1996 was a formative year in my life. The Spice Girls awakened my inner-homosexual pop stanning heart, I nearly broke my leg emulating Kimberly from Power Rangers and a little show called ‘Sabrina the Teenage Witch’ became my daily obsession. And when I say obsession, I mean it. Books, games, episode after episode watched and rewatched. Had Nickeloden not had a freephone number, I’m certain I’d have raised significant phone debt voting for Sabrina during each and every ‘Watch Your Own Wednesday’ segment. So in its twentieth year anniversary, I’m undertaking a great rewatch. One that shall either make me relish nostalgic memories of my childhood, or indeed, make me wonder what the hell I was thinking. Let us begin with ‘Pilot’.
First things first, the very little ‘pilot’ confused my little adolescent heart who oft checked the Nickelodeon text page for episode guides. “WHY IS IT CALLED PILOT? THERE ISN’T EVEN A PLANE?” I asked without response. Even worse, fact fans, was that this wasn’t even the original pilot. A TV-movie was created months previously that served as a starting point for the series. The aunts are different therefore it’s awful and that’s all you need to know. Anyway, the series proper begins with Sabrina levitating whilst aunts, Hilda and Zelda dump a lot of plot exposition about Sabrina’s powers emerging at age 16, as if the title ‘teenage witch’ was not informative enough.
My great childhood mystery in the over-used house exterior shot: What IS that glowing light?
The following morning, fresh from their info dump last night, Hilda and Zelda give Sabrina a cauldron – because she’s a witch, you see. Said cauldron, as I recall, is never used and cauldrons are a little-used plot point in general, so thank you, aunts, for a cheap-ass, useless present but I digress. The aunts quickly tell Sabrina she’s a witch before her first day at school because they’re horrible trolls who want to ruin her self-confidence. Sabrina is disbelieving and thinks it’s a joke. Memo to Sabrina, if you think your aunts are the types to make jokes such as this, you should not be living with them. Sabrina heads off to school whilst talking supposed-cat-but-actually-really-bad-puppet Salem makes a comment behind her back. What’s clear in the space of two scenes, other than the fact that that early Salem puppet is atrocious is that it’s very clear the show doesn’t know what it wants to be. The aforementioned TV-movie is actually more of a painfully earnest drama and the retooling it underwent didn’t create an immediately strong direction. All of the actors are a little too sincere and the writing far from snappy. It’s a far cry from the wisecracks I remember as a child and there’s a weird hesitance of going full-on sitcom which, of course, it ultimately did to great success. Caroline Rhea as ditzy aunt Hilda (though far less ditzy here) is the only one who begins to sparkle. Before she departs, she warns Sabrina not to make too many hand gestures: a rule for life, not just for school.
Beloved household talking cat or mange-ridden doorstop?
At school we’re quickly introduced to Harvey, the long-haired, side-burned, ear-pierced boy of our dreams is smacked in the face by an opening door. His general accident-prone goofiness already makes him attainable. Sigh. We see Mr. Pool, Sabrina’s bitter, job-loathing teacher played by Paul Feig of Bridesmaids-directing fame and class bitch, Libby. In the space of one line, Jenna Leigh Green makes it absolutely clear she knows what character is playing and what kind of show is in, and relishes it. I obviously love her. We’re also introduced to Jenny, Sabrina’s best friend by default and shining beacon of alternative teen life. How to describe Jenny? She really is that kind of teenage girl character that only existed in the 90’s: the type who cracks poor jokes, reads Shakespeare’s tragedies for shits and giggles, and claims Alanis Morissette is the only one who truly understands her. That type of girl. Either way, she oh so imaginatively names the frog they’re tasked to dissect (Tad Pole. Roll your eyes with me) and makes a Brad Pitt joke. And she calls herself alternative? Try harder, love. Sabrina accidentally brings the frog back to life because witches are capable of resurrection?!!!!! A fact that is never mentioned again because the writers didn’t think it through but rest assured, I did.
