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HOWARD ROSENBERG / TELEVISION

Fright-y Night's Gem Is Bewitched

November 01, 1996|HOWARD ROSENBERG

A hot duel of odd, creepy phenomena is shaping up at 9-9:30 p.m. Fridays.

One contender is that epic furrowed brow, Fox's widely discussed new "Millennium," a grave, stony, cosmic work-up from the producer of "The X-Files" examining the titanic struggle between good and evil that occurs in contemporary society, but only at night, apparently, when the icky-poo is scariest. The title of the other contender, a new half-hour on ABC, puts a human face on just the kind of ghoulish forces of darkness that "Millennium" confronts: "Sabrina, the Teenage Witch."

"Millennium" opened with Nielsens thunder last week by winning its hour time slot. But "Sabrina" edged "Dateline NBC" for second at 9 p.m., although the ABC newcomer it precedes, "Clueless," finished third at 9:30 behind the second half of "Dateline NBC" and "Millennium," with the new CBS drama "Mr. & Mrs. Smith," a distant fourth for the entire hour.

The protagonists in "Millennium" and "Sabrina" are stunningly alike.

In "Millennium," former FBI agent Frank Black (Lance Henriksen) gains knowledge of serial murders through his astounding special powers. Yet the powers of the 16-year-old sorceress of "Sabrina" (Melissa Joan Hart) are so amazing that she could turn Black into a frog if she wished, or raise his stereophonic baritone to a soprano. His powers are both a gift and a curse, as are hers. Each also has a nemesis: Black's being a terrifying stalker who spies on him and his family; Sabrina getting harassed at school by her snotty classmate, Libby, a cheerleader. Now, that's terror.

In addition, both series are significant; "Millennium" significantly heavy, "Sabrina" significantly witty--a sneaky, quirky sleeper aimed primarily at teenage girls that is turning out to be the best new comedy of the season for all ages. No Amazon of sitcoms, its pleasures are only middle-sized. But there are so many of them--from smart, clever writing to Hart's devilishly good work as this amiable witch--that "Sabrina" is more consistently funny than ABC's "Spin City" and CBS' "Cosby," among other high-achieving newcomers, and a far more sophisticated hoot than NBC's new hit "Suddenly Susan."

"Millennium" and its array of unspeakably hideous crimes rode in on a wave of publicity that included the customary promo push during Fox's World Series telecasts. "Sabrina" arrived mostly unheralded on a broomstick. "We thought of a new slogan," said creator and executive producer Nell Scovell this week. " 'Sabrina'--the show for people who don't love serial killers."

And prefer fun to glumness.

Its achievement is a bit staggering, for "Sabrina" is no starchier on paper than the Archie Comics character on which it's based, the TV rights of which were obtained some years ago by Hart's mother, Paula Hart, who is also an executive producer on the series. Sabrina faces the same angst as any sitcom teen. At school, her great rival is the scheming, despotic Libby (Jenna Leigh Green); her best friend the eccentric outsider Jenny (Michelle Beaudoin); the crush of her dreams the shy, insecure and wimpy Harvey (Nate Richert), for whom Libby also lusts.

None of the above knows the truth about Sabrina, whose benevolent witch mentors are her aunts Helga (Caroline Rhea) and Zelda (Beth Broderick), with whom she lives along with Salem, a warlock/black cat and smart mouth who doesn't like being bothered when he's "busy staring into space." The aunts are stay-at-homes, with Helga teaching violin and telling one student recently that his "E string still needs tuning."

Ho hum.

This seemingly mundane premise is executed with sly humor and stylish gusto, however. A recent episode, for example, found "terrible things" resulting from Sabrina's attempt to help others (a la Cher in "Clueless") in violation of a witch's rule against magic being used to make mortals happy. That included interceding to assure victory for underdog Jenny, pushing her unpopular platform of smaller classes and more funding for the arts, in a school election against Libby, who was stumping hard for more pizza.

Jenny's euphoria (beside a premature school paper headline spoofing the erroneous 1948 Chicago Tribune banner proclaiming "Dewey Defeats Truman") was short-lived. Cut to her drowning her sorrows in root beer after her brief sophomore presidency comes to naught: "So young, so naive, I thought I could make a difference."

For interfering, Sabrina faced the wrath of the thundering Drell (Penn Jillette of Penn and Teller), head of the Witches' Council, who has the hots for Aunt Helga and, well, you had to be there.

Meanwhile, last week's episode extended school rivalries to a Halloween costume party where Sabrina was represented by a body double, Libby came as Jackie O and Harvey came as James Dean ("I feel so alienated").

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