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Posted at 4:54 a.m. EST Wednesday, January 26, 2000

'SABRINA' CASTS SPELL OVER TV VIEWERS

Comedy About Witch Coming Of Age Appeals To Both Teen-Agers, Adults

BY KINNEY LITTLEFIELD,
Orange County Register

Someone is a little testy today -- and we don't just mean Sabrina, TV's favorite teen-age witch.

On the set at the Universal lot, Sabrina (Melissa Joan Hart) of the ABC comedy Sabrina, the Teenage Witch is in a really foul mood, giant witchy forehead wart and all -- snowstorm-starting, girl-into-goat-morphing foul.

To add stress, alter ego Hart is less than happy as she rehearses playing against her visual image in a mirror, fake wart and all. Then she pretends she can't find the furniture in an imaginary backward world, for tomorrow's episode called `Sabrina Through the Looking Glass.` The episode, which airs at nine on ABC, carries a TV-G parental guideline, which means it is suitable for younger children.

`Big energy, BIG energy, Melissa -- remember everything is flipped around,` creator-executive producer Nell Scovell psyches Hart, who enters Sabrina's girlishly frilly bedroom for the third time, spinning around in confusion.

It's all part of casting Sabrina's special-effects-heavy spell, requiring Hart to do multiple takes of sometimes-clunky things that get magicked up in post-production.

Plus, Sabrina is a novice witch whose magic is often ditzier than that of her mentors and aunts, Hilda (Carolyn Rhea) and Zelda (Beth Broderick). But that doesn't help Hart feel better about klutzing out in front of visitors and crew.

`I felt like an idiot in those scenes,` Hart, 20, admits during one of her infrequent breaks.

She sounds gracious but tired. As the high-energy heart of Sabrina she is in nearly every scene. It's an intense gig. Still Hart, a diminutive 5-foot-3, looks near-flawless in a slim earth-colored pants suit, her hair glowing golden.

`Acting with yourself isn't much fun, especially with a wart on your head,` Hart says, her wart now magically gone.

In a season of only so-so successes, Sabrina, from Viacom Productions, is the only new comedy with a truly fresh slant. Filled with real-life themes for teens, it also plays sophisticated enough for adults. The result -- numbers as good as a witch could brew. For the week of Dec. 23-29 Sabrina ranked No. 14 of more than 100 prime-time shows.

Of course, Hart's magic started earlier, when she played clever teen-ager Clarissa in the smash Nickelodeon series Clarissa Explains It All.

Then there were Hart's other accomplished lives. She shot her first TV commercial at age 4. She starred opposite Martin Sheen in The Crucible on Broadway. She won three Youth in Film awards. She appeared on Saturday Night Live and the daytime drama Another World.

Now she is developing her own projects through Hartbreak Films, the production company she runs with her mother, Paula Hart, who also executive produces Sabrina.

Sabrina is a surprisingly smart sitcom for a family show. You see its sly humor in the name of Sabrina's high school football team, the Fighting Scallions.

`I hope Sabrina is shooting off on all levels,` says Scovell, who wrote the `Looking Glass` episode and previously worked on Murphy Brown and Coach.

`Melissa has great appeal to teen-agers,` she says, then half-teasing, `although I find a lot of adult men enjoy her, too. But the adult appeal comes from the fact that every adult has been a teen-ager. Still, although we always knew kids would like the show, adults liking it was a surprise.`

`We` is Scovell and Paula Hart. Paula Hart acquired the rights to the Archie Comics heroine Sabrina and turned it into a telefilm for Showtime that aired in April

`The Showtime movie was very sweet, but it wasn't especially funny,` Scovell says. `So I created this series changing a few of the characters and really defining the aunts. There's a sweetness to the show that I'm really proud of. Part of it is Melissa and part of it is a feeling that both Paula Hart and I had that TV had gotten too mean -- and that comedy doesn't have to come out of cruelty.

`And no -- I never read the Archie comic books, and I never watched Bewitched. I mean, I watched it when I was a kid, but I make a concerted effort not to now (in rerun on cable) because I'm always afraid we'll end up doing a show that they did.`

Hardly. Teen-age Sabrina is mucho more independent and liberated than Bewitched's wacky witch Samantha (Elizabeth Montgomery), who often used her powers to try to please hubby Darrin (Dick York, then Dick Sargent) -- usually with I Love Lucy-like results.

In fact, Melissa Joan Hart sees Sabrina as pretty darn normal, by the standards of teen-age America 1997.

`The show is a coming-of-age thing,` Melissa Joan Hart explains. `Clarissa was a strong role model who helped kids out a lot and made them feel better about themselves. But Sabrina is as vulnerable as anyone and has her weaknesses and has fears and shows them a lot in the show. Kids identify with that.

`Plus, Sabrina is just learning to use her powers, which is a whole other thing on top of being a teen-ager. Like there's a line in 'Sabrina Through the Looking Glass' where I say, 'I have to be a girl, I have to be a witch, I have to be a mortal and I have to be a teen-ager all at the same time.' `

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