannot play musical instruments. Grade school kids playing rock star. It was sad and painful to watch.)

§

The stories are hugely arbitrary the use of magic. What powers people have, what magic can or cannot do, it all depends on what the script needs at the moment. (It’s worse, way worse, than Marvel movies.) I found myself wondering if there even was a Writer’s Bible laying out the rules of magic. I suspect not.

Besides their powers, the very intelligence of the characters seemed to vary depending on script. It often required them to act like oblivious morons.

Time after time a character used a glamour to appear as someone else. It always worked! Why are witches and warlocks so easily fooled by this every single time. At what point do they learn to at least suspect a trick? Their power fails in seeing through glamour apparently.

A critical plot point in part three requires Sabrina to stupidly and completely unnecessarily return to Judas in Hell to after her mission… to show off that she found the 30 pieces of silver? The moment he asked to hold them one last time I yelled at the screen, “That’s not Judas, you twit!”

Sabrina had just used the glamour trick in that mission. It’s used over and over, and it works every time. It’s just lazy storytelling.

An aspect of the writing that drove me crazy is how much the characters lie to each other over trivial stuff (because plot) and — worse — seem constantly in denial. One character will assert something important and the response is usually some form of, “Oh, you don’t really feel that way. There’s nothing wrong. It’ll be fine!” Of course it never is.

These characters are, generally speaking, dummies, except when the script requires they have intelligence or insight. And then the script gives them sudden unfounded knowledge of whatever is happening.

The writing is constantly illogical. One example: part three’s quest for the “Unholy Regalia” — Harrod’s crown, Pilate’s bowl, and Judas’s silver. These long lost magical items are said to grant the finder the throne of Hell,… but apparently permission is required for the quest? (Like running for office. Enough signatures were required!)

These items — so vital and so difficult to obtain — are easily found and obtained by our heroes. Ambrose does a bit of research in books and finds the crown right away.

Pilate’s bowl just requires a glamour to make Sabrina look like Barabbas. (But how did she switch cells with him? Don’t ask, I guess.)

§

For me the show was a derivative unending stream of tired tropes. A hackneyed cut-n-paste job of bits and pieces from other stories. A writing Mixmaster set to puree.

I couldn’t stop laughing when they did The Wicker Man in the penultimate episode of part three. That’s the episode where everyone dies. Everyone in the cast.

It was the end of part three, so at first I thought they were getting rid of a cast member or two, but the whole cast? No, that’s an obvious fake. Something will restore it all. (Which, hmmm, where have I see that idea before?)

It’s done in a very unoriginal way: Sabrina goes back in time to change things. Except now there are two of her, and I can’t for the life of me figure out where the second one came from.

That there are two of them is an important aspect of part four, so this egregious use of time travel is like a perpetually stubbed toe. My mind boggled.

We learn only as a narration that, because Sabrina was stupidly fooled by Fake Judas, Caliban wins the Throne of Hell and attempts to take over the Earth, but loses to the Pagans (who killed the cast). Hell is invaded and wiped out, and the Pagans now rule the Earth. (What in the world are “plant zombies”?)

But, thanks to magical time travel, by the end of that last episode, nearly everything is back to normal (minus one minor character).

§

I did not much care for the main character, Sabrina. She’s selfish, dumb, shallow, impulsive, and a manipulator. Maybe that’s par for Satan’s actual daughter, but I found little reason to like, or care for, the character.

Various names make the show overly cute. Mary Wardwell (who protects Sabrina). Sabrina, and her aunts, have the last name Spellman. There’s a key villain, Father Blackwood, and a bad boy love interest, Nickolas Scratch. (The mind reels.)

The show is so bad I sometimes think there must be a joke I’m not getting. Nothing could be this lame on purpose, could it? Yet it seems to take itself seriously, so go figure. A lot of the character interactions reminded me of Three’s Company or some really lame high school comedy.

