Watching a talking cat and a teenage girl navigate the wacky ramifications of spells that make unpalatable lima beans disappear or stop the school bully from spreading lies might not seem like a fun Friday night for those growing up in the TikTok era. But in 1996, Sabrina, The Teenage Witch was appointment viewing for 17 million households.
Starring Melissa Joan Hart, fresh off her star-making turn as the title character on Nickelodeon’s Clarissa Explains It All, Sabrina, The Teenage Witch has everything—humor, heart, magic, and a female protagonist with extraordinary powers yet similar insecurities as her young audience.
That’s partly because Sabrina, who lived with her supportive 600-year-old aunts Zelda and Hilda (Beth Broderick and Caroline Rhea), only learns that she’s half-witch with magical abilities at the start of the series, when she turns 16 years old. So, while she’s struggling to fine-tune her potions, she’s also weathering a pivotal time in her life as she juggles high school, crushes, impending womanhood, and so much more.
“What’s the matter?” Sabrina asks with exasperation in the 14th episode of season 1. “I have to be a witch, I have to be a mortal, I have to be a teenager and I have to be a girl all at the same time. That’s what’s the matter.”
It’s this kind of reflection, bizarre and relatable in equal measure, that humanizes both Hart’s portrayal as well as Sabrina the series. It also served as the impetus for co-creator and season 1 showrunner, Nell Scovell, a TV veteran whose writing credits include Murphy Brown, Coach, and Newhart. “I wanted to make a show that I would’ve liked to watch when I was a young a girl,” she tells Elle.com on a Zoom call from Los Angeles. “And the revolutionary idea of Sabrina is she’s a good kid. She doesn’t want to be a cheerleader [or] popular. She, like me, wanted to be good in school, and a good person.”
It’s been 25 years since Sabrina, The Teenage Witch premiered on ABC. It ran for seven seasons, ending in 2003. Scovell, at first, seems modest about its impact and helming the series, which she adapted from the original Archie Comics. “It was just running all the old sitcom tropes through this additional twist of magic,” she says. “She doesn’t have a date for the prom, so her aunts make one out of man-dough, as one does.” Scovell can’t help but chuckle recalling the sixth episode of the first season, titled “Dream Date,” with guest star Brian Austin Green.
But the zaniness of the sitcom, and what it would quickly become—a teen classic that, unlike the older classic, Bewitched, portrayed a young witch who is encouraged to use, not hide her powers—was what made it so remarkable. “What was so much fun for me was that twist,” Scovell admits.
Many of the choices Scovell would go on to make during her single-season tenure on Sabrina and later in her career were directly influenced by some of the women she looked up to growing up post-Bewitched. “But that is the difference between a show in the ‘60s and a show in the ‘90s created by someone who grew up in the ‘70s and had Gloria Steinem in her life,” she says. “It was, ‘Be careful of your powers, but we will encourage you to use them.’”
Intentionality for Scovell also came from her experience as a woman in a position of power in a business that was, and remains, run by men. She felt a need to keep the show realistic—even as it concocts truth sprinkles and has characters that chat with a talking photo framed on their kitchen wall.
As Scovell details in her 2018 book, Just the Funny Parts: … And a Few Hard Truths About Sneaking into the Hollywood Boys’ Club, she got pushback from Viacom execs Steve Gordon and Chris Sanagustin about keeping Sabrina’s mortal mother alive (though she was rarely on the show) to avoid the dead mom trope. “It just seemed very sad,” Scovell explains with a laugh. “We were a comedy, and I wanted to make sure you were comfortable with the concept that she was living with her aunts and that her father was only available to her through the book [referring to the Magic Book where her father, Edward, appears via a portrait inside].”
That meant that the first three names on the call sheet were women, which was virtually unheard of at the time. They joined a co-executive producer and two supervising producers who were all women. “Golden Girls, Designing Women, and Murphy Brown had male executive producers,” she says. “Susan Harris, Linda Bloodworth-Thomason, and Diane English all worked with their husbands who executive produced their shows.” She laughs and adds, “My husband’s an architect.”
