Take a scroll through your Netflix offerings today, and every third show centers on supernaturally enhanced beings laboring to conceal their secret existence. Throw in a small-town high school backdrop, a mortal love-interest and a scheming enemy, and you’re looking at a good portion of your recent viewing options.
But back in 1996, the television landscape was different. While Buffy would come roundhouse kicking onto screens a year later, and Roswell crash-landed in 1999, in the early ’90s, network television wasn’t yet crawling with vampires, extraterrestrials, and time-travelers. And so, when ABC premiered Sabrina, the Teenage Witch on September 27, 1996, as part of its family-oriented TGIF lineup (a block of primetime programming that included shows like Clueless and Boy Meets World), there was a space. This “charming” sitcom, adapted from a coming-of-age comic book about a teenage witch who just wanted to fit in with her Massachusetts classmates while also taking advantage of all that her powers had to offer, was a novel enough a concept to intrigue an audience of 17 million viewers.
Yes, some of the magic faded and numbers dwindled over the show’s sever-year run, but affection for the blonde enchantress, her talking cat, and zany aunts still remains strong among the TRL generation two decades later. In celebration of the 20th anniversary of show’s premiere, EW caught up with star and producer, Melissa Joan Hart.
A story based between a high school and a mystical realm, or the “other realm” as it was called on the show, meant shoot days had a certain quality of fun, with ample guest stars, stunts, and special effects. “There were so many great moments on the set,” says Hart. “The thing about the character is that I didn’t relate to Sabrina, but I loved the trouble she got into and the adventures she got to have – like being Rapunzel, being a Cirque du Soleil performer, being in Alice in Wonderland. Every day was an adventure, every day there was some fun fan on set, or a great actor, or we were just doing something ridiculous – there was an alligator or an elephant that wrestled with Salem. It was an absolute blast.”
One episode was a particularly good time for Hart. In season 3’s “Pancake Madness,” Sabrina is warned of a hereditary pancake addiction, but in a moment of syrupy weakness and parental defiance, she caves to her craving. After sinking her teeth into the fluffy goodness, she finds she physically cannot stop herself from demolishing stacks on stacks on stacks. “It was probably my most fun episode,” says Hart. “I just remember digging through garbage cans and having the syrup woman dancing around me in an IHOP place. It’s just those fun, silly moments and the physical comedy. The writing was really smart on that one. When the crew still giggled on-set when we were filming it, after they’d already heard it in rehearsal, I knew, ‘Okay, this is a good one.’”
With Sabrina casting her spell in television’s network heyday, the budget for the show was high and just as well, considering the need for elaborate special effects. “The budget was close to that of a mini movie,” says Hart. “It was the golden age of television so some the things we were able to bring in and do on that set because of the amount of money we had was just amazing.” Hence, a lovable, dry-witted animatronic cat managed distinction as a main character and a Halloween episode once featured a river of candy corn. “There was literally a dump truck full of candy corn dumping it on us,” says Hart.
NEXT: And then there were the guest stars…