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Netflix's 'Chilling Adventures of Sabrina' is more like 'Riverdale' than 'Sabrina: The Teenage Witch' — and totally bingeable

Alternately hair-raising, disquieting and downright macabre, this newest "Sabrina" has undergone a serious update.
Chilling Adventures of Sabrina
Ross Lynch and Kiernan Shipka in a scene from the "Chilling Adventures of Sabrina."Diyah Pera / Netflix

“Chilling Adventures of Sabrina” (also referred to by its cutesy hashtag #CAOS) arrives on Netflix this weekend with a lot of buzz — and a built-in fan base. The series is a spinoff, stemming from The CW’s hit show “Riverdale.” (Netflix has full distribution rights outside the U.S. for “Riverdale,” where it is promoted as a "Netflix Original.") But no one will mistake this for a show that would ever exist on broadcast, nor is it anything like “Sabrina: The Teenage Witch,” the popular comedy many millennials associate with Melissa Joan Hart and the 1990s.

Alternately hair-raising, disquieting and downright macabre, this newest "Sabrina" has undergone a serious update. Netflix pulls from a 2014 version of the comic, which was originally set in the 1960s, and turns it into a parable about everything from #MeToo issues at Sabrina’s mortal school to the regressive social conventions of the unholy realm.

Alternately hair-raising, disquieting and downright macabre, this newest "Sabrina" has undergone a serious update.

Both “Riverdale” and “CAOS” borrow from the same source material: the long-running, mass-market “Archie” comic series. Archie, Betty, Veronica and Jughead were reimagined for present day in “Riverdale,” but with a dark twist. (Veronica’s family are gangsters, incest and murder abound, Betty and Jughead are dating, etc.) "Riverdale" was a cult hit at first, but The CW’s deal with Netflix gave it international exposure — and all ten episodes landed on the streaming service right after the broadcast run ended in May, perfect for bingeing over summer break.

The series returned to The CW with a huge new following for season two and talk of a second show based on the best-known Archie comic spinoff, “Sabrina: The Teenage Witch.”

This latest Sabrina is played by Kiernan Shipka, who grew up playing Sally Draper on AMC’s critically acclaimed “Mad Men.” Her character is a self-aware half-witch, living as a mortal with a human boyfriend and two BFFs. The story begins the week before her 16th birthday, when Sabrina will sign her name in the “Book of the Beast” and transfer to the Academy of Unseen Arts (an unholy Hogwarts, if there ever was one) to begin her witch’s training. But the more Sabrina learns about her father’s (magical) people, the more she begins to have doubts about which path she should take.

The CW’s Archie block of programming has clearly benefited from Netflix’s involvement. The streaming service stepped in and offered to produce the whole thing, promising “CAOS” two seasons to start, a larger budget and the freedom that comes from not having to adhere to broadcast standards. It was an offer producer, writer and showrunner Roberto Aguirre-Sacasa couldn’t refuse.

It’s a good thing he didn’t. For one thing, there’s the length. Since moving to 18 episodes in season two, “Riverdale” has struggled to keep the magic of its initial ten installments. Though there are many shows that suffer from Netflix bloat, Sabrina isn’t one of them. “CAOS” runs only 10 episodes a season, and that feels like exactly the right length for the show. Sabrina’s story has room to breathe without ever feeling overextended, but there’s also space for the rest of her friends and family to develop their own stories. This should keep audiences invested in both the moral and immortal worlds simultaneously.

Then there’s the tone. “Riverdale” is already brooding and bloody; “CAOS” is even darker. Aguirre-Sacasa, from the outset, said he wanted an “Exorcist” flavor to the series. With the freedom of Netflix, he’s got it. “CAOS” is no “The Haunting of Hill House,” Netflix’s scariest series to date, but it’s far stronger than anything Netflix’s “Stranger Things” ever dared to dream.

The original “Sabrina: The Teenage Witch” made magic fun, comical and sometimes a little mischievous. There’s none of that here. By the midway point of the show, there’s no doubt exactly who Satan is, or exactly how horrific a master he is. There are demons, exorcism-level face-offs, terrifying resurrections and scenes where the witches and warlocks gorge themselves on human flesh. One has a real hard time imagining The CW would have allowed the show to get away with half of this.

The original “Sabrina: The Teenage Witch” made magic fun, comical and sometimes a little mischievous. There’s none of that here.

But it’s the show’s politics that really make this series stand out. Contemporary Sabrina and her pals find themselves facing down sexist principals who dismiss the idea of girl-lead after-school clubs. One of Sabrina’s best friends, Susie, is non-binary (as is the actor in the role) and the show makes a point to be realistic about the discrimination kids like Susie still face.

But leaving the mortal world doesn’t solve these problems. In fact, the deeper Sabrina explores the rituals of the Church of the Night, the more she realizes how retrograde it’s ideas about gender roles are, leaving her to fight for equality on two fronts.

The show’s broadcast roots do occasionally bleed through. Most Netflix shows, aware of their bingeable nature, write each hour as if it is a chapter in a larger whole, not an hour-long story someone will watch and then forget about until the next week. (Netflix is not the only one who does this as it’s been a hallmark of prestige TV on HBO since “The Sopranos.”) But Sabrina’s adventures are relatively self-contained, with a beginning, middle and end — plus a few minutes of bumpers at the beginning and end of each story that act as connective tissue for the Netflix crowd.

The resulting pace at times can feel a little slow, but Aguirre-Sacasa seems to be trying to avoid the excessive twists that plagued the second season of “Riverdale.” And there are already enough bigger mysteries seeded throughout to keep fans engaged for season two. Once it gets going, “CAOS” is a show that demands to be binged, preferably on Halloween.