Wednesday, April 9, 2008

The Many Lives of Sabrina

In 1962, a character named Sabrina the Teenage Witch appeared in the comic book Archie’s Mad House. Readers liked the character, and so she appeared in several Archie Comics throughout the '60s until the publishers decided to give her her own comic book in 1971. Sabrina the Teenage Witch was published from 1971-1983, running for 77 issues. The principal characters from the comic book that later appear in the television series of the same name are Sabrina Spellman, her aunts Hilda and Zelda (who are also witches), the Spellmans’ sarcastic talking cat Salem (who used to be a warlock), and Sabrina’s mortal boyfriend Harvey, who is unaware that Sabrina is a witch.

In 1996, Hallmark Entertainment produced a TV movie for Showtime based on the Sabrina comic, starring Melissa Joan Hart, who had gained popularity from her days as Clarissa on Nickeldeon’s hit series “Clarissa Explains it All”. In the movie, Sabrina’s parents send her to live with her two eccentric aunts. On her sixteenth birthday, Sabrina finds out she is a witch. With a point of her finger, she can now change her clothes and her test scores, but as her Aunt Zelda tells her, witches can't interfere with the human heart, because "love is too precious for anyone to tamper with." The movie was a success, and ABC greenlit a series based on it. Despite differences in characters and casting, the TV movie served as the unofficial pilot. "Sabrina" ran from 1996-2003 on ABC and was part of the popular TGIF lineup along with “Boy Meets World”.

The show was clearly influenced by supernatural sitcoms "Bewitched" and "I Dream of Jeannie", as well as the 1980s sitcom "Out of This World", about a teenage girl who is half-alien. Like "Buffy the Vampire Slayer", "Sabrina the Teenage Witch" (which has a very similar title but came first, mind you) was based on a bad movie of the same name and featured a teenage girl with supernatural abilities who was otherwise a normal teen. However, "Sabrina" followed more of a traditional sitcom format than "Buffy" (and Buffy was probably more of a badass). Sabrina deals with being a teenager while learning more about her powers and the secrets of her family. When Sabrina's parents got divorced, right before her sixteenth birthday, they sent her to live with her witch aunts, who they knew would take good care of her and teach her about her powers. Sabrina's father is a warlock, but her mother is a mortal. Now that Sabrina is a witch, she will turn her mortal mother into a ball of wax if she looks at her.

The show takes place in the fictional town of Westbridge, located near Boston, MA. This creative choice as well as the choice to name the Spellmans' warlock cat "Salem" are obvious references to the Salem witch trials that took place in these areas of Massachusetts in the 1600s. Sabrina often takes trips to the “Other Realm,” another dimension where witches and other supernatural creatures live. When in the Other Realm, Sabrina often deals with Drell, the head of the Witches’ Council, played by Penn of the comedic illusionist duo Penn & Teller. Barbara Eden of “I Dream of Jeannie” also shows up to play Sabrina’s Great Aunt Irma in several episodes.

In true postmodern fashion, Melissa Joan Hart showed up once in a while playing the character of Sabrina Spellman in other ABC shows in the TGIF lineup, including the television adaptation of “Clueless,” “Boy Meets World,” and the very short-lived series “Teen Angel” and “You Wish”. "Sabrina the Teenage Witch" also spun off two more TV movies – “Sabrina Goes to Rome” and “Sabrina Down Under”. After Sabrina graduated high school, we watched her take her wacky witchy antics on to college. This was when I stopped watching, because the cast completely changed (Punky Brewster and Amber from "Clueless"?!) and it just wasn't the same. The franchise later returned to its animated roots with a prequel, “Sabrina: The Animated Series,” with the younger Sabrina voiced by Hart’s younger sister and Hart voicing the two aunts. Talk about milking a franchise for all it's worth.

Regardless, this was a show that was very important to my preteen years. I'll never forget the episode when Sabrina didn't have a date to the dance, and her aunts helped her make a date out of "man dough" (and it was Brian Austen Green from 90210. Sooo '90s.)

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