Since making her debut in Archie’s Madhouse in 1962, Sabrina the Teenage Witch has gotten her own comics title, a TV movie, and multiple live-action and animated series. Every iteration has seen her juggle mortal obligations—pop quizzes! pep squad!—with the slightly more demanding realities of being half witch. But in Chilling Adventures Of Sabrina, a new supernatural drama, the plucky teen finds herself in a much more macabre—and dangerous—setting.
Archie Comics creative officer and Riverdale creator Roberto Aguirre-Sacasa oversees this adaptation, which debuts October 26 on Netflix. But before we hitch a broom ride with Kiernan Shipka’s Sabrina, The A.V. Club is revisiting her equally sweet and courageous sitcom predecessor, played by Melissa Joan Hart on ABC (and later, the WB). On Sabrina The Teenage Witch, adolescence could be a real monster, but there was little that a wave of the finger or a heart-to-heart with her aunts Zelda and Hilda (Beth Broderick and Caroline Rhea, respectively) couldn’t handle. Read on for some of our favorite, deceptively low stakes episodes.
Sabrina booked a lot of musical guests over its seven-season run, and they tended toward the timely: Britney Spears, Backstreet Boys, Usher—the kind of stuff you might’ve found in a mortal kid’s Discman in the mid-to-late-’90s. But if you were Melissa Joan Hart in 1996, your tastes skewed a little more “take one, one, one ’cause you left me” and a little less “Hit me baby one more time”: “I said I wanted Violent Femmes on the show, and because I was producer and my mother was executive producer, I could kind of make all my little dreams come true,” Hart told Entertainment Weekly in 2016. And so “Hilda And Zelda: The Teenage Years” treats reedy voice of faith-damaged sexual frustration Gordon Gano like a Tiger Beat heartthrob, making him the temporary crush object of Westbridge High queen bee Libby Chessler (Jenna Leigh Green). The gang’s sudden interest in “classic ’80s rockers” fits a plot that has Hilda and Zelda not acting their ages (by several hundred years), but it also makes for a good primer on Sabrina’s slightly arch, slightly sincere approach to its source material—the coda, in which Gano and his bandmates bond over Ren & Stimpy reruns with class dweeb Gordie (Curtis Andersen), is the type of turnabout-is-fair-play finish that might as well play out in panels and speech bubbles. Sure, real status-conscious teens in 1996 wouldn’t drive into the city to dance to the fifth-most famous song from a cult band’s 13-year-old record, but real status-conscious teens in 1996 couldn’t cast 30-minute infatuation spells, either. (Fun fact: Alexandra Johnes, who plays young Hilda, was an executive producer on The Witch, an entirely different type of tale about supernatural happenings in New England.) [Erik Adams]
The best thing about Sabrina The Teenage Witch wasn’t usually the witch part, but the teenage part. Melissa Joan Hart had already shown that she was an engaging personality to guide viewers through adolescence on Clarissa Explains It All, and she continued this steak through Sabrina. So in “Mars Attracts,” Sabrina’s growing crush on Harvey outshines even a pink-skied winter vacation on Mars, where the teenage witch meets handsome ski instructor Doug. She and Harvey may only be at the handshake stage, but Sabrina is savvy enough to know that that polite interaction gives her more butterflies than even an attempted kiss from Doug. When Sabrina returns from her trip, she quickly and bravely confesses all to Harvey, that going out with another guy just made her like him more, and the handshake butterflies remain intact. Hart’s Sabrina not only shines as an impressive heroine, she shows that magic doesn’t always exist in the flick of a finger, but sometimes just in the simple clasping of two hands. [Gwen Ihnat]
“The Crucible,” named after Arthur Miller’s seminal play about the Salem Witch Trials, actually works as a good lesson about that 17th-century Puritan panic. Sabrina’s class takes a field trip to historic Salem, where they dress in traditional garb, do chores, and speak in period language—but popular girl (and Sabrina’s frequent bully) Libby disrupts the proceedings by accusing students of being witches for her own selfish reasons. The term “witch hunt” is currently being thrown around by people who are simply facing the consequences of their actions, but in this episode, it takes on a more subtle tone. An arc that reappears again and again in the show is how Sabrina has to contend with keeping the witch part of herself secret while also trying to accept it in herself. It’s a story familiar to anyone who has an identity where they can technically “pass” as the norm, but only at the cost of their authentic self. [Sulagna Misra]
Thanks to some excellent puppet work, an adorable stand-in, and Nick Bakay’s winning voice work, Salem Saberhagen often threatened to steal the show right from under Sabrina. The once-powerful warlock was sentenced to 100 years as a talking, non-magical cat when his plan for world domination failed; “Salem The Boy” proves that old domineering habits die hard. When Sabrina uses one of her wishes from Roland (Phil Fondacaro), who’s now working as a leprechaun, to give Salem a human body once more, his wicked essence is placed inside of one of Sabrina’s classmates. Soon, Salem-as-Gordie teams up with Mr. Kraft (Martin Mull) and Libby (Jenna Leigh Green) to take over the school and then the world. This unholy trio comprising a high school nerd, administrator, and bully is ultimately no match for Sabrina, but the show makes great use of its teen sitcom setting in both the episode’s conflict and resolution. For all her powers, Sabrina was never able to make her teen woes disappear. [Danette Chavez]
The later seasons of Sabrina never recreated the magic (sorry, couldn’t help ourselves) of the first four, not even with the help of new cast member Elisa Donovan, who knew her way around Clueless teens. But the series finale recaptures the zany spirit of the early episodes, and fits in neatly with the overarching theme of the show—that is, Sabrina learning that she doesn’t have to just live as a witch or a mortal. Sometimes, magic is the answer; other times, like when deciding who to spend the rest of your life with, you have to go with your heart. “Soul Mates” finds Sabrina on her wedding day with literal cold feet, which she tries to alleviate by accessing her soul stone and that of her fiancé, Aaron (Dylan Neal). Little does she know that Harvey is tearing up the town trying to stop the wedding after realizing he’s still in love with her. Sabrina’s aunts impart one more lesson—trust your instincts—before she rides off into the sunset with her high school sweetheart. Ending with a wedding could have been a dull move, but “Soul Mates” is utterly charming. [Danette Chavez]