Let’s talk about Melissa Joan Hart for a moment: after her breakthrough role as the star of Clarissa Explains It All on Nickelodeon, a show which I still have fond memories for, Hart made the logical jump to a major network show as the titular Sabrina in Sabrina the Teenage Witch in a made-for-TV movie on ABC that served as a pilot to the eventual TV series that was added to the TGIF lineup in 1996.
As mentioned, I really liked Clarissa Explains It All and watched every episode on Nickelodeon when I was a kid. However, in the weird way that television demographics and the actors that appeal to those demographics tend to stay static while the initial demographic moves on and grows up, so did I.
While when Clarissa first aired it was firmly aimed at my age group, by the time Hart starred in Sabrina the Teenage Witch, I was 14 years old and had moved on from TGIF to watching The X-Files and surfing the internet on Friday nights. If you’re reading this and were of that age in the mid-90s, you may fondly recall the early days of the World Wide Web: how your 28.8 kilobaud modem (or, if you were l33t, 56K connection) would use your phone line to audibly dial into your web server (my family used The Core, a small local internet provider before everything was bought up by gigantic corporations that now run everything in the universe). From there, you would surf the rapidly multiplying web pages that were just text and images, or else log onto IRC or a chat room to talk to/argue with other confounded people about this new insane new technology in real-time. It was kind of like how today’s internet works, only without integrated, fluid videos, much less content, and a much, much slower loading time.
Then you would put on your headphones and Discman and play some Doom while listening to grunge music for a while. The fond memories I have of eating pizza, reading .alt discussion threads, and watching The X-Files on Friday nights when I was a teenager bring powerful feelings of nostalgia of those somehow simpler times of the early days of the internet–a time when we could literally never envision how the internet would eventually develop; how it would become the de facto mainstream outlet in culture; and what it would come to mean to the rest of the world in every way possible.
This is all to say that I didn’t watch Sabrina the Teenage Witch when it first aired, and I only am familiar with it after it moved to The WB in 2000. And even then, I only watched it when I was too lazy to change the channel, so this will all be pretty fresh to me.
As for the show itself: it’s about a young woman (Sabrina) who’s sent to live with her two weirdo aunts, who end up being witches, and she’s also a witch, and there’s a talking cat and you know, that’s kind of what the show’s about.
Anyway, I’m going to watch the pilot episode, which is weird since they already did a TV movie that practically served as the pilot, but I guess they wanted to smooth it out to the shorter, 21-minute format limitation that the series would function in. Even more confusingly, even though the series originally aired on ABC and later moved to The WB, the pilot is hosted online on the CBS website. I’m guessing that The WB is a Viacom company, which owns CBS, and they retain the rights to the property so the whole series is now theirs to do with as they wish. You see why I’m nostalgic for the 90s? The 21st century is way too complicated! So yeah, here’s Season 1, Episode 1 — “Pilot.”
Season 1 Episode 1 – “Pilot”
We open on Melissa Joan Hart (Sabrina) sleeping in bed. As pan flute music plays, she begins to levitate. We hear from outside a woman’s voice who says that her 16th birthday started 5 minutes ago and when they open to door we see Beth Broderick (Zelda) and Caroline Rhea (Hilda) enter the room, where Zelda is charmed to see her niece levitating…as witches do? I know nothing about witchcraft, aside from my ex who’s a real witch in her own right (rimshot). Hilda says hey, let’s let her know that she’s a witch, but Zelda says nah, she’s starting a new school tomorrow and the exposition train is arriving right on time. Anyway, that’s the cold open.
“We’ll explain that she’s now Satan’s bride in the morning!”
And now for the theme song, which isn’t very catchy unlike most TGIF fare, but instead it’s just an instrumental with Sabrina magically trying on different outfits in a mirror using magic. And that’s that. A real disappointment in the theme song department, considering the high standards that TGIF shows have always had.
So the next morning, she greets her aunts and they say happy birthday and I’m just waiting for that fucking talking cat I’ve heard so much about to start whine-talking. There’s a shitload of awful online commercials breaking up the action so I’m also going to complain about those because I guess CBS has an iron grip on the Sabrina property so if you want to watch an episode you’re going to watch some commercials too, dammit! I even had to disable AdBlock just to watch this episode. So when we get back to the show, the aunts gave Sabrina a cauldron for her 16th birthday and break it to her that she’s a witch. And so are they. And so is her father. But her mom’s mortal, so I guess that makes Sabrina a mudblood in Potter terms.
