It might have been the kiss of death for a certain fluffy little Friday sitcom when ABC moved the month-old series from its comfortable 8:30 p.m. slot to go head to head at 9 with Fox's much ballyhooed, blood-soaked "Millennium."
Instead, the network switch last October was a vote of confidence for one of the few new hits of the season, "Sabrina, the Teenage Witch," which is holding its own and better against Fox's intended blockbuster.
Smart writing, cross-generational appeal, funny sight gags and strong co-stars are part of the winning formula, but the show's central draw is its 20-year-old star, Melissa Joan Hart, who charmed audiences and critics for most of her own teen years on Nickelodeon's "Clarissa Explains It All."
What makes Hart stand out in her role as a high school student with magic powers? It isn't just her looks. More delicate and petite in person than she appears on screen, Hart is pretty, blond and blue-eyed, but those are not rare commodities in Hollywood. She has talent but is candid about her limitations: Her acting isn't "really deep yet," she says.
During recent chats with Hart and her co-stars on the "Sabrina" set at Universal Studios, it seemed clear that Hart's notable on-screen likability and maturity are a reflection of her off-screen persona. Even fighting the discomfort of a 24-hour stomach bug, as she sat in a small trailer and endured being made up for the day's shoot, Hart was ready to please, funny and thoughtful.
"I never looked at acting as a career until recently," she said. The grind of the "Clarissa" series plus high school had led her to consider giving up acting altogether, but doing "some movies of the week and some guest appearances on shows helped me realize that I can explore a character."
"With 'Clarissa,' I just kind of went into it and did it. I felt like I was just saying the lines, although I don't think it came across that way. When people laughed, I was like, 'Oh, that's funny?' The innocence of not really knowing, it played off well," she observed. "Now I concentrate more on the jokes, timing and acting."
Hart believes "Sabrina's" success is attributable in part to her "Clarissa" following, "but it's also the way I come off now," something she attributes to "knowing what I can and can't do."
"Sabrina" is a family affair for Hart. Three of her six younger siblings have been guests on the series and her mom, Paula Hart (who just gave birth to her seventh child, baby Samantha), is an executive producer and the savvy prime mover behind the series and Hart's career.
"It gives a whole new definition to the meaning of family show," joked Caroline Rhea, who plays Sabrina's irrepressible Aunt Hilda.
Hart has her own apartment, with the rest of the family nearby, "when she wants them around," Paula Hart said wryly.
It can be a bit tricky when your mom is your boss.
"I called her to ask what I should do about my stomachache," Hart noted, "and she said, 'Drink some chamomile tea, because that's what we used to do when you were little, take it easy and I'll come in and check on you.'
"That's nice," Hart added with a laugh, "but on the other hand, sometimes she'll be like, 'OK, you're fakin', now go to work.' "
Hart may be the boss' daughter, but it's evident that her co-workers would respect her hard work and professionalism regardless. The word "trouper" comes up frequently, especially as she gamely fights illness to complete the day's shooting.
"She's our way into so much nuttiness," said the show's other executive producer, Nell Scovell. "She is so solid and believable, it frees the writers up to come up with really insane things. In one episode, there's an argument between a talking cat and a talking trophy and she's stuck in the middle, and it [works] because she makes it real."
Rhea, who had earlier taken Hart's mind off her stomach with a flurry of banter about Hart's "devotion to flirting"--a jab that elicited a pseudo-indignant "Hey, my boyfriend's going to read this"--said later that "what's really nice" about Hart "is that she's definitely an adult, she's very responsible, but she has a very sweet child quality, too."
"She's not in any way jaded or Hollywoodish. That's why I feel compelled to tease her at all times," Rhea added with a smile.
Beth Broderick, who plays Zelda, Sabrina's other bewitching aunt, concurred.
"She is by turns incredibly mature and incredibly vulnerable. And she shares everything with the camera. I don't know if she's even conscious she's doing it. She's also willing to put a lampshade on her head and slip on a banana peel. A lot of kids I've worked with that age, they're like into black leather, and they're hangin' and they're cool; Melissa's really out there experiencing life and taking leaps."
"Sabrina" was developed through mother and daughter's Hartbreak Films company, first as a Showtime movie, then as a series--a formula Paula Hart ambitiously hopes to follow with an upcoming film starring four of her other children.