The new show on the CW, “Riverdale,” based off the characters in the Archie comic universe, is the next show in a line of teenage drama’s with noir*ish tendencies.
The show, which is the latest turn of changes to the Archie brand, is proof that you can bring a 75 year old institution into the 21st century without doing too many changes to the fundamentals that made Archie and the gang, a paragon of All-American wholesomeness that even a city kid such as myself found endearing.
I even remember the first Archie comic I read, which was Archie Andrews doing his classic double-booking of dates with the two women in his life that he just can’t seem to stay away from, Betty Cooper and Veronica Lodge.
But enough about the comics, let’s talk “Riverdale.”
So I’m limited to just one episode so this review will rely on the characters and the plot so spoilers. The episode begins with the drowning of Jason Blossom, (Trevor Stines), on the 4th of July. His twin sister Cheryl, a delightfully bitchy Madelaine Petsch, claims Jason fell into the Sweetwater River when he tried to retrieve a dropped glove.
The story then flashes towards the first day of school and Veronica Lodge’s (Camilla Mendes) introduction into Riverdale. Veronica and her mother Hermione (Marisol Nichols) have escaped New York City due to scandal. Veronica, realizing that while this “In Cold Blood” town is not her “Breakfast at Tiffany’s” she decides to use it as a fresh start and be a better Veronica. She does this by befriending Betty and getting them on the cheer squad, much to Cheryl’s chagrin.
Betty Cooper (Lili Reinhart) herself is trying to be the perfect daughter after her older sister Polly, crashed and burned. Alice, Betty’s mom (Mädchen Amick) ups the ante by foisting prescription meds on her. She pines after Archie but lacks the courage to get those pesky three words out of her mouth.
The only true friend and confidante Betty has is Kevin Keller (Casey Cott), the schools openly gay student. Who just so happens to find, Jason’s body, with a gunshot wound to the head, while attempting to get it on with school jock, Moose Mason, (Cody Kearsley) after the fall dance. Well, at least someone is trying to get lucky.
Jughead Jones (Cole Sprouse), my favorite character from the comic book universe, doesn’t get much screen time in this episode. However, he gets the important job of narrating the can of worms that will inevitably burst open.
The show runners have amplified Jughead’s aloofness to 11. He still hang’s out Pop’s burger joint but, instead of scarfing burger after burger, channels his energy into writing a true crime novel about the town and somehow manages to keep up the pace. The bond that Jughead and Archie shared appears to be strained but I’m in the dark about this so I hope we get a reason why soon.
Another radical change to the Riverdale universe are the band Josie and the Pussycats, who have been made into an all African-American girl group. They, like Jughead don’t get much screen time but Josie McCoy herself, (Ashleigh Murray) shuts down Archie’s attempt at learning music from her. It might come off as snobbish at first, but Josie makes it clear to Archie that the band and the brand that she is creating will not be ‘culturally appropriated’ or be Archie’s stepping stone on his path to stardom.
And then we have Archie (K. J. Apa) himself. Of all the overhauls and changes done to his friends, Archie’s doesn’t jump out at much, save for his hot for teacher summer romance with Ms. Geraldine Grundy, a MUCH younger Ms. Grundy, played by Sarah Habel. One character trait of Archie’s that has entered into the show is his annoying indecisiveness. But instead of it being just between choosing Betty and Veronica, it’s between choosing his dad’s company, his hidden talents as a musician or becoming the jock hero since Jason is now out of the picture. In short, the character hasn’t really changed, the setting and the stakes have. Yet, Archcie’s stakes are still kind of low compared to everyone else’s.
As for Betty and Veronica’s friendship, it seems to be the strongest part of the show so far. While generations of girls wound up with the annoying binary choice of choosing which one fits with their personality, the show re-orients their personalities so that Betty wants to be assertive like Veronica and Veronica, learning some humility from the scandal tries to be a bit like Betty. This allows for more nuanced look at girlhood and promotes character growth.
Veronica’s perception of the bad girl, makes her the more compelling one simply because we’re all going to wonder if a leopard and truly change her spots, while Betty simply wants to break free and quite give a little less f***’s sometimes. Betty just wants to be herself even if she doesn’t know what exactly that is.
That’s what makes the show, to my surprise good. “Riverdale” deftly attempts to juggle the darkness of the plot, with it’s winks to elements that influenced the show’s look. Reading review after review from The New York Times, Entertainment Weekly, New York Magazine and MTV, affirms the mash-up of the Archie universe with Twin Peaks (Amick, herself, being an alum of the cult hit), but also gives nods to the great teenage angst film like Mean Girls, Clueless, Heather’s and even the Twilight film series that came before. New York Magazine writer Jen Chaney suggested that the show come with footnotes for it’s high volume of pop culture references and influences. The noir like touch gives the show the seriousness that just couldn’t exist if the old formula was still the driving force of the comics until a few years back.
The winks and homages gives the viewer a primer to the characters and the setting. It’s also nod to the past show’s that made it into the zeitgeist but at the same time affirming that it’s 2017. Changes such as complex women characters, stronger minority presence, i.e. LGBT characters with an active sex life, are part of this zeitgeist. We revere the older ones because they changed what was considered conventional. The Mad Men references are particularly noted because that show reexamined the forces of conventional thinking during postwar America. The only flaw with the pop culture stream is it’s overwhelming whiteness. Hopefully, that will get corrected in subsequent episodes.
At the end of the day, “Riverdale” is a teen drama with a sophisticated sense of self-awareness that is it’s beating heart. A heart that it proudly wears on it’s sleeve. Hopefully the show will maintain some level of cool and who know’s someone somewhere in America has read an Archie comic and actually knows of the pop culture references that pop out every second.