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‘Chilling Adventures of Sabrina’ and the Golden Age of RiverdaleCore

The newest corner of Greg Berlanti’s multiverse is tart, macabre, maximalist, and acutely self-aware. Welcome to the world that ‘Riverdale’ hath wrought.

Netflix/Ringer illustration

Chilling Adventures of Sabrina is not the fright fest its title might suggest. The Netflix series starring Mad Men’s Kiernan Shipka in the titular, iconic role is, in truth, a bit all over the place — caught somewhere between a bona fide piece of horror, a tongue-in-cheek send-up of the same, and a sincere coming-of-age story, plus a hefty dose of muddled feminist metaphor. Sabrina, the Teenage Witch this is not.

Were we discussing some other show, this description might come off as a criticism. Here, it registers as part of the creators’ grand design. Chilling Adventures is the second show in as many years to adapt an Archie Comics title for the small screen, and while it shares a literal universe with Riverdale, the smash hit teen soap airing on the CW, the two shows also operate within the same tonal register. They’re a little bit dark, a lot bit camp, and altogether a very different kind of teen TV than generations past first projected their hormone-stoked feelings onto. Along with the Lifetime series You, which uses an erstwhile teen idol to mock some of the genre’s most persistent myths, they form a not-so-quietly subversive corner of television’s most mainstream producing empire.

Both Riverdale and Chilling Adventures are created by Roberto Aguirre-Sacasa, the Archie Comics creative lead who shepherded both the relaunch of its flagship title and the imprint Archie Horror. For the Archieverse’s transition to television, Aguirre-Sacasa teamed up with Greg Berlanti, the power producer best known for overseeing the CW’s “Arrowverse” of DC Comics shows. But Berlanti’s TV footprint, the largest in history, is much broader, including an NBC crime drama (Blindspot), a CBS religious dramedy (God Friended Me), and now, a Lifetime series. Berlanti co-created You, an adaptation of Caroline Kepnes’s 2014 novel, with The Magicians’ Sera Gamble.

You is not explicitly linked to Riverdale and Chilling Adventures the way the latter series are to each other. (Chilling Adventures is set in Greendale, a nearby town already referenced several times on Riverdale; a crossover is only a matter of time.) Yet all three series are bound together by a shared sensibility: tart, macabre, maximalist, and acutely self-aware. They don’t always execute this vision with the same focus or consistency, but I find myself frankly encouraged at this development in young adult entertainment. If this is what the kids are watching, they’re gonna be all right.

As the first and most popular of the trio, Riverdale is the logical place to start when pinning down this particular ethos. Riverdale is, at least in theory, a high school show, but in truth it’s a brazen amalgamation of genres united by a shared commitment to retro-themed outrageousness and, relatedly, hot people doing things in slow motion. Little can do Riverdale justice except Riverdale itself, so it might be helpful to list a random assortment of plotlines from its recently inaugurated third season, presented without comment: Archie is in juvenile detention for murder, coerced by the abusive warden into a sadistic illegal boxing ring; Jughead is investigating the Gargoyle King, an apparent supernatural entity ensnaring the town’s youth via a Dungeons & Dragons–esque board game; Betty’s mother and sister are under the influence of a Manson–meets–L. Ron cult leader named Edgar Evernever; and Veronica, a teenager, is operating a speakeasy while waging a cold war against her gangster father. The aristocrats!

Conspicuously missing from this Jackson Pollock painting of a story are human-scale characters for the audience to identify with and form attachments to. As in the comics, Archie is little more than an all-American slab of man meat, plus or minus the occasional foray into fascism. But Riverdale has kept the people around him equally abstract, the better to serve as two-dimensional props for its writers to shuffle around at will. Veronica is still an endearingly entitled rich girl; Betty an earnest do-gooder; red-haired hellraiser Cheryl Blossom a sentient YouTube compilation. As of a couple episodes ago, a bunch of parents with a whole set of entanglements are suddenly allied in the fight against the Gargoyle King, never previously mentioned before this season. Since their characters weren’t exactly consistent beforehand, I barely batted an eye. Wood chipper plotting is, of course, a soap opera staple; Riverdale’s addition is a disarming detachment from its own protagonists.