Scovell’s fiercely independent vision came into play in myriad storylines, including the 16th episode of the first season titled, “Mars Attacks,” one of her personal favorites. It’s when Sabrina is miserable on a Mars ski vacation with her aunts because she is away from her boyfriend, Harvey (Nate Richert), until she meets a hot ski instructor (David Chokachi) who tries to sweep her off her feet.
“He touches her hand and starts to make a move on her,” Scovell recalls vividly. “She stops him and [is like], Nope. When Harvey touches me, it feels a certain way. When you touched me, I didn’t feel that, so I’m not going to go forward. What surprised me is that that scene is a really good model of consent.”
Even today, Scovell finds herself pausing and reconsidering decisions she made, however subconscious, while developing a show that was inherently light and fun. “I can’t say at the time I thought, In this scene, we will model consent,” she continues. “But when you have a female showrunner—I wrote that episode too—and that’s part of your lived experience and the way you want the world to work, you get to display that to the audience.”
By that same token, she notes in Just the Funny Parts that the very specific lived experiences she depicted on the first season of Sabrina excluded people of color in the core cast—despite having the opportunity to cast Cicely Tyson as Hilda. “I’m aware of all the excuses I could make to justify the homogeneity because they’ve all been made against me on male-centric shows,” she writes. “I had the opportunity to include more voices and I didn’t make enough of an effort. That was a mistake.”
Over Zoom, she reiterates that regret. “It’s a lack of imagination,” she says simply.
Mulling over this some more, she adds, “I was stuck on that idea that they’re a family, so they should have the same skin color. There was, on my part, some moral licensing because we came after Family Matters. I think there was this feeling that that show had a Black family, and we have a white family, and that’s okay.”
Obviously in hindsight, Scovell realizes that that was shortsighted, noting the significance of inclusive shows like Hamilton. “The diversity we see today has only made TV better,” she says. And to be fair, the whiteness of ‘90s television extended far beyond Sabrina to Beverly Hills, 90210, Party of Five, and countless others. “Buffy, The Vampire Slayer was super white and Charmed too,” Scovell says, mentioning the latter series which she moved on to write for a few years after Sabrina. “Frankly, most of the shows—Murphy Brown, Coach, Newhart. That was the cultural bias, and that was wrong.”
While Sabrina had its flaws (certain lines of dialogue are also particularly dated today) it gets credit for toppling all expectations for what a sitcom about a teenage witch can accomplish. That includes the 23rd episode of season one, titled “The Crucible,” which sees Sabrina confronting the fallacy of the Salem Witch trials—and, by extension, women and girls who, like her, are seen as different—at a mock hearing on a class trip to the original setting.
Though Scovell says that high school “was not the happiest of experiences” for her, she might have been interested in returning to the world of Sabrina in Netflix’s Chilling Adventures of Sabrina had she been asked, particularly when Broderick and Rhea guest-starred on the series in 2020.
It could have also been an opportunity for her to be a part of an iteration of a character she modernized from the source material and that had been further updated for today’s demand for inclusion on screen. Still, she notes that the Netflix series lifts a lot from the ‘90s show.
“They use so much of my IP,” she says. “It cracked me up because, in the book, their last name, Spellman, came from my dad’s best friend, Irving Spellman. And the backstory about Sabrina having a mortal mother and a witch for a father—that wasn’t in the comic books. I created that for our series.”
That said, she’s only seen the first few episodes of Chilling. “It was hard for me, obviously, to appreciate what they were doing, because I was always comparing it [to my version].”
Still, Scovell recognizes the value of a character who has endured for decades and found new relevance with ever-evolving audiences who favor incantations and teenage battles against the patriarchy. “Every generation gets the Sabrina they deserve,” she says, “and these are chilling times.”
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