Bow down bitches. http://savedbythebellsabrina.tumblr.com
After class, Sabrina has a run-in with Libby and her gang in the school toilets. No, she’s not violently shanked or having her head flushed down the toilet, she’s merely told that she smells and never to use the cool girls’ bathroom because Libby is clearly five years old and perhaps I’m stanning for her far too soon. Sabrina displaying some mind-reading tendencies (which she once again never displays) makes a crack about Libby spraying aftershave to remind herself of a boy who dumped her. Frankly, considering how shady Sabrina is on her first day of school, it’s no wonder Libby bullied her relentlessly. Sabrina also uses magic to ‘accidentally’ make Libby scrawl lipstick all over her face. Yay for violating free will.
Sabrina returns home to find her aunts gifting her with a magic spell book and Sabrina assumes they’re continuing their earlier joke. Hun, if your aunts are still committing to the strange joke, they need to be committed themselves. Sabrina is then shocked when a talking picture of her father begins talking to her via the book and surely at this point Sabrina must think she, or everyone else is on drugs. She also mentions The Gap because it’s the 90’s. After another bizarrely plotty heart to heart with her BookDad™, Sabrina learns she’s not allowed to see her mortal archaeologist mother for the next two years as witches are deeply racist and disapprove of witch-mortal relationships. Should Sabrina see her mum, her mum will turn into a ball of wax. Because of course she will. Who said Kids’ TV in the 90’s didn’t make you think? I mean, it’s obviously guff to explain why Sabrina is living with her clearly mental, unattached, unemployed aunts instead of her mum but I digress. Sabrina, still possibly on drugs, comes to accept her situation and tries her first spell – and somehow manages to turn all the food into the house into pineapples. Hilda warns her to be careful of pointing her finger at school tomorrow and I think you all know where this is going because this is sophisticated signposted writing right here.
Pineapple plot klaxon.
As Hilda and Zelda enjoy a healthy breakfast of surplus pineapple, Sabrina runs late for school, informed that witches can’t turn back time. It’s one of the rules. Resurrection, on the other hand, have at it. In the grand tradition of American high school cliché, Sabrina is hit on the head by a football and labelled a freak by Libby whose obsession with Sabrina is at once incredible and deeply unhealthy. Anyway, at lunch, Harvey admits he accidentally hit Sabrina on the head with the football no doubt as some sort of Neanderthal mating ritual. Sabrina, blinded by Harvey’s silky hair, compliments his good arm because she’s me. Then begins a bizarre conversation about mail boxes that is neither interesting nor funny:
SABRINA: Do you know Jenny?
HARVEY: You live in the house with the funny mail box, right?
JENNY: It’s not our fault. The people who lived there before us were actually named Mr and Mrs Hogg.
HARVEY: No, it’s cute. My mail box is boring. It’s really just a place to put letters.
SABRINA: Mine too!
THEN THEY ALL LAUGH. Christ on a bike. Luckily Libby comes to save us from Sabrina’s low-key, awful flirting technique. She invites Harvey to a party on Saturday night, no doubt hoping he’ll regale everyone with his awesome mail box stories. She informs him everyone cool is coming, before giving Sabrina the ultimate side eye and shuffling on. Never forget, Libby is hitting the ground running on this bizarre little episode. She then dumps her Ribena on Sabrina by ‘accident’ and Sabrina, having absolutely no chill, jumps to her feet to confront Libby like no new student ever. She points (plot klaxon) and all of a sudden, an offscreen wind storm besieges the cafeteria and Libby is turned into…. Can you guess? A pineapple. Sabrina then runs home with pineapple, no doubt drowning her future high school reputation as ‘the girl who does things with pineapples’.
She failed to heed those hand gesture warnings.