§ §

This is long, and I haven’t yet touched on part four. Part three involved the quest for the throne of Hell. Part four involves Father Blackwood, who is apparently insane and wants to destroy everything (including himself!) by unleashing the “eldritch terrors” — supposedly great horrors from “before time” and yadda yadda yadda.

Except that, for eldritch terrors, they spectacularly underwhelming. And they conveniently show up one per episode.

The first is the “absolute darkness” which was easily defeated with a bright light and then trapped in a giant lightbulb. The second is a vagrant, the “uninvited” — also easily defeated and trapped. (If it came from before time and outside the realm of humanity, why is it upset it wasn’t invited to some ancient campfire? The lack of logic or grounding in the show is atrocious.)

The third is some sort of little octopus critter that infests Sabrina until they remove most of her body’s water to force it to leave. Which hardly affects Sabrina. (You’d think she’d deflate or something. Humans are mostly water.)

The fourth, a magical imp that lets Father Blackwood “pervert” reality into a fascist anti-witch hell where he’s emperor, seems like an unused story idea story they repurposed. Why does the “Trinket Man” have an eldritch terror among his trinkets? He’s really upset when Blackwood steals it, so, seriously, WTF?  He returns later to offer Pandora’s box, which is needed to save Greendale/Earth/Universe (it’s all the same thing in this show).

Then there’s one about the dead returning, and here’s what I mean about the characters acting like idiots. Everyone seems fine with their beloved dead returning, despite everyone knowing this has to be some aspect of the eldritch terrors.

For (unintentional) comic relief there was a “Battle of the Bands” involving a dead high school band. (See above about the utter lack of musical skills. It was hard to watch. Utterly unconvincing and ridiculously bad.)

Then, because there are two copies of Sabrina (one in Hell being daddy’s daughter), Hell and the mortal realm begin to collide or intersect.

Plus there is a supposed duplicate version of Greendale/Earth/the moral realm on a collision course, so they send one Sabrina to the duplicate. Which turns out to be a TV set of the show. And again, that entire reality seems to consist of just the witches home in Greendale.

It was a cute idea to have the aunts played by Beth Broderick and Caroline Rhea, who starred in the 1996 TV show, and I thought I’d have to give props to the writers going out on a high note in this penultimate episode.

Unfortunately it was so badly done I can’t. One example: Sabrina’s first day on the set, she’s learned her lines, some of which involve talking to Salem the cat. Yet she’s astonished and breaks character when Salem speaks, which directly contradicts the idea she read the script. (She has those lines of dialog with him immediately upon doing take two. Jaw drop.)

The ultimate episode was laughably, ridiculously, brain-numbingly bad. I’ve gone way over word count here, so I’ll spare you further ranting.

§ §

Bottom line: The show was a lot of utterly illogical bullshit that made my brain howl in pain. I do mean this within the context of fantasy, magic, and horror — it’s not a license to do any random thing.

World building requires building a world that operates under some set of internal rules. Science fiction seems to give some writers the idea that logic isn’t required. This is exactly why much modern fantasy is bad.

As I said, I could write entire posts about “what’s wrong” with each of the last 16 episodes (the entire second season). I suspect the show is for people with very young and inexperienced minds. (Although it’s pretty horrific and grotesque for young minds.) It definitely wasn’t for me; I found it offensively stupid.

Stay wiccan, my friends! Go forth and spread beauty and light.

About Wyrd Smythe

The canonical fool on the hill watching the sunset and the rotation of the planet and thinking what he imagines are large thoughts. View all posts by Wyrd Smythe

16 responses to “Chilling Sabrina

  • Wyrd Smythe

    There was also some pleasure watching Miranda Otto as Sabrina’s aunt, Zelda Spellman, although the character was terribly one-dimensional. Most of the characters were fairly one-dimensional, actually.

    Lucy Davis, as Sabrina’s other aunt, Hilda Spellman, fared a little bit better — she had a two-note character (sweet mostly, but deadly dangerous when needed).

