There are so many streaming options available these days, and so many conflicting recommendations, that it’s hard to see through all the crap you could be watching. Each Friday, The Verge’s Cut the Crap column simplifies the choice by sorting through the overwhelming multitude of movies and TV shows on subscription services, and recommending a single perfect thing to watch this weekend.
What to watch
“A River of Candy Corn Runs Through It,” a special Halloween episode of the ABC series Sabrina the Teenage Witch, which originally aired on October 31st, 1997, early in the show’s second season. Written by Frank Conniff — better known as “TV’s Frank” from Mystery Science Theater 3000 — this episode is a classic example of the inventive, supernaturally tinged domestic farce common to the original Sabrina comics. When witch-in-training Sabrina Spellman (played by Melissa Joan Hart) throws a party for her high school classmates, she keeps getting embarrassed by the irrepressible occult lifestyle of her eccentric aunts Hilda (Caroline Rhea) and Zelda (Beth Broderick). Witchy wackiness ensues.
Why watch now?
Because Netflix’s new series Chilling Adventures of Sabrina debuts today.
Introduced in 1962 in the Archie comic Archie’s Madhouse, Sabrina was originally presented as just another of the Archie universe’s overactive, overwhelmed middle American teens, navigating school, dating, and family responsibilities. The big difference? She was also part of an ancient magicking clan. This version of Sabrina — an otherwise ordinary high schooler with a weird secret — remained a staple of the Archie comics for decades, and had her own animated TV show in the early 1970s. Then writer Roberto Aguirre-Sacasa, creator of the “alternate reality” horror comic Afterlife with Archie, spun off a new Sabrina character from that series into the comic Chilling Adventures of Sabrina.
The Netflix version of Chilling Adventures of Sabrina is also overseen by Aguirre-Sacasa, who created The CW’s “Archie noir” drama Riverdale. Kiernan Shipka (best known for playing Don Draper’s daughter on Mad Men) is the revamped Sabrina Spellman: a half-witch / half-mortal who still lives in a big, spooky old house in Greendale with her aunts Hilda (Lucy Davis) and Zelda (Miranda Otto). As the series begins, Sabrina is nearing her 16th birthday, which will be accompanied by her “dark baptism.” After the ritual, she’ll be expected to enter the Academy of the Unseen Arts — a move she dreads, given that some powerful members of the witch establishment look down on her. She’d rather stay in her “normal” high school, where she’s become a champion for the dignity of all her picked-on peers.
Tonally, Chilling Adventures of Sabrina doesn’t have much in common with the Sabrina the Teenage Witch sitcom. But Shipka’s plucky, can-do take on the role is actually reminiscent of Melissa Joan Hart’s Sabrina. Both actresses play the character as an affable everywoman who cares about her friends and family, and has a general zest for life. The main difference in Hart’s performance — as seen in “A River of Candy Corn Runs Through It” — is that her Sabrina tends to bumble her way into potentially humiliating situations, which she has to ride out with good humor, quick thinking, and hasty spells.
Who it’s for
“Funnybook” fans and 1990s nostalgists.
The whole Archie comics line was at its best in the 1960s, when the company’s stable of writers and artists had fun goofing on the fads and fashions of a flowering youth culture. The Sabrina stories were especially fun, because the addition of magical powers added an anything-goes quality, manifesting as loopy slapstick. “A River of Candy Corn Runs Through It” is true to the spirit of its source material — aimed at kids, but zany enough to entertain anyone who fondly remembers reading non-superhero comics as a youngster.
The plot relies heavily on Hilda and Zelda being so steeped in the witch world that they don’t immediately grasp why Sabrina might find them mortifying. As her friends arrive — along with some more popular classmates that her awkward pal Valerie (Lindsay Sloane) is hoping to impress — the Spellman household is preoccupied by the arrival of talking furniture, a plague of hyperactive termites, an overflowing cauldron of homemade candy corn, and monstrous “Halloween carolers” from another dimension. In typical Halloween / family-sitcom fashion, the party improves once Sabrina stops trying to restrain everything kooky about herself and her family.
Like the original comic-book version of Sabrina, the live-action TV series is essentially a lighthearted high school romp, with magic. It’s also very much a product of the late 1990s, as evidenced by everything in “A River of Candy Corn Runs Through It,” from the title to a surprise musical appearance by 10,000 Maniacs. The fashions hold up particularly well: the fussy “casual” hairdos and mod-ish patterned fabrics that the cast of Friends popularized at the end of the millennium. This too is true to the Archie comics, where in a way, the gals’ eclectic clothes helped make them more finely shaded characters than the single-outfit, one-note guys.
Where to see it
Multiple subscription services. The sitcom is available via CBS All Access, Amazon Prime Video, and Hulu. (One place where it’s not available? Netflix, oddly enough.) Tubi.tv, meanwhile, has the 1999-2000 Sabrina: The Animated Series, which was inspired by the live-action version, and features the voice of Melissa Joan Hart’s younger sister Emily. The 1970 animated Sabrina, sad to say, is currently unavailable to stream.