At home, ladies of leisure and pineapple enthusiasts, Hilda and Zelda chat, and Zelda makes some scientific remark that went over my childhood head and goes over my 26 year old one too. Needless to say she likes science and that’s our characterisation of the episode. Sabrina laments about her PineLibby™ and Hilda attempts to solve the situation by carving Libby up for dessert. And does so completely seriously because she’s almost certainly bloodthirsty and evil. Zelda remarks that Sabrina hasn’t learnt to seal her spells yet (a fact never brought up again as is the case with 99% of this pilot) and quickly brings Libby back before Hilda can chop her head off and wear her ears as a necklace. Libby quickly pledges to make Sabrina’s life a misery after a genuinely well-delivered line about ‘smelling like Hawaii’ and Zelda gives a speech along the lines of ‘sticks and stones, etc’. You know what, as 600 year old witches, their advice is genuinely shit. They inform Sabrina that a greater collective of witches known as the Witches Council can approve time travel spells but only in extreme cases. The Witches Council can be contacted via the linen closet upstairs. I’d make a closet joke but I’m better than that. There’s also another funny exchange between Hilda and Zelda about Hilda’s previous failed engagement with the head of the Witches Council which is now “ancient history”. Literally. It’s like the writer only realised this was a sitcom halfway through.
And it’s right. http://90sinternetstuff.tumblr.com
Anyway, Sabrina emerges in the Other Realm which is desk against a cheap backdrop of a sky. The head of the council and Hilda’s former lover, Drell, is played by Penn or Teller of Penn and Teller fame because… Well, just because. Drell has no time for Sabrina’s Ribena tales of woe and her pity party and hurries her story along through some 90’s fast-forwarding. The council promise to review her case, leaving Sabrina to lament at home to Salem the cat, who I’m sure regrets revealing he can talk and he’s surely going to hear daily stories of Sabrina’s high school life for the next three seasons. Salem informs Sabrina that he was once a witch who was sentenced to 100 years as a cat for trying to take over the world. Then begins an oddly touching(?!) scene where he laments his lost independence and capabilities before being placated by a toy mouse. It’s much better written and performed than it has any right to be and who knew a man voicing a mangy cat puppet would be the MVP.
The following morning Sabrina’s time travel request in denied via letter from the Other Realm delivered by toaster. Hilda, refusing to be boxed in by Zelda’s trite sticks and stones metaphors, tells Sabrina to toughen up and happily remind Sabrina that Libby thought she was weird before PineappleGate and ostracisation is a normal part of growing up. A healthy moral completely undone seconds later by Hilda confronting Drell and making him turn back time. At school, Jenny tells Sabrina that same hilarious Brad Pitt joke (poor the first time, darnright awful the second) as Sabrina replays the day over again to her advantage, acing a test, catching the football and getting a chance to repeat that awesome mail box conversation and rightly choosing to nip it in the bud before its begun by inviting Harvey to see a movie on Saturday night with her and Jenny. Because nothing says romantic then watching 1996 classics like ‘Romeo + Juliet’ or ‘Space Jam’ with the guy you fancy and your best friend of two days. And you know Jenny is the type who comments through the movie and points out all the faults. Note to self, Jenny is me. Libby’s party invite is firmly knocked back and ever the shady bitch, Sabrina sasses her and uses her magic to spill Libby’s drink on herself. Bullying works, my friends.
Stone cold. Note Jenny’s lack of shock at the drink defying all laws of physics. http://cordysummers.tumblr.com
Sabrina returns home and dances with the cat, fulfilling one of Salem’s sad claims that he was no longer capable of. And I’m oddly moved. There’s also a bizarre credits scene where Sabrina magics up some milk and shares it with Salem. Because she has no concept of germs.
90’s Fashion Corner:
Top left, Libby and her minions rock 90’s school bitch chic which clearly involves dungarees, knitted t-shirts and some sort of 70’s hippy throwback. Top right, Sabrina takes her pineapple obsession too far with matching patterned top and pants whilst Zelda and Hilda serve lace and leather respectively. Bottom right, Sabrina’s ‘First day at school, please don’t bully me’ ensemble consists of this silky, sheer shirt and frankly, I don’t know if Hilda is wearing a dress or a dressing gown in this scene but neither option is particularly good.
Join me next time folks for more of my youthful reminiscing with the imaginatively titled ‘Bundt Friday’. A mere tiny step above ‘Pilot’ in the lack of effort titling stakes.