‘Riverdale’ may well be the strangest pitch for a new TV show in ages. The series reboots ‘Archie’ comics, the squarest and most innocuously wholesome of 1940s pop culture, into a modern angsty CW network drama that fuses the core characters (Betty, Veronica, Jughead and the rest) into a weird hybrid of ‘Gossip Girl’ and ‘Twin Peaks’.
I won’t pretend to have ever followed or paid much attention to ‘Archie’, but the title has somehow lingered around for decades. I was vaguely aware that its recent iterations have gotten particularly surreal, plunging the town of Riverdale into a zombie apocalypse and even doing a crossover with ‘Predator’, of all things. By that standard, the new show is a logical progression to keep the brand relevant to a modern audience.
As in the old comic, blonde wallflower Betty Cooper (Lili Reinhart) has a major crush on her neighbor, Archie Andrews (K.J. Apa), the high school football hero with a sensitive soul. Archie spent the summer working construction for his dad (Luke Perry!) and came back a total stud. Unfortunately, he views Betty like a little sister, not a love interest. Enter dark-haired beauty Veronica Lodge (Camila Mendes), a former big city Mean Girl who recently moved to the podunk town of Riverdale after her father was sent to prison for a white collar crime. This is a big downgrade for both Veronica and her mother (Marisol Nichols from Season 6 of ’24’), who are accustomed to being wealthy but now find themselves members of the Nouveau Poor. Somehow, Veronica has made a major attitude adjustment and tries to take the transition in stride. Archie is instantly smitten with her. Veronica feels a connection to him but, to her credit, also forms a quick friendship with Betty and doesn’t want to get in her way.
The town itself is oddly stuck somewhere between the present day and the 1950s. The kids all have smartphones and Instagram accounts, but many of their cars are classics and their social lives largely consist of going out for malteds at the local ice cream shop. Nonetheless, beneath the picture-postcard exterior, Riverdale harbors some dark secrets. Teenage rich bitch Cheryl Blossom (Madelaine Petsch) has suffered a tragedy in the loss of her twin brother, Jason, who is presumed drowned in a boating accident. (His body wasn’t recovered.) She gives some lip service to being sad yet resilient, but honestly doesn’t seem all that broken up about it. Cheryl has a reputation for being the Antichrist and pretty much everyone assumes that she murdered Jason.
Over the summer, Archie had an illicit affair with his music teacher. They were having a tryst in the woods on the morning of Jason’s death and heard a gunshot, but can’t report it for fear of their own scandal getting out.
Although not seen in the first episode, we’re told that Betty’s sister had some connection to the Blossoms. Their mom (Mädchen Amick from ‘Twin Peaks’) is a real piece of work who apparently drove the sister to a mental breakdown and then had her committed in an asylum.
Other significant ‘Archie’ characters make pop-up appearances. Politicized girl band Josie and the Pussycats perform at the school dance. Jughead (Cole Sprouse from ‘The Suite Life of Zack and Cody’) is an estranged outsider who lingers on the periphery of scenes, commenting on the plot by writing a novel about the town. (Basically, you can call him Gossip Boy.)
As the pilot episode ends, Betty’s gay BFF, Kevin, sneaks off to the woods to have a fling with closeted jock Moose Mason, only for the both of them to stumble upon Jason Blossom’s dead body, with a bullet hole plainly visible in his head. By morning, police have cordoned off the scene and the entire town is upended by the news.
Episode Verdict / Grade: B
I’m not exactly the target audience for these CW primetime soap operas, in which impossibly attractive twenty-somethings play high school kids who all have remarkable self-awareness and an unfailing ability to make the perfect pop culture reference for any situation. I also have negligible exposure to or interest in ‘Archie’. I fully expected to suffer through the premiere episode of this and never watch again.
Surprisingly, the show isn’t terrible. In fact, I’d say that it’s an impressively polished and refined example of the CW formula, made strangely amusing by the anachronism of being fronted by familiar and decidedly inappropriate characters like Archie, Jughead, Betty and Veronica.
I don’t know that I’d be inclined to stick with this long-term, but my wife was really into the premiere episode and eagerly set the next one to record.