Netflix continues its domination of the so-called most desirable generations: the Millennials (formerly known as Generation Y) and their follow-up gene pool, Generation Z. These two groupings were born from 1981 to 1996 (for Gen Y), and then 1997 to 2015, respectively. From age 37 down to a precocious 3-year-old, these are the eyes and ears that pop-culture producers and manufacturers strive to capture and tempt with their merchandise. Case in point: the new version of Sabrina the Teenage Witch, which they hope will have a “Stranger Things” marketing blitz, spawning dolls, books, clothing, jewelry, iPhone cases, and anything else that can be licensed and sold.
The new incarnation of Sabrina Spellman (got to love her name, with its supernatural connection right there in your face) is based on a very successful Archie Comics imprint. Archie Horror takes the onetime innocuous inhabitants of Riverdale and its surrounding suburbs, like Greendale, and gives them mysterious and dangerous foes to battle, fiendish villains to smite, and high-school foibles to overcome. Yes, the characters who reside in the world of Archie Horror are the familiar malt-shop crowd (Betty, Veronica, Jughead, Archie, Sabrina, Harvey), but they have evil thrust inside their white-picket-fence world.
The comic-book series that will air on Netflix is the “Chilling Adventures of Sabrina,” and it bears a passing resemblance to the 1990s sitcom, “Sabrina the Teenage Witch.” Debuting in 1996—right at the tail end of the Millennials’ timeline and kicking off the Z-ers—the show starred Melissa Joan Hart as the title character; Caroline Rhea and Beth Broderick as her nurturing and mentoring aunts; and the voice of Nick Bakay as her wisecracking familiar, Salem the Cat. The series was part of ABC’s TGIF programming block, which purported to air programming that was family-friendly and wholesome for all members of a household.
With Sabrina as a seemingly typical American teenage girl, who at age 16 discovers her dormant witch powers, the TV producers had a chance to play around with relatable high-school issues (popularity, prom, school elections, bullying, mean girls, nerds, did I mention popularity) and also dilemmas that could only exist for a half-mortal/half-supernatural girl. Most of the episodes were played for laughs, and there were morality lessons learned by Sabrina as she tried to navigate being a cheerleader and good friend at school and an apprentice witch at home.
Of course, Sabrina would sometimes attempt to do more than she was capable of doing. She was young—only 16, eventually becoming 23 by the show’s concluding year—and her hubris would backfire on her. One memorable outing from the show’s second season had her transformed into a doll by her bratty, smug little cousin. Exiled to her cousin’s toy box, Sabrina soon discovers that little Amanda has a penchant for turning her enemies into playthings. Any neighbor who dared to deny her what she wanted, when she wanted it, got zapped into the life of a doll. “A Doll’s Story” follows Sabrina as she navigates life inside a dollhouse, and how she helps the other humans break this spiteful spell. (Cousin Amanda is very similar to the Billy Mumy character of Anthony on “The Twilight Zone,” the little boy who makes a whole town cower before his wrath. If Anthony deems that you are a “bad man,” he turns you into a Jack-in-the-Box or exiles you to a cornfield where you die an agonizing death.)
This episode was not the only time Melissa Joan Hart as Sabrina became a shrunken-down version of herself. The prime-time character was manufactured as a doll many times over. Kenner and Hasbro had a popular line of dolls that keyed into the sitcom version. Sabrina was offered alone as a doll, or with her familiar cat and book of spells, or with her human boyfriend, Harvey Kinkle (what an unfortunate name).
With her fresh-scrubbed face, blond hair, and cheerful appearance, Melissa Joan Hart was a fantastic choice to play Sabrina. She looked happy and friendly, and her hidden, secret powers never seemed threatening or malevolent. To borrow a phrase from Glinda in “The Wizard of Oz,” she was definitely a “good witch, not a bad witch.”
In the Netflix reboot, the brand-new Sabrina is very similar to Ms. Hart. Kiernan Shipka grew up in front of America as a cast member of “Mad Men.” Playing Sally, the angst-ridden daughter of Don and Betty Draper, Shipka was called upon to do much more than look cute and peppy. As the offspring of a beautiful-looking couple, who actually had horrible, soul-decaying secrets at home, Sally was a character that grew up faster than she should have. She had a rebellious streak and a chip on her shoulder. The character was filled with hostility toward her mother, resentment toward her philandering father, and ambivalence toward her stepfather. She was a walking/talking poster for the aftermath of a mishandled divorce.
When the “Mad Men” cast members were made into dolls by Mattel, little Sally did not make the collectors’ cut. It was only the adults, who often acted like juvenile delinquents, that got the special Barbie nod. Now, with Kiernan Shipka as Netflix’s Sabrina, she’ll finally have a doll to peddle at Comic-Con or one of the other fan meet-and-greet encounters. The doll version of Kiernan’s Sabrina could be a BJD made by Tonner—he has an incredible empathy for sci-fi and graphic-novel heroines—and there will definitely be a Funko version, with large eyes and bobbing head. Another great partnership could be Mezco Toyz or Factory Entertainment. There are so many potential possibilities; it will be an amazing franchise to watch.
Created by Roberto Aguirre-Sacasa, who spearheaded the “Riverdale” TV series that dumps Archie and friends into a film noir landscape, “Chilling Adventures of Sabrina” will follow the teenager as she bumps up against blood and gore, afterlife chaos and afterschool predicaments. (Remember, she’s only 16 years old.) Her boyfriend, Harvey, is Disney Channel heartthrob Ross Lynch (he was Austin on “Austin & Ally”), and their relationship can be explored in a more mature way, given the Netflix leeway of what is allowed to be shown.
Even though “Chilling Adventures of Sabrina” will have a much more adult bent than ABC’s version of the teenage witch, the heroine will most likely be conjured up in a myriad number of doll forms. In 2018, Gen Y and Gen Z do enjoy their cosplay, conventions, and collectibles.
Expect to see Kiernan Shipka finally get her doll due. Her Sally Draper was left off the toy shelves, but her Sabrina Spellman will undoubtedly sell very well.