Background: Magic and sitcoms go together like rice and beans, steak and eggs, and many other tasty pairings. The whole idea of a situation comedy is to basically act as a short form of story telling that allows for a very basic story to be told in the confines of the 22 minutes of program time (leaving out the credits) with some humor tossed in. Magic facilitates cutting to the chase of the plot within the limits of the "rules" allowing it to take place (as in Bewitched, I Dream of Jeannie, Nanny and the Professor and so many others) as well as fantasize about the abilities we all wish we had at some point in our lives. Such is the case with today's review of Sabrina The Teenage Witch: The First Season, a series many fans have been requesting on DVD for years now.
Series: Sabrina The Teenage Witch was originally a comic book character spinning off the Archie series back in 1962. Over the years, she has been in a variety of the releases by the company and has starred or been featured in a number of Saturday morning cartoons as well. Sabrina starts off the television series as a 16 year old gal completely unaware that she was blessed with special abilities by virtue of her warlock father that manifest themselves on her sweet sixteen birthday. She is raised by her two aunts, Hilda and Zelda, neither of whom looks like the classical witch aunts from the comics, explained in part due to her status as part mortal and part witch. Their job is to watch over her and protect her while teaching her how to use her special abilities as she attends a new school in Newbridge, Massachusetts (a suburb of Boston within a short bus trip to Salem; the second most populous place in the state for witches to exist; Brockton being the lead by a wide margin). At first, she denies the existence of her powers, thinking her aunts are playing tricks on her but as increasingly weird things happen when she inadvertently flicks her wrist, points, or says specific phrases, she starts to accept her lot in life. The other main character in the series is Salem, a black cat that talks, formerly a warlock with global domination on his mind spending some down time per the all powerful witches' council. Joining the three ladies (and cat) in the cast is a number of notable secondary performers including Harvey (Sabrina's boyfriend), Jennifer (Sabrina's best friend for about half the first season), arch rival cheerleader nemesis Libby, jaded teacher Mr. Poole, and a number of walk in cameo roles by half of Hollywood (the first episode alone had Debbie Harry phoning in a role as well as Penn & Teller up to their usual tricks, and director/actor Robbie Benson as her absentee dad).
The role of Sabrina being the most crucial, I was pleased that Melissa Joan Hart fit the role perfectly; a great fit of naiveté and cute to serve the demographic audience it was designed for. Caroline Rhea and Beth Broderick as the two aunts was also a nice match to provide just the right balance of wit and sarcasm that you'd expect of a family setting but not the kind of mushy stuff that too many shows fall into. The comedic writing was a bit hit or miss as the writers seemed to struggle with providing enough low brow humor to compensate for the sly zingers that weren't nearly as obvious but it was designed as a fantasy show for young people, especially women, to feel empowered as the role models would do all the stupid things they might try, enhanced by the introduction of magic.
The ongoing themes were the same as pretty much every other sitcom aimed at the same demographic; you make your own way in life, using your own abilities and for every shortcut are a thousand pitfalls (following in the traditions of every other sitcom to date, including Leave It To Beaver, I Dream of Jeannie, and Hazel as examples). Typically, Sabrina would be faced with her teenager dilemma of the week, try to apply her newfound powers to fix it, make it worse, and then figure out a way to make things right (an admittedly generic formula used by writers of TV since the dawn of the medium). The role models provided were all innocuous and generic but some of the supporting cast did a decent job of standing out at times, even if they were clearly written in as either foils or props for the writers to give Sabrina something to do.
The establishment of the "rules of witchcraft" were frequent and oft-times contradictory from one writer to the next but it was all a guilty, mindless bit of fluff that was cuter than most shows airing on network TV (now on cable). The morality play aspect of the show was as heavy handed as most such shows and you can largely watch the episodes in any order without fear of missing anything. I doubt very much that anyone involved in the show truly thought it would last beyond a season or two when this first season was airing but having watched a few later episodes that showed some pleasant growth (however minor in nature), I think most fans will like this version as much as what currently airs on cable. That brings me to my sole point of contention, and the generally accepted reason why the show has been in limbo from a DVD release for so long; the music rights. Yup, chalk this one up as another series where the back of the DVD cover points out that: "Some episodes may be edited from their original network versions. Some music has been changed for this home entertainment version."
