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Many people complain that there aren’t enough female superheroes and that the few there are are so ridiculously sexualised that they only exist to pander to the male gaze. Sabrina: The Teenage Witch represents one of those unique moments in time where a female comic book character was able to draw the attention of girls and boys. Its enormous success on kids’ TV in the 1990s and early 2000s still resonates today – it was so successful that most people probably don’t even realise it was based on an Archie Comics character. The TV series was the lynchpin of many pre-pubescent childhoods in Ireland – it had everything we aspired to be as Irish children – supernatural beings, talking animals and American high-school students.
Sabrina’s wry humour and pop culture-laden dialogue made it an instant hit with fans young and young at heart. There was a slight edge to the jokes that felt like, even though it was a family show, they were thumbing their nose at an older audience. It was funnier and snappier than a lot of other family viewing and while she was definitely a symbol of girl-power, Sabrina had a universal appeal to girls and boys struggling their way through adolescence, always trying to fall back on quick fixes but realising that hard work and dedication and being true to yourself is what wins out over all (‘the mortal way is the magic way’). The series is still repeated on countless channels and the DVDs are readily available – and unlike a lot of 90s nostalgia, it does honestly hold up.
Hot off her appearance as fourth-wall-breaking explanation guru Clarissa Darling (you remember Clarissa Explains It All, it was your favourite), Melissa Joan Hart made her first witchly appearance not in the zany series we all know, but in an awkward TV movie with an entirely different cast of characters but also called Sabrina: The Teenage Witch. In the telemovie, Sabrina Sawyer (not Spellman) came across as oddly unlikable as she spends much of the film using and abusing her powers for personal gain until the finale wherein she *spoiler warning* learns that true love is destined for those who don’t try to force things into being. Harvey Kinkle in this film isn’t the soft-spoken, anvil-jawed dreamboat of the series, but a clumsy schlub who wishes Sabrina would choose him over a mop-haired Ryan Reynolds (seriously, it’s him). Sabrina’s pet cat Salem, instead of being an evil warlock, is instead a lovesick young man punished for using a forbidden love spell on the object of his desires.
Suffice to say, while it’s a passable movie, it proved interesting and successful enough that the producers decided to change a few things around and make a series out of it. The characteristics of Aunts Hilda and Zelda were swapped around, Harvey became the centre of Sabrina’s universe, Salem Saberhagen became a smooth-talking world dominator and every actor was recast with the exception of Hart and Michelle Beaudoin (Marnie from the movie became Jenny for the series). The colours were brighter, the special effects were more colourful and the series was generally more upbeat than the moodier tone of the film. With the kinks mostly worked out, the series began its magical linen closet journey to success.
In the early years of the series, Sabrina finds herself struggling to get control of her magic, as week after well-meaning week her spells create unexpected side-effects. While babysitting she accidentally turns the baby into a middle-aged man, while trying to do something nice for her depressed teacher Mr. Poole (played by future directorial superstar and ‘Freaks & Geeks’ creator Paul Feig) she ends up teaching him how to defy the laws of physics and turn lead into gold. All the while her friendship with Harvey blossoms into romance, while cackling supervillain/cheerleader Libby Chessler lives for Sabrina’s ruin.
Once Season 2 kicks off and Sabrina begins the trials to apply for her Witches Licence, aided and tormented by her Quizmaster, it’s off to the races. In Season 3, the mystery of the family secret lead to more instantly quotable moments. Martin Mull plays the adorably scheming Vice Principal Kraft – he literally twirls his moustache in certain episodes.
Oddly, while the viewership for the series snowballed on this side of the Atlantic (there were days where it played back to back on Nickelodeon and it’s still being repeated on RTE 2), it never really took its country of origin by storm, which can be seen by the amount of times it reshuffled its cast and its setting – social crusader Jenny beget socially stunted Valerie beget the socially-inept Dreama. After enduring a heartbreaking but story-driving break-up with her beloved Harvey, Sabrina drifts towards java-bean counting Josh, a college boy who never really won the fans over as much as his predecessor (which is probably why Harvey was brought back in the later seasons). Following the successful high-school years, we see Sabrina breeze through two years of college (because any more than that doesn’t make for good television) followed by an awkward transition into a more grown-up series wherein Sabrina was a go-getting journalist at a local magazine surrounded by an increasingly faceless ensemble of side-characters, as many of her recognisable cohorts had long vanished from the series. It was at this point that the series reached the inevitable creative plateau of all generational classics. Despite the title of the show, Sabrina was now anything but a ‘teenage’ witch and her adventures were becoming less magical and more mundane. The finale was to see Sabrina marrying Aaron, the latest in her assembly-line of Harvey replacements – but in the final moments of the series, Harvey makes his triumphant return and the two lovers ride off into the sunset.
That being said, despite a middling final season, Sabrina’s antics had come to a close before her welcome could be truly outstayed. While many of the tertiary characters that made the earlier seasons such a delight had sadly slipped away, Salem was still snappy and Harvey’s goofy Fonzy-lite charm held true. And the core appeal of the series was still there – ignore the quick fixes, follow your heart and the mortal way will always prove to be the magic way. What’s not to love? See you at the Slicery.
Feature Image Credit: Huffpost.com