A few months back, a colleague and devotee of ’90s teen dramas à la Dawson’s Creek and Everwood — itself created by Berlanti — explained that she couldn’t get into Riverdale because she couldn’t get into its relationships, historically a staple of any great teen show. It’s true that Riverdale’s romantic pairings feel perfunctory, and romantic drama plays a strangely minimal role in its otherwise over-the-top proceedings. Archie and Veronica linked up early on, followed by Betty and Jughead (a.k.a. “Bughead”), and have stayed that way ever since; in the latest episode, Betty’s mother, Alice (her full name is Alice Cooper), is revealed to be sleeping with Jughead’s father with almost no preamble to speak of. Apart from the subconscious instinct of “pretty + pretty = good,” it’s hard to imagine “shipping” any of these people.

In place of emotion, though, Riverdale offers exhilaration at its own madcap spirit. No show with this many spontaneous musical numbers and villains with names like “Papa Poutine” doesn’t know exactly what internet fires it’s stoking. It’s notable that the show’s influences, and therefore the show itself, are explicitly queer. (Both Berlanti, who also directed this year’s Love, Simon, and Aguirre-Sacasa are gay men.) In its fetishization and exaggeration of ’50s Americana, there’s quite a bit of John Waters; in bringing this practice into the cultural mainstream, Riverdale clearly follows in the footsteps of Ryan Murphy. The trappings of Glee with the essence of American Horror Story, Riverdale makes teen TV a wilder, weirder, more ironic place. Even if it doesn’t serve as a gateway drug to Pink Flamingos, it might teach impressionable youth to see the world with a similarly arch bemusement.

Chilling Adventures doesn’t commit to the bit as fully as Riverdale, a choice that both makes the show less distinctive and allows for more genuine storytelling. We meet Sabrina, a half-witch, half-human, on the eve of her 16th birthday, when she is expected to pledge fealty to the Dark Lord, renounce all connections to the mortal world, and join local coven the Church of Night. (Chilling Adventures mostly earns its title by dialing up the whole “pact with Satan” part of witchcraft.) Headstrong and determined, Sabrina refuses to choose between two sides of herself. She won’t sign the Book of the Beast, but she will practice magic; she won’t leave Baxter High or break up with her boyfriend, but she will become a part-time student at the Greendale version of Hogwarts and flirt with a cute warlock.

Sabrina’s most obvious influence is Buffy the Vampire Slayer. Refreshingly for Netflix, the show quickly adopts a monster-of-the-week structure, often featuring a demon with shockingly hokey prosthetics for an otherwise handsomely shot show. Our heroine is a blonde chosen-one-type who doesn’t shy away from her own femininity. There’s even a Hellmouth-like plot device: Greendale is a mining town, and legend has it the tunnels go down to the underworld itself, allowing the occasional demon to slip through.

As the 10-episode season progresses, Chilling Adventures starts to hit its stride, and with anachronistic set design and stilted, precocious dialogue, the family resemblance to Riverdale is clear. But when it comes to translating the Archieverse’s burgeoning house style into horror, Sabrina stumbles at first. Sometimes it wants to be straightforwardly scary: Sabrina has an apocalyptic vision of the future in one episode; a horrifying act of group cannibalism culminates another. Sometimes, it wants to use the aesthetics of a scary story as a means for something sillier: Sabrina calls in a “witch lawyer” to chew scenery at a trial; Michelle Gomez and Miranda Otto split Mädchen Amick’s Riverdale duties as the resident middle-aged, female vamp.