Off Sabrina goes, not believing a word of this shit. This show is shot pretty well, so I’ll give it that. She tries to talk to the cat about how crazy they are, but once she’s out of earshot, the cat starts talking. BECAUSE IT’S GODDAMN MAGIC, PEOPLE! Then we see as Sabrina walks the halls of her new school and maybe this is the first TGIF show that wasn’t a classic 3-camera sitcom. It looks like it was shot on film, as well. Anyway, she’s in chemistry class and the teacher says go find a lab partner and also it’s the first day of school and they’re going to dissect a frog the first day. That’s crazy. Also the lab teacher is the dork from Head of the Class, a reference that only very old people like me will get. Anyway.
She makes friends with a weirdo who’s going to be her new pal I guess and Sabrina wishes she could bring the frog back to life and with a wave of her hand she brings the frog back to life. Because she’s a witch, after all. Is any of this sinking in yet, Sabrina? Also, wouldn’t her aunts give her the day off of school so she can get used to the idea that she has supernatural powers? But that’s none of my concern.
This frog would go on to great success as the mascot for The WB.
So LATER, she comes across some bitches in the bathroom who give her sass so Sabrina uses her extra-sensory powers to throw some deep-cutting shade at the lead bitch girl, whose name is Libby but I’m just going to keep calling her a bitch because man, is she a bitch in this show. Anyway, Libby Bitchgirl says she can no longer use this bathroom anymore because she’ll cut Sabrina up but good next time. So Sabrina waves her hand and this makes the bitch girl smear lipstick all over her face uncontrollably. Literally, FACE!
Back at home, her aunts give her Sabrina’s birthday present, which is a magical book. She says hey, this is weird and a picture of her father in the book actually talks to her and tries to explain to her that she’s a witch but she still doesn’t believe this. Sabrina says this is nuts so come with me, cat. And then the cat talks to her and this freaks her out even more and she runs out of the room. You see? This is what I was saying about letting her stay home from school so they could sort this craziness out first.
So her father the book levitates to her room and this freaks her out even more. So she says I can’t be a witch, book father, and her dad says hey this is the way it’s gonna be, it’s kind of the premise of the show. Also, you can’t see your mom for the next two years or she’ll turn into a ball of wax because that’s how the witch community discourages mortal-witch marriages (I guess this also explains why she was shipped off to her aunts suddenly), which is pretty fucked up.
“Remember: endless supernatural nightmares await you the further you enter into adulthood as a witch! Just wait until you learn why I’m trapped in a book for eternity!”
She asks if this is why he and the mom got divorced, and he says no, and she asks are they are gonna get back together, and he says no because you don’t seem to understand that I’m dead or in another dimension or something else that’s not explained here. After all of this weird talk, she calmly goes back to talk to her aunts about being a witch calmly, possibly after having cast a Valium spell on herself, so they try some magic out. They ask her to turn an orange into an apple, and she turns the orange into a pineapple. Then she turns another fruit into a pineapple. And CUT TO them with a ton of pineapples. Anyway, they say don’t keep fucking with shit, it’s gonna fuck everything up in the universe, so have a good day, yeah?.
Back at school she meets back up with her new friend and they roam the hallways while the single camera flies around with them around and that bitch girl throws more shade at her. What is this girl’s problem? Anyway, at lunch the hunky dude she likes decides to sit with her and her freak friend and I have no idea what the hell is going on. The bitch girl comes back up and I think it’s the same bitch character from Josie and the Pussycats. The bitch girl purposely spills shit all over Sabrina to prove that she’s truly a horrible human being so Sabrina zaps her into a pineapple. Take that, pineapple bitch!
Remember: bitches get pineapple stitches.
Then it’s another awkward, long online commercial break. I’ve been using AdBlock and watching bootleg television online for so long that I’ve forgotten how annoying actual commercial breaks that you can’t skip over are. Well, I enjoy a Nintendo Switch commercial that airs, at least, even if I’m never going to buy one because video games systems past PS2 confuse me.
Back home, the aunts are blah-blah’ing and Sabrina says so I turned the most popular girl at school into a pineapple and in a total badass move, Hilda goes to chop her into pieces with a giant butcher’s knife. But Zelda has a cooler head and decides to turn the awful girl back into her awful self insteaad of murdering her. Bad move, Zelda. The awful bitch leaves while saying she’s going to ruin Sabrina socially because she’s a freak. The aunts say nah, fuck it, who cares, we’re like immortal beings: she’ll age and wither and die and you’ll just live for eons. Also, we can turn back time if need be, but you gotta appeal to the witch’s council.
