SABRINA, THE TEENAGE WITCH (1996)
This marks the first of our jointly-reviewed TV shows. After this post on the pilot, we intend to do one post of two episodes a week and will cover Seasons 1-4. The reasons we are not going to continue with Seasons 5-7 are simple. Season 5 began in the fall of 2000, which puts it out of the main scope of our blog. At the same time, it moved from ABC to the WB, and the show had a massive overhaul, which Geoffrey felt was for the worse.
A general statement before we begin:
Geoffrey: I loved this show in the 90s. It was fun, clever and it had magic…something I desperately wanted to have. It spoke out for us nerds and underdogs bullied at school, and yet somehow, Libby was still likable. I am definitely looking back at the show with some nostalgic love.
Claudia: So, I did not watch Sabrina growing up. I did catch a few first-run and syndicated episodes here or there, while at friends’ houses or in waiting rooms. I don’t think I had much specifically against the show (I did like Melissa Joan Hart from the few episodes of Clarissa Explains It All that I caught growing up). The “magic-based” shows were just not my favorite, at that point in time.
But, I had friends who watched it during its initial TGIF run, so I was familiar with the Aunts and Sabrina and Libby… and didn’t Harvey get a likeness doll at some point? (Ebay says “yes!” I remember commercials.) There are a few widespread things that my generation loved in the 90s that I just didn’t *get* at the time, but now appreciate (bubblegum pop and cargo pants immediately come to mind). So, I think Sabrina the Teenage Witch may be worth a revisit, as well.
Episode: Pilot (1×01)
Director: Robby Benson
Teleplay: Nell Scovell
Cast: Melissa Joan Hart, Caroline Rhea, Beth Broderick, Nick Bakay, Nate Richert, Jenna Leigh Green, Michelle Beaudoin, Paul Fieg
Guest Stars: Robby Benson, Penn and Teller, Debbie Harry
Original Air Date: September 27, 1996
The series kicks off with Sabrina Spellman (Melissa Joan Hart) levitating over her bed in her sleep, while her two single aunts, Hilda (Caroline Rhea) and Zelda (Beth Broderick) watch on.
Geoffrey: You know it’s the mid-90s because of the lava lamp.
Claudia: Aaand the pilot episode exposition begins.
Traditional witch costume. Sabrina states “It’s so not me.”
Sabrina comes downstairs for breakfast on her 16th Birthday. Her loving aunts, sarcastic Hilda and sweet Zelda give her a cauldron and tell her she’s a witch. Sabrina, being a normal teenager, balks at the idea and heads off for school.
First period is Biology with Mr. Pool, a deeply cynical man who seems to be very unhappy with his position in life. He asks the class to pick lab partners and before Sabrina can get up the nerve to ask cutie Harvey Kinkel (Nate Richert), Queen Bee Libby (Jenna Leigh Green) asks him first. But, not to worry, as kooky girl Jenny (Michelle Beaudoin) comes to the rescue. Sabrina accidentally brings their frog back from the dead and Mr. Pool makes a comment about “Mike from Cadaver World” hearing from him.
Geoffrey: I always liked Jenny. I thought she added something kooky to the show. And Mr. Pool was a character I enjoyed greatly as well, more so as an adult.
Claudia: Ah, the pairing of lab partners. Such a glorious tradition! I was quite grateful to have one when it came to dissection time in Bio. UGH! I can still smell the cadavers… Also, “Jenny” reminds me of poor man’s 35-year-old Felicity.
Geoffrey: I actually thought she was Felicity during the early promos for that show.
The scene changes and Sabrina is in the bathroom. Libby makes a snide comment and Sabrina fires one back about Libby’s ex boyfriend. Libby deems her a “Freak” (a nickname that sticks through the series), tells her to use “The freak’s bathroom” and Sabrina accidentally makes Libby’s lipstick draw all over her.
Claudia: The “Freaks Bathroom” is actually a Thing? That’s a new one to me.
Geoffrey: Totally…although, my High School didn’t have specified bathrooms…or stalls with doors.
We then go back to Sabrina’s house, where her aunts have a lovely surprise…a small birthday party! Complete with Salem, the cat (voiced by Nick Bakay) in a party hat. They present her with a gigantic, old, bedazzled book from her father. Inside a picture of her father, who is seemingly named both Ted and Edward (Robby Benson) informs her that she is indeed a witch. Sabrina laughs it off, asks why no one got her something from the GAP and flounces out. The book follows her, and Tedward fills Sabrina in on a few things. She is a witch, her aunts have to help her learn how to use magic, he inexplicably is unable to be there at all, and if she tries to see her mother in the next two years, (who is an archeologist in Peru) then her mother will turn to wax. (Note: This apparently gets changed, because in the series finale, one of the aunts becomes the wax so that her mother can attend Sabrina’s wedding.)
