The landscape of genre television has witnessed a surge in popularity and acclaim, with shows like Game of Thrones and The Walking Dead dominating the 2010s. While numerous series have touted themselves as “prestige TV,” not all have met the expectations that accompany such a label. AMC+, however, stands out for its adeptness in perfecting the intersection between genre and prestige, exemplified by the successful adaptations of Interview with the Vampire and Dark Winds. The streaming service appears to be a prime platform for crafting compelling shows in this genre.
The exploration of witches in genre television has been attempted through the ages, with classics like Charmed and newer endeavors like A Discovery of Witches. However, the portrayal of witches seems to be a challenging feat for modern creators, unlike the success achieved with themes like zombies. Sanctuary: A Witch’s Tale, announced by AMC+, raised hopes of a solid story around witchcraft. Unfortunately, despite the streaming giant’s track record, this new series falls short of the heights reached by its counterparts.
Sanctuary follows Sarah Fenn (Elaine Cassidy), a registered witch residing in the serene English town of Sanctuary. Revered by the community for her magical abilities, Sarah becomes a sought-after figure for solving physical ailments and personal troubles. Supported by her “coven,” a group of friends reliant on her powers, Sarah’s close relationship with Abigail Whithall (Amy De Bhrún) and their children, Harper (Hazel Doupe) and Dan (Max Lohan), adds to the town’s picturesque charm.
However, the idyllic setting shatters when Dan dies in a fire, initially deemed an accident but later rumored to involve witchcraft. Harper, despite lacking her mother’s magical abilities, becomes the focus of suspicion. As their standing in society is jeopardized, Sarah and Harper must fight not only to prove their innocence but also to safeguard their lives.
What begins as a genre show gradually morphs into a standard domestic drama, struggling to fully integrate these elements. The magical aspects within the characters’ lives often lack the weight expected in a supernatural series. From the outset, it appears that the town drama was developed more extensively than the fantastical elements, and these magical elements become increasingly sparse as the series progresses. While magic serves as a means for women to connect in the small town, the show fails to explore this concept fully.
Harper, a main protagonist, receives insufficient development, and her arc addressing themes of slut-shaming, sexual assault, and female empowerment feels undermined by the show’s bloated narrative. Sanctuary: A Witch’s Tale, burdened by multiple plotlines, fails to afford these women sufficient time to connect, resulting in forgotten relationships and abandoned storylines.
The deficiency extends to the magical elements, a crucial aspect for a series bearing the title “witch.” Rather than delving into the roots of Sanctuary as a magical haven for witches, the series hastily glances over these ideas. The world-building is minimal, leaving mentions of dark magic and magical laws unexplored. Consequently, the magical aspects emerge as the weakest elements of the show, a departure from AMC+’s other genre ventures known for expansive and immersive world-building.
Despite an enthralling performance from Amy De Bhrún as Abigail, who skillfully navigates the complex spectrum of good and evil, Sanctuary: A Witch’s Tale falls short on multiple fronts. The core mystery begins to soar, reminiscent of a middling version of HBO’s Big Little Lies. However, due to the disjointed unfolding of events, the series fails to find its wings. In the end, it becomes a run-of-the-mill genre show, fortunately limited to a miniseries format, sparing viewers the pressure of an unlikely Season 2.