Soooo we’re off to the witch’s council, I guess, and also it’s dropped that these aunts are like centuries old and there’s a lot of craziness being smashed into these 21 minutes. They send her off to the council herself and then bingo-bango, there she is. Anyway, Penn & Teller are part of the council and they deny the request of turning back time but Sabrina tries to explain why she wants to do this, and they speed up her speech to literally have her explain it quickly. They send her on her way and she’s back in her room to go to sleep. Later, when Sabrina’s talking to Salem the Cat, he explains that he’s been sentenced to 100 years of being a cat due to wanting to rule the world in the past. Anyway, this goes on for a bit and hopefully this ends soon.
“…and my brutal reign enslaved thousands and destroyed entire cultures! What fun.”
And it does! The aunt asks if there’s a word from the witch’s council about the request, and it’s denied, and Sabrina now dreads going to school because of that bitchface’s bitch mouth. Her aunts says shut the hell up and just go to goddamn school, who the hell is going to believe her crazy mouth about becoming a pineapple? Also, Sabrina: YOU HAVE GODLIKE POWERS! WHY WOULD YOU CARE? YOU WILL LITERALLY LIVE CENTURIES! Turns out Hilda used to date the dude on the council and her influence could change this outcome, so she goes to visit him to change his mind. But instead of flirting with him, she physically abuses him to change his mind because sisters are doing it for themselves!
At school, Sabrina’s new friend comes up to her and tells her the same terrible joke she said the morning before and it turns out that Sabrina’s time-reversal request was granted after all. She ends up having a wonderful rerun of the day since she already knows what’s going to happen, and the bitch girl comes back to fuck shit up but Sabrina already knows what’s up so when she goes to tilt her drink to dump on her, Sabrina spins it around and splashes the bitch’s bitch face with grape soda. Again: goddammit, you are literally a God on Earth! Anyway, she’s happy and the episode ends.
BUT POSTSCRIPT (but not until after a lengthy online commercial break): Salem the Cat recounts how he was doing so well in his world domination scheme when Sabrina pauses to get more milk, but Salem says hey just use your amazing power to refill your milk and also give me some, you ungrateful abomination! AND THAT’S WHAT THAT SHOW WAS ALL ABOUT!
Well, that wasn’t terrible. I could see how kids could enjoy it. Hell, even as a man twice the main character’s age, I was enjoying it enough. This is how I ended up watching later episodes: it was just good enough to keep my attention when I was bored and it was on.
There are a lot of differences between this show and the ones that proceeded it on TGIF: for starters, it used a single-camera approach often and eschewed the traditional 3-camera format for a sitcom. Also, it wasn’t concerned with keeping gags and jokes happening every moment: instead, it just kind of let the story develop with occasional jokes as it went.
Being a pilot episode, it was exposition-heavy (explaining things like the entire world of witchcraft as it functions, why there’s a talking cat, and other conceptual elements that need setting up in a fantasy-based show are kind of necessary) but done in a quick enough manner. I’m still a little confused as to why this pilot episode was needed at all since there was a TV movie that served as a pilot episode, but again: in case people missed its airing, this was a shortened version for the TGIF crowd watching the show for the first time.
It aired on TGIF until 2000, when TGIF officially stopped being TGIF, and proved popular enough that it ran for another 3 seasons on The WB. I mean, if I was the right age for this show, I guess I would have watched it, but as I mentioned in the intro, I was already a shitty teenager by 1996 and TGIF had lost its appeal to me by then.
I will say that it’s nice to see a show with primarily female protagonists (and antagonists) on TGIF in the mid-90s, something that’s still relatively rare on television. The whole supernatural/witch angle was half a decade ahead of the Harry Potter craze, and for adapting a decades-old property (Sabrina the Teenage Witch was established through Archie Comics in the 60s and even had previous television incarnations; this one was the most successful of them), the show does a pretty good job.
Of course I’ll never watch this show again; as I usually say at the end of these reviews, I’m a grown-ass man and am only watching these shows to write up these recaps. But if I had a young daughter, I would put some episodes of this show on for her to watch: Sabrina’s a likable protagonist, the show was pretty decently produced and written, and Melissa Joan Hart was a talented young actress.
- Anyway, looking for another source besides CBS, I found that there were a lot of other sites to watch this episode on that didn’t have commercials, but since I haven’t watched commercials in a while, I kind of enjoyed it. And I also enjoyed complaining about them, so it was kind of a win-win for both me and corporate America.
I’m starting to run out of TGIF shows to recap, which spells the near-end of this project (for good or ill; as I like to complain on here, my traffic has been only so-so since starting this project). I’m going to try to stretch a few more recaps before I have to sit down and watch one of my most hated shows from my childhood, and maybe from my entire life. But we’ll cross that bridge on fire when we come to it.