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?
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.