Tuesday, November 27, 2018

CHILLING ADVENTURES OF SABRINA might be the darkest TV show I've ever seen

CHILLING ADVENTURES OF SABRINA is quite possibly the darkest show I've ever seen. I was a few weeks behind in completing this series and so while I was still mid-binge, I did my best to shut out the noise from pop culture sites that drop 13 recaps and even more thinkpieces within four days of the release of a Netflix show. I'm used to this by now and have developed my own method of getting through a new Netflix drop - no more than two episodes a night, and if two new shows drop close to each other, I tend to alternate back and forth. I like this method because it forces me to appreciate each ep on its own more.

The detriment is that during the instances where a binge takes a couple weeks, by the time I'm ready to talk about a show, the rest of the internet has moved on. There are a lot of reasons to appreciate the binge model, but I miss experiencing television at the same time as every other viewer. It made for more interesting conversation. Hell, it made for a longer, more in-depth conversation. That ship has long sailed, but usually, even if I was avoiding the thinkpieces, I at least had a vague awareness of their existence. With SABRINA, I finished the show with very little sense of what the wider discussion surrounding it was.

Netflix is not unused to stirring up controversy. Parents and some suicide experts had some very vocal protests of 13 REASONS WHY, feeling the show could be taken as an endorsement of suicide. ATYPICAL drew the ire of some in the autism community for some aspects of its lead character and for not employing any autistics on-camera or off. And INSAITABLE was controversial from the moment the trailer dropped.

And with SABRINA, the most vocal protests I've seen have come from... the Satanic Church unhappy with their depiction? Really?

I'm not a fan of protesting TV scripted shows or campaigning for cancellations. If we're talking about people like Tucker Carlson who are putting genuinely harmful and dangerous ideas out there under the guise of "news," yes, by all means protest his sponsors and get his white supremacist ass off television. With scripted TV, the worst material has a habit of failing all on its own. Don't watch and it'll probably go away. Remember back when everyone thought STALKER was brutal and violent? Have you even thought about STALKER since that controversy?

The SABRINA situation shocks me mostly because of the total lack of reaction. Like many of my generations, I rolled my eyes when religious groups attacked Harry Potter for promoting Satanism, and every now and then you'd hear about fringe religious nutcases complaining that BUFFY's depiction of the occult was equally demonic. Both claims are pretty baseless to anyone who's actually consumed the material, but SABRINA isn't playing the witchcraft the same way - it's EXPLICITLY Satanic. The main arc of the first season deals with the fact that once she turns 16, the half-human, half-witch Sabrina must embrace her witch side and undergo a dark baptism where she pledges her obedience (and her virginity) to Satan himself.

Yep, there's no hiding behind fictional* demonic entities here. This is literally the Devil and our heroine as grown up as part of a coven that worships him. Sabrina as a few human friends but the most vivid personalities of the show are ALL IN on this Devil-worshipping.

*I consider myself pretty agnostic, so to be honest ALL of this stuff is fictional to me. New Testament, Crisis on Infinite Earths... it's all pretty much the same to me. But as the Devil is "real" to a large segment of the audience, I'm going with the flow for the sake of this piece. For me, the Devil is about as scary as Thanos.

Has there ever been a show where the "Good Guys" worry that the consequence of a teenage girl not selling herself to Satan will mean bad things for them? Sabrina's aunts Zelda and Hilda are depicted more sympathetically than some of the rest of the coven and spend half the season urging Sabrina to go through with her pact with the Devil. Using ACTUAL Satan as a player on the show should make the morality as black and white as possible, but the show seems to want us to perceive some shades of grey via the aunts' dilemma.

Pretend this was a grounded drama and instead of Literal Satan, Sabrina was being urged to give herself to the satanic Cult Leader. There's no ambiguity there, right? It's an evil act and any characters advocating for it must be evil. SABRINA takes that dynamic and makes it the drive of the aunts whom Sabrina loves dearly. It's an incredible subversion to anyone who remembers those characters on the Melissa Joan Hart series.

A late-season episode revolves around "The Feast of Feasts," where one member of the Coven is selected to be the Queen of the Feast. It's an honor that demands the selected Queen slit her own throat so that the coven may feast on her body. Sabrina finds the whole practice barbaric and is prepared to protest it, but the selected Queen, Prudence, is only too proud to be a part of this legacy. Through most of the episode, we're pretty sure we know where this is headed. Sabrina will take a Lisa Simpson-like stand against this archaic practice, people will begin to question this tradition (especially since we're told it's an old tradition being revived after a long dormancy), and in the end, humanity prevails - probably after a stirring speech from our heroine.

