While battling a bout of bronchitis, Claire Adamson rediscovers the ’90s magic of Sabrina the Teenage Witch.
In honour of its twentieth trip around the sun, I recently sat down (read: reclined on my bed with my laptop on my chest) to watch Space Jam, that much reminisced-about Michael Jordan vehicle from 1996. I had forgotten, or perhaps not realised at the time, how truly awful it was.
Unfortunately, much of the pop culture I consumed as a young teen was seen through the lens of me being just that – a young teen. Adult rewatchings of Miami 7 (the S Club 7 tv show), old episodes of Home and Away, Dawson’s Creek, and any show starring Mary-Kate and Ashley Olsen, left an awful lot to be desired to my considerably matured palate.
There is one exception to this: Sabrina the Teenage Witch is still a very, very good television show.
One fateful day last winter, as I languished in bed with what I initially thought was SARS but disappointingly turned out to just be bronchitis, a friend tweeted something about Sabrina, the 1954 Audrey Hepburn film. Although this throwaway tweet had little to do with adolescent practitioners of the dark arts, synapses popped and whirred in my brain, and before long, I was deeply involved in the life of a regular high school student who just so happens to be a witch.
Sabrina Spellman has been sent to live with her aunts, Hilda and Zelda, while her mother is on a year-long archeological dig in South America. On her 16th birthday, she finds out she is half witch on her father’s side, as are her aunts. Chaos ensues as Sabrina tries to juggle normal teenage things like boys and school and family, while at the same time trying to get her witch’s licence and accidentally turning the school bully into a pineapple (and then a goat, and then a puzzle – repeat ad infinitum).
Like her more famous supernatural, blonde, paisley flare-wearing counterpart Buffy, Sabrina was a film before she had her own sitcom. But unlike Buffy, who made her debut in the eponymous 1992 film, Sabrina first appeared on the pages of an Archie comic in the early 1960s, as a “spunky, flirtatious, sometimes scatterbrained teenage witch.” Sabrina’s aunts Hilda and Zelda, her cat Salem and her boyfriend Harvey date back to this incarnation as well.
Sabrina the Teenage Witch first hit TV screens in 1970 as an animated series, but it wasn’t until 1996 that the show got a live action reboot, with Melissa Joan Hart in the titular role. Sabrina ran for seven seasons, but it is worth pretending only the first four exist. Sabrina’s college days are not a good time.
The show has a kind of charming, unaware dadaist vibe, where everything is a bit arbitrary and ridiculous at the same time. In one episode, the witching world is affected by sunspot activity, which leads to molecular instability and all sorts of trouble for the witches. A black hole forms in the sink, and (more importantly to the episode’s plot) causes Sabrina to switch personalities with the school bully, Libby. The episode culminates in Sabrina being on trial after she tries to take over the world. In another episode, Sabrina’s wayward spell is broken when she treats her classmates to a giant flan. In another, Sabrina’s teacher stands trial for being mean with a magical judge who has been living in a deep freeze to “avoid media bias”.
Sabrina takes a similar approach to its guest stars, who are often presented without fanfare, and often for no real reason. Debbie Harry guest stars in the first ever episode as a member of the Witches’ Council alongside Penn and Teller. She doesn’t say or do anything and is completely superfluous to the plot. Coolio appears in one episode as a poster of himself, while Ru Paul, sans drag, guest stars as a judge, and then later in drag as a magical hairdresser.
The show wears its 1990s-ness on its sleeve. The girls are all midriffs, turtlenecks and flares, while the boys have those particular v-neck jerseys with a stripe across the chest. In one episode, Sabrina takes a babysitting job so she can buy herself a new pair of rollerblades (but, being Sabrina, accidentally turns her nappy-clad charge into a full-grown man). N’Sync, the Backstreet Boys, Britney Spears and even the Violent Femmes appear on the show as musical guests, and Sabrina and her aunts are on a magical episode of the Jerry Springer Show.
The show’s biggest throwback, however, is probably Salem, the family cat and the show’s light relief. Salem was a witch who was sentenced to 100 years as a cat after he tried to take over the world. As a cat, he is obsessed with eating (“I gotta stop melting cheese and drinking it as a beverage”) and has definite megalomaniac tendencies. As Sabrina was made in the days before Weta Workshop existed, Salem is animatronic most of the time, and evolves significantly as the show goes on (he looks different in every season). In the first season, he has a disturbingly taxidermied look about him.
Mr. Kraft, the vice principal at Sabrina’s high school, also stands out as a ridiculous character. He is often the target of Sabrina’s magical hijinks, and first dates Hilda, and then Zelda. Kraft is by far the show’s darkest and most cynical character. In one episode, he says, “The idea of charity, it just seems so un-American,” and in another, he utters what is probably the darkest line I’ve ever heard on a sitcom aimed at teen girls: “Not another protest! If this was China I’d run you over with a tank.”
The show ended in 2003, three seasons after it should have, and its stars have gone on to other things (“bigger and better” might be a stretch) – Melissa Joan Hart was most recently in the news for becoming a part of gormless Libertarian Gary Johnson’s presidential campaign.
But Sabrina the Teenage Witch stands as one of the best examples of a teen sitcom from its time and never fell into the trap of taking itself too seriously. It is a show you can comfortably watch again as an adult without putting the happiest memories of your childhood at risk, and is certainly better than anything the Olsen twins ever did.
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