Claudia: So, Robby Benson (the director) cast Robby Benson (the actor) in this episode? Is it nepotism when it involves one’s self?
Geoffrey: Yes. Yes it is nepotism. Also, it always blows my mind that Robby Benson is the voice of The Beast in Beauty and the Beast.
Sabrina goes back downstairs and her aunts teach her how to turn things into pineapples. What they do with the 23 pineapples becomes a mild visual gag for the rest of the episode.
The next day at school is traumatic: Jenny tells Sabrina a terrible joke about Brad Pitt, she fails a pop quiz in history (“How are we supposed to remember all that stuff from the past?” she asks), gets hit in the head by a football thrown by Harvey and before she can ask Harvey out for the weekend, Libby invites him to a party she’s throwing! And to make things worse, Libby spills some sort of vaguely purple liquid on her! Sabrina, having had enough, yells at Libby, points her finger at her and…turns her into a pineapple.
Geoffrey: Cause, ya know, that’s the best way to show someone…turn them into a fruit.
Enjoy some Sunny D!
Sabrina returns home with Pineapple!Libby (the first of many transformations she will undergo) and whines to Hilda and Zelda about the situation. Hilda offers to cut her up and put her on toothpicks. Zelda instead uses the worst incantation ever to turn her back into Human!Libby. Libby, appropriately, flips out and threatens to ruin Sabrina. Sabrina whines, and her aunts reveal that she could possibly turn back time, with approval from The Witch’s Council. It’s located 10mil lightyears away, but fortunately for Sabrina, her aunts bought a house with a portal in the linen closet. The tell her the Council is run by Drell, Hilda’s ex-fiancé, and to not stare at his mole.
Claudia: The color scheme of the pineapples looks too similar to the pattern on Sabrina’s shirt. There’s no contrast between the two. Maybe we should have gone another route, Robby?
Geoffrey: Maybe it’s meant to be commentary about how her life is like a pineapple, rough and poky on the outside, yet sweet and delightful when you get down to it? Maybe?
Sabrina goes through the linen closet and meets the Witch’s Council: Drell, Skippy and Cassandra (Penn and Teller, and Debbie Harry). Drell is holding a mole (the animal kind). She proceeds to explain her request and they tell her they will think about it.
Claudia: This Penn & Teller guest appearance is way better and more suitable than the one they did on Babylon 5.
Geoffrey: This is the first of many bizarre celebrity cameos and appearances throughout the course of the series. My assumption is that they put them in for the adults watching on TGIF.
That night, Salem and Sabrina stay up late and Salem explains why he was turned into a cat. It seems that in his youth, Salem Saberhagen was a warlock who was a bit power hungry…and he tried to take over the world. As punishment he must spend 500 years as a cat.
The next morning at breakfast, the response comes via…a letter-in-the-toaster… and her request has been denied. Morose, Sabrina flounces off to school. Zelda reminds Hilda that, since Drell left her at the altar, there might be something she can do to change his mind. So, Hilda bravely goes off to speak to Drell.
Geoffrey: I just have to take a moment and ask, what the heck is Hilda wearing? She looks like a blonde Miss Frizzle.
Claudia: That’s a perfectly stylish look on the Frizz. I have no idea what you’re going on about, Geoffrey.
Sabrina arrives at school to discover she is reliving the day before! She is able to ace her pop quiz (“I just love history!”), catch the football, and ask Harvey out! And to top it off, before Libby can dump purple liquid on her, she uses her finger to flip it back on her (apparently, she’s learned a new spell overnight). She goes home totally estatic and dances around her room with Salem.
Claudia: I just wonder what’s going to happen on the next day, when Sabrina no longer knows the answers to that day’s quiz. Will the teachers still think she’s so smart and studious?
Geoffrey: Silly Claudia, you’re using logic on a sitcom with a talking cat and shirts that look like pineapples.
Claudia: Point taken.
Sabrina is seated on her bed talking to Salem about why he is now a cat (he tried to take over the world) when she tries to excuse herself because her milk is empty. Salem tells her to check the book of magic and Sabrina learns how to make milk out of thin air.
Claudia: This felt like a typical sitcom pilot. It had a ton of exposition, loads of character setup, and a minimum of actual wacky hijinks. With the episode’s focus being on setting up the plot and characters, it seemed as if the laugh track (or was it taped before a live studio audience?) didn’t find many jokes to laugh at. That said, the premise seems promising enough, so I look forward watching the next few episodes.
Geoffrey: Ya know, for all the snark I know I’m going to be writing in the next zillion posts, this show is still really enjoyable. We haven’t been introduced to the recurring catchphrases, and there was only one real magic pun (the mole), but it’s coming. And soon. I definitely look forward to watching these and seeing Claudia’s reactions to some of these episodes.