And for a while it looks like exactly what we'll get. The lottery is found to have been tainted, rigged. Sabrina makes an appeal that their leader simply outlaw the Feast, thereby facilitating a cover-up of this scandal. It's a situation where everyone saves face and Sabrina gets a "win," so it surely has to work, right?

Before they can put it into action at a meeting of a coven, one of the witches slits her own throat in genuinely disturbing fashion. Moments later, the entire coven goes ravenous, feeding on her as Sabrina can only watch with revulsion.

Like I said, DARK.

Then, the show somehow tops this bleakness with a finale where Sabrina is convinced that the only way she can get the power to save her friends and her entire town is to pledge herself to Satan of her own free will. She must sign her soul over to the Dark Lord and pledge to answer him when he calls. Sabrina does so and though she saves the town, it comes at a cost. By the end of the episode, she's strutting around with bleached blonde hair dressed like some of the more evil members of the coven who've spent the season representing everything Sabrina rejects.

It's as chilling an ending as seeing Captain Picard assimilated as one of the Borg. It's darker still because it's a selling of the soul that's stripped of all metaphor. She literally gave herself over to the Devil. There are altruistic motivations for doing so, but the result is that we're left with a Sabrina who's an agent of darkness.

Walter White: "I'm going to spend five years metaphorically selling my soul to the Devil for wealth and power."

Sabrina Spellman: "Lol, that's cute."

Last season I was shocked that Archie Comics was so willing to let RIVERDALE have Archie and Veronica get in deep with the mob. This makes that look like child's play. Without even debating whether it's good or bad on a story level that Sabrina sells her soul, it is straight-up the bleakest thing I've ever seen a series do, let alone one aimed at a teen audience.

While I'm on the subject of Dark TV, when I first tweeted some of these thoughts, it was clear that several of my readers immediately assumed that I was drawing a link between darkness and quality. I said the show was the darkest show I've ever seen - without any reference to its quality. From the replies I got, it was evident some respondents took it as an endorsement. I don't think saying something is "dark" automatically makes it good... nor do I think that alone makes something bad. In the end, it all comes down to story.

(Good example: in 13 REASONS WHY, I think Hannah's rape and her subsequent suicide in season one are also two of the darkest scenes I've seen on TV because there's emotional context to them. Contrast that with the bathroom sexual assault at the end of season 2, which is equally brutal, but creatively indefensible in a lot of ways.)

Time will tell if SABRINA can become a great show. It's willing to go places that few other shows have gone before, which shows bravery. As Sabrina explores the darkness next season, it will be discipline in story-telling that ultimately will determine how good a show it can become.

And still I wonder, what has exempted SABRINA from the typical moral panic that most other shows of its kind have faced? I don't think it's flying under the radar, so what makes that story of Satanism acceptable, while "fat-shaming" and suicide are extremely taboo?

Right now, that's a question I have no answer for.


  1. Honestly I think it's the deluge of content and stratification of audiences. The types of people up in arms over Harry Potter and Buffy probably haven't even heard of this show in the way they did its counterparts 20 years ago, and they essentially live on another planet when it comes to their tastes and taboos relative to everyone else. (See: their opinions about Harry Potter) If this show had come out in the nineties too and cultivated a large audience in a similar fashion, I'm sure those groups would have been just as up-in-arms. It's not like you see evangelicals protesting Final Fantasy games despite their paper thin allegories of the church serving as perennial villains, because it's neither something that reaches them directly nor a huge cultural trend for them to latch onto. Such a cultural tidal wave might not even be possible anymore, anyway, especially since it needs to reach extra far and wide for such groups to notice it, as Harry Potter did.

    For everyone else, it's not really something that matters much anymore. People willing to accept the premise of the show long enough to watch it are generally also going to be the ones willing to follow along with its Satanism-as-Christianity metaphor without reaching for their pitchforks, whether or not they approve of it creatively. There's even room for the slice of the audience just as frothing at the mouth but unable to see that metaphor, who can then look at condemnation of Satanism and say "Yes, it sure is evil, right?"

    The show's ending might be dark, but for people (like you and me) to whom the satanist angle holds no special significance save perhaps recognition of audacity, the rest of the premise isn't particularly shocking. Maybe the fact that it isn't is shocking itself for some people; for me personally, even that doesn't particularly stand out.