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'Chilling Adventures of Sabrina' review: 'Mad Men's' Kiernan Shipka stars in a sharp, dark update

Kiernan Shipka must decide between the witch world

Kiernan Shipka must decide between the witch world and the human world in Netflix's "Chilling Adventures of Sabrina."  Photo Credit: Netflix/Diyah Pera

THE SERIES "Chilling Adventures of Sabrina"

WHEN | WHERE Starts streaming Friday on Netflix

WHAT IT'S ABOUT Sabrina Spellman (Kiernan Shipka, "Mad Men") is a high school student living with her aunts Hilda (Lucy Davis) and Zelda (Miranda Otto, "Lord of the Rings") and cousin Ambrose (Chance Perdomo) in a quaint old house in the quaint old New England town of Greendale, "where it always feels like Halloween." In fact, Halloween is Sabrina's 16th birthday, and on this day, she is scheduled to undergo Dark Baptism, thereby becoming a full witch, and from there she will head on to the Academy of Unseen Arts where she will forsake all things mortal, once and for all, and pledge herself to the Dark Lord. Not your average girlhood: She's half-witch (her father was a warlock, her mother mortal) and Sabrina has a huge choice to make. Is it even hers to make?

This reboot of the old ABC/WB chestnut, "Sabrina the Teenage Witch" (1996-03), was created by Roberto Aguirre-Sacasa, former "Riverdale" showrunner, who based this on his own graphic novel series which was adapted from the Archie Comics classic.

MY SAY "The Chilling Adventures of Sabrina" addresses at least two lingering questions from the world of television. First, whatever became of Kiernan Shipka? And second, where in the world is Bronson Pinchot these days? (Bet you never expected to see those two in the same paragraph much less the same show.) On "Sabrina," Pinchot plays the harshly reactionary principal of Sabrina's high school, while his presence here almost amounts to a callback to those glory days and nights of "TGIF," when he starred as Balki Bartokomous on "Perfect Strangers." The in-joke, or at least obvious irony, is that his George Hawthorne is the alt-alt-universe variant of Balki: Humorless, miserable, misogynistic and an arachnophobe to boot.

Shipka, meanwhile, has been busy the past few years ("Mad Men" wrapped in '15) but not quite as busy as what was expected. She was so good in "Men" that a spinoff based on her Sally Draper seemed at least possible if not just wishful thinking. Now, in a reboot of "Sabrina"? The world of Hollywood indeed moves in mysterious ways. In occasionally good ways too: She's terrific as the fraught teen struggling with her destiny, as the 16-year-old deciding whether to choose "the path of light" or "the path of night." Like Sally over those late seasons, her eyes have that same searching look, both inward and outward. They always seem to betray the existential plight she confronts, whether as the daughter of Don Draper or as the daughter of a high priest warlock with close ties to the Dark Lord. Mostly she understands that adults, or the world of adulthood, is insane.

This "Sabrina," meanwhile, is most definitely not your mom's "Sabrina" — a bright, frothy TGIF fixture until it shifted over to the WB after the fourth season. Melissa Joan Hart's Sabrina was more conspicuously a teen, more conspicuously half-witch too, who occasionally (or accidentally) cast harmless spells. Shipka's Sabrina eschews magic, except when necessary. Her impending decision — into the waiting arms of the Dark Lord, or not — is also more urgent, understandably.  

As such, there's little light, and plenty of shade, in this reboot. It's relentlessly dark and when light sneaks in the picture, it's muted by fog or smoke. "Chilling Adventures" wants real stakes, not just fairy-tale ones. A reasonably brutal murder is committed in the first 10 minutes. Another key character explains that "I'm quite good at tearing souls apart, one piece at a time" and appears to mean it.

"Chilling" wants real world tangents, too, and gets them. A feminist #MeToo manifesto is threaded through this series, a sense of the world's injustices, too. Witches were hanged hundreds of years ago in charming old Greendale. Who's to say that the same malevolent injustice didn't survive until this day? In "The Chilling Adventures of Sabrina," it does.

Meanwhile, if you're wondering about talking cats or one in particular (Salem), Sabrina's cat does not talk in this series, but it's got a much cooler bag of tricks instead.

BOTTOM LINE Smart, engaging, thoroughly updated.

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