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I went to Hell for Netflix's Chilling Adventures of Sabrina part 3

I visited the Vancouver set to see how dark magic brought a '90s favorite back to life. And I had a devil of a time.

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Sabrina (Kiernan Shipka) in Netflix's Chilling Adventures of Sabrina.

Netflix

In the green-tiled embalming room of the Spellman Mortuary, small glass bottles bear disconcerting handwritten labels like "tears," "sperm" and "dried skin chunks."

Mercifully, those bottles don't actually contain such things (that I know of). They're part of the set dressing for the Spellman house from Netflix's Chilling Adventures of Sabrina, whose third installment arrives Friday. The room, with its unsettling chalkboard diagrams of body parts and its mysteriously stained walls, sits inside a large studio in Vancouver. I'm poking around, thinking back to past scenes that played out here, like Ambrose Spellman's nightmare at the hands of a sleep demon, in part one. 

On the floor, though you'll probably never see it on camera, there's a fake drain waiting to receive whatever is... leaking. To the side sits a glass case of primitive instruments that raise a question: Exactly how would a grappling hook be used in embalming? 

In October 2018, CAOS hit the streaming platform as a dark reimagining of the '90s TGIF lineup staple, which ran for seven seasons. Though both series are built around the basic premise put forth by Archie Comics in 1971 -- how zany would life be if you were a teenager and a witch -- the new Sabrina (starring Kiernan Shipka of Mad Men fame) diverges significantly from the Lipsmackers world of Melissa Joan Hart and her animatronic talking cat, Salem.

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The original safely placed Sabrina amid moderately backfiring potions, Britney Spears cameos and an endless supply of colorful hair clips. But these creepy jars on the CAOS set allude to the fact that suffering, sex and sacrifice infuse the teenage experience in the town of Greendale. The show is dark and stylized, and it dives headlong into themes like the gender politics of institutions, free will over one's body and soul, and saving the world (as only young folks believe they can). 

In other words, fewer tube tops, more blood spatter. 

With part three here and more parts to come, CAOS has offered the original show a fond tip of the witch's hat and just moved on. 

Modern witchcraft

"I don't think this is a reboot of the show," Shipka says during a January roundtable interview on the Vancouver set of CAOS. She's seated at a table in one of the warmly lit yet vaguely foreboding rooms of the Spellman house. As her character often does, she's wearing red -- a red blouse, with waist-high, light-wash jeans.

"I look at it as an incarnation of the comic," she says. 

The comic she's referring to is the Roberto Aguirre-Sacasa book of the same name, which first set the bubbly blond teenager on a path to (literal) hell in 2015. Aguirre-Sacasa also executive-produces CAOS, as well as the CW's Riverdale. The show and the comic share rich reds and Satanic rituals, and follow what's become a trend toward putting a serious spin on a comic. 

Reboots aren't a new phenomenon, and these days they seem rampant. Robert Thompson, director of the Bleier Center for Television and Popular Culture at Syracuse University, says there are a variety of reasons, including the increased need for content to fill networks, cable channels and streaming platforms. In 2019, there were more than 500 scripted TV shows in the US.

Plus, audiences may be attracted by something familiar. 

"You've got these dramatic worlds that have been created, that have a potential audience base of people who liked them the first time around," Thompson says. 

Though people like to grouse about the abundance of reboots, many have seen success. Disney's live-action remakes of Aladdin and The Lion King each brought in $1 billion, and that was after folks found out Will Smith would be blue. 

What's more, Thompson says, picking over the bones of the '90s could be ideal, because 15 to 25 years seems to be a sweet spot for a reboot. That's just enough time for nostalgia to set in. 

But while distilled nostalgia might lure a viewer to check on the characters from Will & Grace or Full House, the cozy feeling of a bygone era is also an effective launchpad for CAOS and its more modern approaches to issues like representation. 

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Lachlan Watson (left) and Jonathan Whitesell. 

Netflix

"[It's] like a delivery method for all of these new concepts and these new ideas," says Lachlan Watson, who plays one of Sabrina's pals, a transgender character named Theo.

Watson, who's nonbinary, has input on the character and brings personal experience to Theo's storyline. Watson jokes that Theo has come out about five times on the show already. And in part three, Theo finally ditches third-wheel status with a love interest of his own. 

"I came into this two years ago just expecting to show up, smile and grin and do my job," Watson says. 

Gavin Leatherwood, who plays Sabrina's boyfriend-in-need-of-saving, Nick Scratch, says "that's what the medium of entertainment should be tackling -- absolutely to entertain, but also to inspire forward thinking."

Sabrina also represents a shift in the way pop culture is starting to portray teenage girls. She's sure-footed and outspoken in a way girls aren't always encouraged to be, questioning the Lucifer-worshiping institution (The Church of Night) she was raised in that habitually sidelines and exploits women. She usually thinks she's right, but when she fails, she shows resilience. And in part three, Sabrina gets to explore yet another trait not often prized in women: ambition. 

Plus, she's far from the only strong-headed woman on the show. 

Jokes Miranda Otto, who plays Sabrina's chain-smoking Aunt Zelda: "It's the boys who take their shirts off."

Hellride

Hell has frozen over. 

In Vancouver, where the gaggle of reporters I'm with catches up with the cast of CAOS a week before part three drops, it's barely cracking 20 degrees. 

Inside the set of the Spellman house, though, where hellfire mixes with warm familial vibes, things are toastier. Otto and Michelle Gomez, who plays Madame Satan, give us a tour. We walk room to room, passing a large collection of urns, myriad rabbit statues (symbols of the occult) and wallpaper with the faces of women from the late 1800s. Gomez said she once saw the same pattern in a bathroom somewhere in Connecticut. 

In Sabrina's room, with its pitched ceilings, black-and-white photos, and David Bowie poster, teendom is in its stride. Her bathroom is bigger than some big-city apartments, and there are small details placed about, like bracelets, sunglasses and hygiene items like Q-tips, because even the daughter of Satan needs to keep her ears clean.

After all, during the show's three-month timeline of events, Sabrina's gone from resisting against committing her soul to the devil to considering her option to rule hell. As more than a few young folks eventually realize, they'll one day lead the institutions they railed against. 

From the start, though, Shipka's wanted Sabrina to exist independently from her predecessor. She's seen a few episodes from the original series and maybe one day will watch more, now that she's got her character crystallized. Given that Shipka was born three years after Melissa Joan Hart took her first magical vacuum ride, nostalgia doesn't seem to be much more than a jumping-off point.  

And yet, Shipka says, "If I had my way, the cat would talk."

Originally posted Jan. 24, 5 a.m. PT.