Bring back Sabrina the Teenage Witch's talking cat!
Brace yourself, because I have some devastating news. In the highly anticipated reboot of Sabrina the Teenage Witch, there's no talking cat.
When I discovered the wisecracking feline Salem was silent throughout the Netflix remake, released Friday, I practically went through all five stages of grief. I was aware that The Chilling Adventures of Sabrina would differ greatly from the mid-'90s sitcom about the same teen witch — the show was conceived as a companion to the CW's Riverdale, a sort of dark riff on the classic Archie comics — but it was still jarring to see Sabrina's sarcastic familiar reduced to the lowly meows of a house cat. As any fan of the franchise will tell you, Salem's wit and companionship belong at the heart of the show.
Even if you've never seen an episode of Sabrina the Teenage Witch, there's still a chance you recognize Salem: A black cat portrayed by an amusingly unrealistic animatron and voiced by Nick Bakay. But no matter how fake the Salembot might look, his melodramatic one-liners, frequent weeping, and groan-worthy puns on Teenage Witch were so iconic and beloved they're now the stuff of memes and gifs. Part of Salem's charm came from his sardonic sense of humor, although underneath all the mockery was a softy who couldn't stand being away from Sabrina. He expressly wanted to take over the world (what cat doesn't?), but was also a relatable mess ("I am Salem. We are all Salem," one BuzzFeed list begins). Plus, it was never not funny when he dressed up. Even though Sabrina was an only child, Salem filled in the trope of the cool sitcom older sibling we all wished we had.
Now, it's true that a gritty reboot of Teenage Witch might not call for a wisecracking cat. But that's no reason to take away Salem's voice entirely.
Ever since Sabrina was first introduced in Archie's Madhouse in 1962, he has been a major part of her story. While initially nonverbal (and orange) in the original comics, Salem joked his way through Sabrina the Teenage Witch sitcom in the 1990s and also got a backstory — he was a witch forced to take the form of a cat as punishment for trying to take over the world. That version of Salem was such a hit that his personality was even adopted by the Archie comics. He would go on to have a role in Sabrina: The Animated Series beginning in 1999 and the subsequent video game spinoffs.
(Archie's Madhouse, Issue #22, 1962)
But what makes Salem's silence in The Chilling Adventures of Sabrina especially perplexing is that the showrunner Roberto Aguirre-Sacasa wrote a 2014 comic series by the same name and in it, Salem still appears as a talking cat. While Aguirre-Sacasa's version isn't exactly funny — like the resulting TV show, The Chilling Adventures comics are much darker than Archie or the '90s sitcom — Salem still operated as a partner, confidant, and guardian to Sabrina, threatening to scratch out the eyes of a schoolyard bully who taunted her in one instance. He was also still a human undergoing a feline punishment:
(Chilling Adventures of Sabrina, No. 6, 2016)
This darker version of Salem seems like a natural fit for the 2018 TV adaptation — certainly more so than a wisecracking, food-loving animatron — but Aguirre-Sacasa evidently decided against it. In Netflix's Chilling Adventures, Salem is not a person trapped in a cat's body, but a demon who chooses to take the form of a cat. The only words he says in the entire series are, when presenting himself to Sabrina in his demon-form: "I heard you calling in the woods." After that, he transforms into a cat and his meows go untranslated for the rest of the season.
This is particularly annoying because the witches understand Salem and communicate with him in one-sided conversations, leaving audiences just to guess as to what he's saying. When Sabrina gets into trouble while astral projecting, for example, Salem races to her cousin, Ambrose, meowing at him in alarm. "She's what now?" Ambrose repeats back. The whole exchange reduces the character of Salem to a kind of sinister Lassie: What's that, Salem? Timmy fell down a well?
Salem is also absent for long stretches of Chilling Adventures, making him more of a deus ex machina than a companion. While Salem was positioned as Sabrina's sidekick even before being given speech bubbles in the comics, none of that familiarity between them exists here. Part of that might simply be practical: Kiernan Shipka, who plays Sabrina, is reportedly severely allergic to cats. "It did go through my mind: Could Salem be a dog?" Aguirre-Sacasa blasphemed in one interview. Still, enough of Chilling Adventures is constructed through special effects that they evidently had the means to digitally add Salem if they had so desired (after all, this is a fandom that put up with a machine cat for years).
The fact that Ambrose instead serves as the show's source of friendship, banter, and guidance only fortifies my worst fears: that the reason for Salem's voicelessness stemmed from the showrunner's belief that a talking cat would ruin the dark atmosphere of the show. While this concern might not be entirely wrong, it's nevertheless an arbitrary line to draw when characters are exclaiming things like "unholy s--t!" without cracking smiles. Anyone on board with the premise of Chilling Adventures in the first place is not going to be bucked by a talking cat.
There is any easy fix here, of course: Just have someone cast a spell in a future season so Salem can be understood. It might be clunky, but it's certainly better than having a Sabrina series without a talking cat. So far, only one season has had to blunder through without Salem's sarcasm — don't make it two.