One particularly boring summer day a long time ago, my dad flipped through the channels until he landed on an image of a talking black cat. Dad lingered for a moment, then continued spiralling into the abyss that was daytime television in August. My sister and I, seven and four years old at the time, immediately perked up.
“Go back to the cat!” we demanded.
For the next half hour, the world of Sabrina the Teenage Witch set up shop in my brain. Sabrina rooted itself somewhere deep where it could never be forgotten, aided by its perfectly-placed time slot of exactly when I arrived home from school every day for the next three years.
Although I jumped into the show several seasons deep, Nickelodeon played two episodes every day, as well as weekend-long marathons so. By the time the Sabrina the Teenage Witch finale aired in April 2003, I wasn’t just caught up — I was hooked.
When I tell people about the finale (usually unprompted, and then, without encouragement) I still get worked up. No other TV show has so expertly tied up all its loose strings, reunited past characters without being trite, and successfully carried a storyline to its inevitable and celebratory conclusion.
A few years ago, I went on a quest to find the final scene of Sabrina the Teenage Witch to prove to my friends that it was as epic as I had been boasting. That’s when I discovered that the entire series, every single episode, was on Hulu.
It was like I had stumbled upon the impossible: a door that opened into my childhood. When I secluded myself in my dorm room with my laptop, cheesy popcorn, and completely new plans for my weekend, it wasn’t just to watch the show. It was to get my fix of nostalgia, to see if there was any way I could replicate the feeling of an open window, an empty calendar, and dinner on the table while Salem’s voice made jokes that I couldn’t yet understand.
That was kind of the problem. I was coming at the show after 10 years of growing up, and while I was watching the same show I followed all through childhood, I also . . . wasn’t. With more life experience came more knowledge about what exactly had been happening on Sabrina. It wasn’t just the jokes that I heard with new understanding, but entire themes of the show that meant so much more than just made-up potions and spells.
For instance, during one episode, Sabrina is trying to lose weight so she can fit into a dress for a dance. She tries dieting the mortal way before giving up and turning to her magic book. She meets a salesman who sells her magical shakes that instantly slim her down — however, he also casts a spell on her mirror, so no matter how skinny she gets, she only sees herself as someone she needs to change.
This is so blatantly a metaphor for eating disorders it’s almost too on the nose. Then again, if I never realized that as a kid, then didn’t Sabrina do its job perfectly? During the time it took me to rewatch the series, I paid more attention to that show than anything I was told to memorize in school and then regurgitate back out on paper. If it was teaching me, and hopefully countless other young girls, important messages about growing up without us ever realizing it, then it might have just been the most genius parenting tool out there.
During that time of life when I was still a blank slate, I wonder how much of who I am now I gleaned from the show. What other lessons did I learn through Sabrina’s eyes? Do I have her to thank for my love of writing, my sense of humor, my fashion choices? When I make decisions today, how much of Sabrina is speaking? And I continue to turn back to the show when I feel like my life needs to be reset. As Sabrina gets herself into trouble and her aunts come to her aid, I ground myself. “Right,” I say. “This is who I am. This is something I liked before I felt like I needed to think about the things I like.”
Getting older feels less like figuring out who you are and more like you’re getting farther away from the person you were supposed to be. When I think of my true self, it’s not the person living in New York City, or the person who graduated college, or even the person who graduated high school. It’s the seven-year-old wearing a nightgown watching a talking cat on TV, secretly pointing her finger at inanimate objects trying to make them move, not knowing that, in that moment, the real magic was already happening.