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Chilling Adventures of Sabrina dares to ask powerful adult questions

Review: The thrilling and gruesome Netflix original series about a teen witch is like night and day from previous iterations of Sabrina.

Netflix

Let me start by making one thing perfectly clear: Chilling Adventures of Sabrina isn't a lighthearted, family-friendly show. The lurid new series, which comes to Netflix later this month, evokes the powerful genre of magical feminism and continuously challenges viewers to ask important questions about societal norms.

Kiernan Shipka of Mad Men stars in Chilling Adventures of Sabrina. 

Netflix

It would've been an easy choice to make CAOS into pulpy fluff. Or CAOS could have skirted the line of predecessors in the magical feminism genre, such as Buffy the Vampire Slayer, which used a heavy amount of camp and comedy to deliver thoughtful commentary on adolescence. 

The Chilling Adventures of Sabrina, however, picks a much more sinister lane.

As the series starts, we meet a nearly 16-year-old Sabrina Spellman, a half-witch half-mortal who lives in the town of Greendale with her aunts Hilda and Zelda and her cousin Ambrose, who's under house arrest. Sabrina's also head over heels for her dreamy high school boyfriend, Harvey Kinkle.

The setup feels similar enough to the '90s TV show, until about 10 minutes into the pilot episode, when a jarringly gory scene tips you off that the show isn't about your friendly neighborhood witch. CAOS's Sabrina is more like your reasonably pissed off, energized, woke-ass witch. 

Almost no time is wasted letting the audience know social issues are at the heart of the show. CAOS advocates for women's rights, questions the patriarchy and is an overall welcoming and inclusive space that includes non-binary and sexually fluid characters at the forefront. CAOS can be heavy handed at times, but it's hard not to appreciate that the show doesn't tiptoe around controversial subjects.

Kiernan Shipka's commanding performance as Sabrina really makes the show spark. Fans of Mad Men may be a tad overly invested in Shipka's career, having watched her grow up and blossom into a talented actress over the show's eight-year run. Shipka plays a determined, headstrong Sabrina who appeals to strong women and doesn't pander to those who would pacify her.

Exposition for dayzzz

As with any fantasy show, viewers must begrudgingly accept a substantial amount of world building. CAOS builds a framework around the rules of magic, the history of witchcraft, and how witches and warlocks exist in the present day. In addition, the show has to establish Sabrina Spellman's backstory, family life and mortal friendships.

The first half of the 10-episode season slathers viewers with exposition. There are plenty of horrifically delightful bits to keep you trekking through its spooky, gruesome world, but it's initially a slog. It isn't until about midway through the season that the show finally begins to ramp up, with a few cliffhanger episodes that make me grateful you can binge-watch CAOS rather than tune in each week.

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Netflix

More like an HBO Riverdale

The series was created by Roberto Aguirre-Sacasa, chief creative officer of Archie Comics and creator of The CW series Riverdale. Originally, CAOS was in development at The CW as a companion to Riverdale. But it found a better home with Netflix, which allows the series to push all the big shiny "Do Not Push" buttons young adult programming typically avoids.

If you need me to say it one last time, I'm happy to reiterate: Chilling Adventures of Sabrina isn't suitable for children. And the show will continue to remind you of that fact nearly every single episode. With cannibalism. And orgies.

Not the nostalgia you're looking for

I had expected the Chilling Adventures of Sabrina to fill a nostalgic hole left by the '90s TV show Sabrina the Teenage Witch. As a budding tween, watching the TGIF sitcoms on ABC was practically a religious experience. The campy, family-friendly shows were heartfelt and entertaining, but they also filled my head with foolish notions.

Boy Meets World tricked me into believing that I, too, could have a love like Cory and Topanga's. Full House convinced me I could afford to own a home and raise three kids in San Francisco on a local television host's salary. (Instead, I'm 30, single and need a roommate just to afford rent in San Francisco.)

Chilling Adventures of Sabrina

Netflix

The '90s Sabrina series was just another frothy addition to the lineup. I wanted to be just like Melissa Joan Hart's Sabrina, casting silly spells and getting myself into wacky hijinks. The episodes were usually structured around trivial problems, like "Oops, I turned my boyfriend into a toad!" And even though I just made that episode up as a hypothetical, Google reveals there is an actual episode called First Kiss where Sabrina's kiss does, in fact, turn her boyfriend Harvey into a frog. I guess my subconscious remembered.

But CAOS elevates the teen witch story. The series exists in a world with serious consequences, higher stakes and harsher realities. Witchcraft isn't just a whimsical skillset you're born with; it requires sacrifice and dark allegiances Sabrina must question. Bronson Pinchot, who starred in the TGIF sitcom Perfect Strangers, plays Sabrina's high school principal and is about as close to the TGIF vibe as CAOS comes. 

Instead of fluff, CAOS repeatedly, loudly, unashamedly asks you to question the status quo. Are you ready?

Chilling Adventures of Sabrina premieres on Netflix tomorrow, just in time for Halloween. 

Best horror movies on Netflix for October 2018: The 20 scariest movies to watch on Netflix this month. 

Everything coming to Netflix in October: Chilling Adventures of Sabrina and season 2 of Castlevania come to Netflix in October.