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Does 'Sabrina the Teenage Witch' Actually Suck?

We revisit the classic teen sitcom to find out if it holds any appeal for adults.

by Kath Barbadoro
Sep 19 2017, 4:45pm

Melissa Joan Hart was a very important figure in my preadolescent development. She was the cool, straight-talking big sister I never had. Between her titular roles in Clarissa Explains It All and Sabrina the Teenage Witch, Hart taught me and a generation of my contemporaries invaluable lessons such as how to wear a scrunchie, fall asleep in class, and roll my eyes at my parents. Now that Sabrina the Teenage Witch is on Hulu in its entirety, you may be tempted to see if these life lessons still resonate 20 years later.

Before we begin, I need to make one thing clear: Sabrina the Teenage Witch is a television show for children. You were a child when you liked it. If you were like me, you were a child who deeply envied Sabrina's cute boyfriend, cool aunts, and talking cat. You wanted to be just like her. But you were not like her. You were ten. This show is for ten-year-olds.

That said, it's not a bad television show for ten-year-olds. I think it would succeed at entertaining them even 20 years after its debut. Melissa Joan Hart displays a natural sense of comedic timing that's rare in children's shows and child actors. Sabrina's boyfriend, Harvey (Nate Richert), is still a total dreamboat, and as an adult woman with a checkered past and a Tinder profile, I appreciate his unconditional kindness toward Sabrina even more now.

Sabrina's aunts and fellow witches Hilda (Caroline Rhea) and Zelda (Beth Broderick) have great chemistry as a comedic duo. Whether it's Bridesmaids director Paul Feig or Night Court's Martin Mull, the cast is rounded out with talented adult actors who know their way around a joke. And the jokes are pretty good; the writing staff even boasts MST3K alum Frank Conniff. The banter isn't always horrible, though God, people in the 90s loved banter (for context, Sabrina debuted the same year as Swingers). There's also some fun to be had watching it again in 2017 on an aesthetic level— Sabrina's wardrobe is basically a live-action Delia's catalog.

But keeping all that in mind: watching this in 2017, as a 29-year-old woman? This show sucks. The majority of the jokes are rage-inducingly bad puns. Sometimes, even—shudder to think—visual puns. I've watched multiple seasons recently, and I have yet to see a third act that made any sense as a cohesive plot point. I suppose when you've introduced magic into your storyline, it's easy for it to become a crutch when you've written yourself into a corner, but it makes the central message of each show somewhat muddled.

The first two acts of every episode typically sets Sabrina up to learn some kind of life lesson through experiencing negative consequences for her impulsive, teenagerly actions. Yet, in many cases, with a valuable lesson looming in her future, she just magics her way out of the problem with a few minutes left in the show's runtime. I feel silly complaining about the coherence of a show in which a linen closet is a portal to an otherwordly realm (which, by the way, looks mostly like the set for a community-theater production that's gotten its hands on a fog machine), but it's tonally confusing.

Sabrina existed at a time when magic and fantasy were still mostly considered kid stuff. It's a common coming-of-age trope, and it makes sense—all the changes kids that age are going through easily invite comparisons to the supernatural. The show often treats Sabrina's awkward transformation from mortal kid to witchy woman as a metaphor for puberty. In retrospect, I find it interesting that Sabrina debuted the same year as another staple of magic-as-coming-of-age entertainment: Harry Potter and the Sorcerer's Stone, the first book in what would become the fantastically successful Harry Potter series. Like Sabrina, Harry's intended audience was originally children, too, and like with Sabrina, some people in 2017 seem to forget that.

There's been a shift in our cultural landscape, and now mainstream culture is full of magical entertainment meant for adults. Game of Thrones dominates television, political pundits proudly reference Harry Potter to explain current geopolitical situations, and allusions to the occult are ubiquitous in hipster millennial culture. Witches are cool now. Go to any bar in Brooklyn, and you'll see them. Maybe this is an attempt to reclaim some feminine power from a trope based in misogynist fear or maybe just an attempt to hang on to our youth. But now that Sabrina's on Hulu, I can envision these Witches of Bushwick coming home from a night out doing the millennial equivalent of black magic and putting on an episode. They'll be sorely disappointed, but perhaps they'll consider the idea that maybe magic is best left to children.

Follow Kath Barbadoro on Twitter.