There are no definitive lists of what has been changed offered by Paramount (which would go a long way to restoring their credibility in the TV on DVD arena) and I've seen internet feuds start over alleged changes that were completely fabricated in the past so I'll leave it to the true believers to fill in the details as the set gets released next week but music was such an integral part of the show that I felt obligated to note that I've watched a few of the episodes in the past on cable and heard some cool music by established bands so I'm sure this will be even bigger issue as later seasons are released on DVD too (so let the buyer beware). As such, I rated it as a Rent It but this is the best release you'll see on DVD in region 1 any time soon so if you're a fan of the show, by all means pick up a copy. Here's a list of the episodes from the first season, all collected on the four discs, with original air dates as provided on the DVD cover (inside):
1) Pilot (September 27, 1996)
2) Bundt Friday (October 4, 1996)
3) The True Adventures of Rudy Kazootie (October 11, 1996)
4) Terrible Things (October 18, 1996)
5) A Halloween Story (October 25, 1996)
6) Dream Date (November 1, 1996)
7) Third Aunt From the Sun (November 8, 1996)
8) Magic Joel (November 15, 1996)
9) Geek Like Me (November 22, 1996)
10) Sweet and Sour Victory (November 29, 1996)
11) A Girl and Her Cat (December 13,1996)
12) Trial By Fury (January 3, 1997)
13) Jenny's Non-Dream (January 10, 1997)
14) Sabrina Through The Looking Glass (January 17, 1997)
15) Hilda and Zelda: The Teenage Years (January 31, 1997)
16) Mars Attracts (February 7, 1997)
17) First Kiss (February 14, 1997)
18) Sweet Charity (March 7, 1997)
19) Cat Showdown (March 21, 1997)
20) Meeting Dad's Girlfriend (April 4, 1997)
21) As Westbridge Turns (April 25, 1997)
22) The Great Mistake (May 2, 1997)
23) The Crucible (May 9, 1997)
24) Troll Bride (May 16, 1997)
Picture: Sabrina The Teenage Witch: The First Season was presented in the original 1.33:1 ratio full frame color it was shot in back in 1996/1997. It had the flat lighting of most sitcoms, a score of directors (initially Robbie Benson), and the generic editing/camera angles you'd expect of such a show. The visual effects were really low budget in the first season; especially Salem's mouth movements and the floating object material, but it was good cheesy fun for the whole family. I saw no compression artifacts on the double layered discs and it looked as good as the limited times I saw it on cable or network TV.
Sound: The audio was presented in the original 2.0 Dolby Digital English with optional CC for the hearing impaired. The audio wasn't anything fancy and didn't give my home theatre a workout but it was clean and free of major issues with the vocals. The apparent change in music was less of a factor for me since I had never seen or heard most of the episodes but the idea of it alone is enough to merit attention from me as something for consumers to be wary of (lowering my rating to a rental status). In all though, it sounded like a network show from the mid 1990's (Salem's voice-overs weren't always consistent though).
Extras: The only extra you get is a brief episode breakdown on the inside flap of the DVD cover. I would have hoped for audio commentaries, behind the scenes, bloopers, or even some of the talk show stuff that was all over the place when this came out but there wasn't any. Sorry!
Final Thoughts: Sabrina The Teenage Witch: The First Season was the kind of light fluff that folks will probably remember as disposable morality plays with little meat to them but as someone that had better things to do when it aired on Friday nights years ago, I liked this set just fine. The leads were all well suited for this type of show and the writing, while not consistent (I've been told it gets better with later seasons) wasn't bad; borrowing heavily from the vast wasteland of sitcoms that have been released over the years. If you were a fan of the show, it was what amounted to "good clean family fun" except for the whole witchcraft thing going on but she never really used her powers too maliciously and intent surely must be taken into consideration even by the religious zealots that take things so seriously these days. If you like magic based sitcoms that let you cruise on autopilot mentally, this was actually pretty good and I'll update you if I find out about specific cuts or musical edits.