Chilling Adventures wants the audience to invest in Sabrina as a sympathetic, fully drawn figure, but it wants to have just as much fun as Riverdale does in the process. Slowly but surely, it begins to crack the code. Some larger world-building questions remain frustratingly unresolved: Is witchcraft a race or a religion? If Sabrina hasn’t signed up with Satan, how does she have powers? Why are witches fighting with demons if they’re on the same team? But because the relationships on the show are slowly allowed to acquire weight, scattershot plotting feels like an acceptable holdover from Chilling Adventures’ sister show. Sabrina’s Aunts Hilda (Lucy Davis) and Zelda (Otto) look and act like long-lost members of the Addams Family, but their love for and desire to protect Sabrina is real. Even Sabrina’s plain-vanilla boyfriend Harvey Kinkle (Ross Lynch) gets to be more than a cardboard cutout.

Sabrina’s two sides come together in its endearingly clumsy treatment of feminism. Satan is depicted as something like the ultimate patriarch: Aunt Hilda marvels that back in her day, young witches didn’t have as many choices as Sabrina does, like not signing away her name; a prosecutor argues Sabrina didn’t have a right to refuse the Dark Lord on account of what she was wearing. The parallels are absurd and belabored on their face, and yet, with commitment and persistence, they click into place.

You swaps out teens for 20-somethings, generic small towns for 2018 New York. But the underlying DNA of Berlanti’s darker side remains the same. In some ways, You even ups the ante: Where Riverdale maintains a distant remove from the players in its larger story, You has full-blown contempt for them.

That You has a decidedly low opinion of its own narrator is not only understandable, but necessary. Joe Goldberg (Penn Badgley) is a bookstore clerk in Manhattan with the old soul of a romantic — or at least, that’s what he tells himself, and us, via voiceover. Then he meets Guinevere Beck (Elizabeth Lail), an aspiring writer browsing his shop, and the misdeeds he uses that self-image to justify become instantly clear. Joe is a stalker, a privacy invader, and before long, a murderer, pursuing Beck with a disturbing pathology disguised by his good looks, hard-earned ability to suppress the more unsavory aspects of his character, and our culture’s damaging ideal of the infatuated Romeo.

Berlanti and Gamble’s true masterstroke is not unequivocally portraying Joe as a dangerous psychopath, which they had to in order to emphasize they don’t endorse his behavior. If the show’s spite stopped with him, You would risk devolving into a morality play — the Big Bad Wolf of misogyny stalks an innocent victim. Instead, Beck, too … kind of sucks. She lies about her father’s fictitious death from an overdose, then uses that lie to garner praise for her confessional poetry; she gets fired from a part-time job teaching yoga for falling asleep in class; she is, frankly, extremely basic. She’s not nearly as bad as Joe, but she’s also not someone any reasonable viewer would willingly spend time with.

Part of Beck’s unpleasantness can be attributed to You’s broader indictment of Joe: that he can only see his idealized version of her, and not her obvious flaws, is an outgrowth of the patronizing condescension he confuses for love. But You has too much fun dunking on Beck and her equally awful friends — a body-positive Instagram influencer, an MFA classmate who calls social media “the next genocide” — for its satire of them to come from obligation alone. Rather, what Riverdale is to the clichés of the American high school, You is to the milewide target of affluent yuppies in the city. It’s Ingrid Goes West on the opposite coast, American Psycho for the age of social media, Girls or Search Party with (even more) dead bodies.

Much has been made of the similarities between Badgley’s newest role and his most famous one, Dan Humphrey — or rather his pen name, Gossip Girl. But of all the literary loners with God complexes in popular fiction, the one Joe most reminds me of is Riverdale’s Jughead, whose novel-in-progress about the town’s dysfunction serves as the show’s framing device. (Or at least it did; it’s unclear if that isn’t one more plot thread the writers have casually discarded.) If Chilling Adventures attempts to moderate Riverdale’s excesses with a grounding dose of empathy, You carries them over from adolescence into adulthood. More than a dark ’n’ sexy version of Archie or a creepy interpretation of Sabrina, You is the riskiest application yet of Berlanti’s enormous industry capital. There are a thousand ways a show told from the point of view of an abusive, manipulative jerk could go wrong. That You somehow doesn’t leaves me eager for Berlanti’s next eyebrow-raising logline turned stroke of genius.