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Tuesday, February 3, 2009

SABRINA, THE TEENAGE WITCH: THE FIFTH SEASON -- DVD review by porfle

I just did something extremely out of character for me--I actually watched SABRINA THE TEENAGE WITCH: THE FIFTH SEASON on DVD. If you knew me, you'd be saying "Holy schnikes! Have you lost your freakin' mind?" Which is entirely possible, but the truth is, to paraphrase Sally Field, I liked it. I really liked it!

Not being familiar with seasons 1-4, I checked out the show's IMDb forum and discovered that season five came right after a network switch from ABC to the WB, which included a format change. Sabrina's high school friends were ditched along with her boyfriend Harvey, in favor of a whole new life in college. Instead of living at home with aunts Hilda and Zelda (also witches), she's staying on-campus with three roommates--crabby Roxie (Soleil Moon Frye), vain Morgan (Elisa Donovan), and space-case Miles (Trevor Lissauer)--and she works part-time in a coffee house with her friend Josh (David Lascher), a potential romantic replacement for Harvey. And with Hilda now the owner of the coffee house and Zelda teaching at the college, they're still right in the middle of things, along with Sabrina's wisecracking black cat Salem.

At first, I had a little trouble buying Melissa Joan Hart as the "Sabrina" from the old Archie Comics series. For one thing, she doesn't look a thing like the comics character, and for another, I still tend to think of her as Clarissa (as in Nickelodeon's "Clarissa Explains It All"). Being on that show must've been good practice for this one, although its pace wasn't nearly as frenetic. As I watched the first episode of this collection with its characters zipping around at hyper-speed and breathlessly spouting rapid-fire dialogue as though they were trying to beat the clock, it reminded me of Jack Webb's streamlined, no-frills direction on DRAGNET. I wondered if this cast read its lines off a teleprompter as they did on that show. Then I realized that since Anson Williams had directed this episode, I had just indirectly compared Jack Webb to Potsie Webber! Sorry, Jack!

Anyway, Melissa has always had a natural ease in front of the camera and a deft way of handling this sort of light comedy. Her energetic, self-effacing style and comedy skills make Sabrina an endearing character. Once I became familiar with the characters, pieced together some of the backstory, and got into the rhythm of the show, I started enjoying it. It helps that her new best friend Roxie is played by Soliel Moon Frye, another former child sitcom veteran who knows her way around wacky comedy hijinks, and who, in the intervening years, seems to have transformed from cute little "Punky Brewster" into something of a babe, which is always a good thing.

The stories are good-spirited and fun while rarely ever getting either too stupid or too sappy. The Halloween episode is pretty elaborate, of course, packed with monsters and ghouls. This season also includes an outstanding Christmas episode and a spring break trip to Florida that turns into an awesome "Beach Party" spoof. Even the Valentine's Day episode failed to make me gag. The rest of the time Sabrina contends with the usual college and romantic problems, and the humor is funny without getting overly raunchy or insult-oriented, which is pretty refreshing. All in all, this batch of stories wasn't hard to get through at all.

Caroline Rhea is her usual cute self as Hilda, and Beth Benedict sorta grew on me as Zelda. The rest of the supporting cast is good, with some interesting guest stars including David Garrison, Kal Penn, Estelle Harris, Matt McCoy, Richard Kline, Leslie Jordan, Gedde Watanabe, and even Frankie Avalon. In addition to Anson Williams, the direction is capably handled by the likes of Amanda Bearse ("Married w/Children") and Henry Winkler, and castmembers Melissa Joan Hart and Beth Benedict.

Visually, the show is bright and colorful, and generally looks great. Even the frequent use of cheap CGI is pretty nicely-done. The 3-disc, 22-episode DVD set is full screen (4.3) with Dolby Digital sound but (alas) no extras.

So, once again I've found myself delving into previously-uncharted "wacky sitcom" territory that I normally wouldn't be caught dead in, and emerged feeling curiously entertained. SABRINA, THE TEENAGE WITCH is a surprisingly fun and appealing show which, according to its IMDb fans, was even better in its first four seasons. But I, being blissfully ignorant of the show's previous greatness, found myself enjoying this fifth season DVD set very much. In fact, you might even say that I was--here it comes--"bewitched." Ha ha, get it? Never mind.
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