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'Sabrina' Casts a Light, Bewitching Spell

THE NEW TV SEASON * One in a series


Toil and trouble pay off in one of the nicest surprises and more amusing comedies of the new season: "Sabrina, the Teenage Witch." Melissa Joan Hart is an engaging presence who helps the series levitate above the more publicized "Clueless," the new teen-driven brew that it precedes on ABC Friday nights.

Hart, former star of "Clarissa Explains It All" on cable's Nickelodeon, plays a seemingly typical teen who lives with her aunts, Hilda (Caroline Rhea) and Zelda (Beth Broderick). Except that Sabrina learns from them on her 16th birthday--apparently a rite of passage for the dark kingdom--that she's a witch. Which explains the caldron they give her as a gift.

Hilda and Zelda have knowledge in this area, being benevolent witches themselves. Moreover, their black house cat, Salem, is actually a warlock, and Sabrina's father is a witch who lives in a book. And her mortal mother? Don't ask.

Tonight finds Sabrina being warned by her aunts that her incidental hand motions can have disastrous results, and she does have difficulty controlling her magic. Giving new meaning to shooting someone "the finger," she unwittingly turns her snotty rival, Libby (Jenna Leigh Green), into a pineapple merely by pointing at her. A rutabaga, sure. It's been done. But a pineapple? What style.

Based on an Archie Comics character, "Sabrina" is fluff that's often rewarding, an artful trifle, it's star conveying comedic flair and ease with her material, its initial script nourished by clever throwaway lines that its good cast snaps off with crisp aplomb.

When Libby angrily threatens to tell their schoolmates about Sabrina's witchcraft after being returned to her human state, one of Sabrina's aunts assures her that no one will believe Libby. Sabrina replies, deadpan: "She's a cheerleader. Nobody has as much credibility."

"Sabrina" is a series with two levels, its unabashed silliness designed for a young audience, its nuanced satire something that adults also may find a kick.

* "Sabrina, the Teenage Witch" premieres at 8:30 tonight on ABC (Channel 7).

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