    Everyone else was pretty monotonic, but especially Richard Coyle as Father Faustus Blackwood. There was never any depth to that character. He’s an asshat in season one and a raving lunatic in season two. Waste of a good actor.

    Note that I don’t blame the actors; just the crappy cartoonish childish writing. That said, the younger actors, especially the lead, need more experience and seasoning.

  • Wyrd Smythe

    As a counterbalance, I have to admit many other TV series are almost as bad. The most recent episode of The Blacklist, which I watched last night, was atrociously, laughably bad. That show has been getting worse and worse as it nears what I really hope is its finale. I’ve been watching mostly because I really like James Spader, but it’s been harder and harder to enjoy.

    A magic contact lens that acts as a camera and has sufficient broadcast ability to send a signal considerable distance, despite being in what one has to assume is a shielded FBI building, is bad enough, but that FBI wouldn’t search a suspect and remove, if not the lens, certainly the ear piece, is just plain lazy and stupid writing. Even worse, that the suspect would, because of knowing a few codes, be able to escape, freely walk around the building, kill another suspect, and then escape to freedom, is just absurd.

    And Aram knows better than to allow her to escape so easily. Really a bad episode.

  • Wyrd Smythe

    For that matter, even the most recent episode of NCIS (also watched last night) had some exceptionally lazy and dumbass writing. The magic computer virus that takes over the whole system is what I’m getting at.

    Firstly, no law enforcement agency would connect a suspect laptop to their network (for exactly the reason that it might contain a virus). That machine would be air-gapped.

    Secondly, the writers used that device — the magic virus that takes over — before, so even in-universe McGee would never be that stupid.

    Thirdly, it’s that hoary, hackneyed, over-used idea that hackers and their computers have magical powers that do whatever the writers need. It’s just stupid.

    The pity is that it was the send-off episode for Maria Bello, who was very much a reason to keep watching. I haven’t read any of the newsfeed articles about why she left the series; I’m just sad she did.

    The show has been less and less a favorite over the years, and the last few seasons have really tested my loyalty to it.

  • Wyrd Smythe

    Despite the above notes, Sabrina is still a new low point in TV series for me. Definitely a new standard for worst series I’ve seen. I have really nothing positive to say about the entire second season.

  • SelfAwarePatterns

    I’ve seen Sabrina advertised for years, but have never really been tempted. Urban fantasy doesn’t interest me much, and urban fantasy about teenagers even less. Your description makes it far less likely I’ll ever bother to even take a look.

    Unfortunately, I think we’re going to continue seeing urban fantasy, because it’s cheap, and with teenage characters, the audience doesn’t have high demands on content quality, which of course makes it even cheaper.

    • Wyrd Smythe

      Ha, you started me off on a little voyage of discovery here…

      “Urban fantasy” was a new term to me, so I started with its Wiki entry along with the Wiki entry for magical realism which, had anyone asked me to categorize the show, would have been my guess. Then I read a couple of blog posts discussing the difference, and it all begins to seem very definitional and even pedantic.

      One of the blog posts says: “In an urban fantasy novel, the setting is usually an urban city such as New York, Chicago, Los Angeles, etc… The fantasy creatures live in the city and interact with the population, while their true identities remain unknown to the general population of the city. At some point in the narrative, their true identities are revealed to the main character, who is unexpectedly drawn into paranormal struggles.”

      Later she writes: “Magical Realism on the other hand, is a style of fiction in which magical elements blend with the real world, but the story is otherwise grounded in reality. The magical elements are presented in a straightforward, matter-of-fact manner, and they draw on fable, folktale and myth.”

      As I commented in the post, this show takes place entirely in Greendale with no sense of the larger world, and Greendale is decidedly non-urban. But the fantasy creatures (witches and warlocks and Satan and angels and monsters of various stripes) do interact with the normals. She mentions that Twilight is better categorized as “paranormal romance” and I think that might be a good category for this show.

