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…[pagebreak]
In addition to talented crewmembers, the generous budget also brought in big-name guest stars, from Kelly Clarkson lurking in the background on campus to Andy Roddick as himself and a tennis coach, and appearances from *NSYNC and the Backstreet Boys.
“The great thing about producing that show was if there was someone I liked and I thought they were a strong performer, I could give them the job and let them work with me,” says Hart. “I got to surround myself with my friends and people I respected. Working with people like Dick Van Dyke and Garry Marshall was just really fun… I said I wanted to meet Blondie and sing “One Way or Another.” I said I wanted to meet the Monkees. I said I wanted Violent Femmes on the show, and because I was producer and my mother was executive producer, I could kind of make all my little dreams come true.”
The Sabrina collaborations extended to dating and befriending actors from across the hall, and working on other shows. Lindsay Sloane (Valerie Birkhead on Sabrina) was appearing on the Mr. Rhodes series when she began seeing Nate Richert (Sabrina’s Harvey Kinkle). “They would always hang out together and so I wanted her on the show,” says Hart. “For season two, she came on and we were just so tight.” And yes, Libby (Jenna Leigh Green) might have been Sabrina’s archenemy on the early seasons of the show, but apparently Green didn’t find Hart to be as much of a “freakazoid” as her character; in real life the two still stay in touch.
Since graduating from her time on Sabrina, Hart’s life is just as magical nowadays — no spells necessary. Between singing along to Gloria Gaynor’s “I Will Survive” with her 4-year-old son en route to daycare, binging Stranger Things on Netflix, escaping on date nights with her husband to see Sully, and yes, working, Hart’s got it covered. But, If she had to dig into Sabrina’s spellbook, she would really only use magic for one thing. “I hate traveling and I have to do it so much,” she says. “I would have some sort of portal or a hologram that could go and do a job for me so I wouldn’t have to get on an airplane.” Oh, and that man-dough. While she’s happily married and hardly in need of the product’s promised perfect date, her dough concoction would be “a little bit of Ryan Gosling, mixed with Channing Tatum’s body, and a younger Harrison Ford’s face.”
So would Hart and her man-dough ever be interested in a reunion with her magical costars? “I think it played out,” she says. “You can’t end Sabrina better than you ended it — riding off on a motorcycle with Harvey to a No Doubt song, leaving one wedding to go to another. The ending of the show was perfect.”