      I think her definition of magical realism is more restrictive than the Wiki entry: “Magic realism (also known as magical realism or marvelous realism) is a style of fiction and literary genre that paints a realistic view of the modern world while also adding magical elements.” Which is how I’ve viewed it. I can’t help but wonder if urban fantasy isn’t a sub-genre of magical realism.

      Grimm, which I liked okay, is a good example of urban fantasy. Buffy the Vampire Slayer, which I ultimately gave up on, is another. Oddly, or maybe interestingly, neither Wiki page mentions either TV version of Sabrina. (Or, for that matter, Bewitched.) Likewise, the Wiki entry for the show doesn’t mention either magical realism or urban fantasy. It calls the show “supernatural horror” and the show runner Roberto Aguirre-Sacasa is squarely positioned in the comics world and his oeuvre includes Glee, Supergirl, and Riverdale, so he’s certainly into the teenage genres.

      All of which is somewhat interesting but neither here nor there. Whatever we call it, I don’t think you’d enjoy the show. It’s badly designed fantasy (of some genre), definitely teenage, and low-budget to boot.

      I would recommend, instead, Siempre Bruja (also on Netflix) if you want a good witch story. (I posted about it briefly here.)

      • SelfAwarePatterns

        Hmmm. I was generally thinking of urban fantasy as any fantasy that takes place in a modern setting. But I guess if it takes place somewhere else it might be rural or suburban fantasy? Glancing at Wikipedia, I guess I was more thinking of contemporary fantasy, although the article notes that its most popular subgenre is urban fantasy.

        But yeah, in any case, not something I usually enjoy.

        BTW, today I had my first case of a post not showing up in the WP Reader since switching to the block editor. I had to go back and unpublish and republish an earlier post to get the new one to show up. So the problem can still happen even with the new editor.

      • Wyrd Smythe

        Contemporary, or modern day, fantasy seems an apt category. (An issue I have with “urban” is that it’s sometimes used as a code word for “black” so it’s not a term I use unless the context is very clear.)

        What’s goofy about this show is that is certainly has no urban feel, but neither does it have a suburban feel or rural feel. Suburbs are a definite thing — neighborhoods, large lawns, minivans, etc. — and there’s nothing like that in this show. And certainly no farmers or any hint of farming. There is a mine and miners. (The mine has the gates to Hell in it!)

        The show’s feel is forest. Lots of wandering around in the woods, and the key locations, the Spellmans’ house and mortuary, the witches’ school, the “desecrated church” the witches worship Satan in, Mary Wardwell’s house, and the mine, are all isolated locations in the middle of nowhere surrounded by woods. Obviously the production just built these locations somewhere in the middle of the Canadian woods. It all exists in its own claustrophobic reality.

        There is even almost no use of cars, although the Spellman Mortuary has a hearse. The show tries to be timeless, but characters have cell phones, so that ship kinda sailed.

        Do you have any idea why the post didn’t show up? I haven’t had that happen. (I’m still clinging to the classic editor.)

        A trick I’ve used is to open the chat window, type in my complaint, and then close the window rather than waiting for a reply (I mention that I’m just letting them know something.) That actually seems to get a reply by email.

        I’ve noticed other bloggers experiencing the merging of paragraphs into one big paragraph a number of times now. I explicitly enclose my paragraphs in P tags now rather than depend on WP to interpret blank lines as “enclose the previous text in a P tag” which always worked fine until recently. And that issue is strictly Reader related. The same posts that show no line breaks in the Reader look fine if you go to the post’s URL.

        Now I’m complaining to them about how the Reader grays out posts older than some fairly short time period. Don’t know if you noticed that. The graying out doesn’t affect anything, just makes it look like the post is disabled. You can click into it and read it just fine.

        It’s especially annoying in the Conversations section when someone comes along and comments on an older post. They say they’ll consider the complaint which I’m pretty sure is code for “buzz off!”

        The Reader is so convenient for commenting I hate to dump it, but just about everything else about it sucks. None of my color or alignment formatting comes through, for instance. They strip out a lot of the CSS and HTML, I suppose in an effort to make everything look the same.

        But damn it’s annoying and apparently still buggy.

      • SelfAwarePatterns

        No idea on why the post didn’t show. I know when I was using Classic, if I saved draft copies, the probability of it happening went up dramatically. But I’ve been able to save drafts in Block without issue. I don’t think I saved any drafts at all this morning. I just wrote that post in one sitting. Although I did do a preview which usually does an automatic save.

        The best thing support did was just admit to me that they couldn’t fix it and reveal what triggers the Reader to pull an update from the blog’s feed. At least now when the problem comes up, I know how to fix it.

        Good idea on the chat. I’ve gotten to the point that I actually just email the address the correspondence comes from now. It takes longer for them to respond, but most of the time it’s better than spending an hour on the chat window, and then being told anyway they’ll have to get back with me.

        I’ve pretty much gotten used to the Block editor. Once I finally had the options set right, it’s not that different. The only thing right now is that the text started showing up small a couple of weeks ago. I got with support and they filed an issue with development. So I’m having to zoom in slightly in the browser to work with it, annoying but not fatal.

      • Wyrd Smythe

        As another data point, using the classic editor, I do a lot of draft saves while working on a post but have only (so far) had one not show up in the Reader.

        I’ve tried the block editor, but I just don’t care for it. I like the narrower panel of the classic, it’s more like the width of the actual post. And I hate all the HTML comment cruft the block editor adds. And I can’t add a photo by just dropping it on the text like I can in the classic.

        I’ll keep on using the classic until that’s no longer an option.

        Then I’ll stop blogging. 🙂

      • SelfAwarePatterns

        I don’t think you’re alone in that sentiment. I thought I was a late adopter, but since I switched I’ve seen a lot of people say they still use Classic. What finally made me switch was that the bugs on Classic were adding up, with no hope WP would address them. (Not that the Block editor is bug free, as I noted above, but at least there WP seems to care.)

        I wonder what the statistics are on Block editor adoption. It seems like WP would be touting them if they were overwhelming.

      • Wyrd Smythe

        I’ve seen some other bloggers say they’re still using the classic editor, too. On the other hand, on another blog, I ran into someone who was pretty militant that I should switch. Dude just wouldn’t take “No, thanks!” for an answer.

        Which bugs bugged you enough in the classic to switch?

      • SelfAwarePatterns

        I guess I was holding the Reader missing posts thing against Classic, even though it shouldn’t have mattered. (Today is the first occurrence since I switched in early October. It was happening about once a week before.)

        I also had some formatting issues creep up sometimes after a block quote or embedded video, and sometimes couldn’t make them go away without deleting the whole thing and starting over. I eventually had to paste quotes in as plain text, losing any formatting or links.

        It’s really more accurate to say I tried Block and found it tolerable after the first few posts, and noticed those issues seemed gone, which made it easier to live with.

      • Wyrd Smythe

        I hear ya on pasting stuff. When I start editing, one of the first things I do is click the ‘paste as text’ button. If something I’m quoting has bold or italics or links, I replicate them by hand. I also tend to add some CSS to the BLOCKQUOTE tag to make the quote a different color, which loss of in the Reader is just one of my minor complaints about it. 😉

        I’m running a little late tonight, got distracted by the Aaronson post comment thread. I watched the first five episodes of The Expanse season five last Saturday and planned to watch the last five tonight. Having read the book I know the story, so I’ve been enjoying it. (As you know, the story kinda bummed me out on several levels when I read it.)

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    […] Sci-Fi Saturday I savaged Sabrina, which remains a new low to me in dumb TV. This time I have a much more mixed review. I’ve […]

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    […] The series only lasted one season, and, to be honest, I can see why. That said, I liked it a whole lot better than, say, The Chilling Adventures of Sabrina. […]

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