This spoiler free Riverdale review is based on the first four episodes.
Twenty-one minutes. That’s all it takes for Riverdale, The CW’s oh-so stylish blend of post-Gossip Girlteen drama and Twin Peaks-inspired mystery, to have Betty (Lili Reinhart) and Veronica (Camila Mendes) begin making out. But like everything in this highly addictive show, there’s so much more bubbling under the surface than you initially realize. “Check your sell-by date ladies, faux-lesbian kissing hasn’t been taboo since 1994” barks cheerleading squad leader/Heathers refugee Cheryl Blossom (Madelaine Petsch). It’s a delightfully snarky moment that works as a meta commentary on Riverdale itself. Yes, this is a show that mixes sex and murder and noir with Archie, but it does so in a way that is self-aware and instantly ready to shatter expectations and call itself on its own inherent ridiculousness. Like Jughead (here played by a brooding Cole Sprouse) at Pop Tate’s, it is a show that is going to have its cake, eat it, and then have some more.
And you know what? It is magnificent.
The brainchild of veteran Archie writer Roberto Aguirre-Sacasa, who also gave us the excellent Afterlife with Archie and Chilling Adventures of Sabrina comics, with an assist from producer Greg Berlanti, the show draws not only from the works of David Lynch, but also at times feels like the quite legitimate offspring of The Perks of Being a Wallflower and In Cold Blood (in yet another bit of meta commentary, the latter is namechecked early in the pilot episode). To be perfectly clear, this show takes the sort of major liberties with the Archie characters that has resulted in constant grumbles from purists in online fan forums for months, but from the perspective of this writer, a person who has been reading about this characters since he first was given an Archie digest back in 1982, Riverdale feels like a creative reshuffling of the deck.
Over the past couple of years Archie has been on a roll by demonstrating an unwavering willingness to go off-brand in order to push the boundaries of how these 75-year-old characters can be utilized. This is a tricky area to be in, as such experimentation runs the risk of making what is iconic about Archie unrecognizable. Although there are moments in the first four episodes that were provided to the press in which that line is walked right up to, it is never crossed. The series has Archie, et al remaining more or less the same individuals they are in the “New Riverdale” line of comics…with some carefully constructed wrinkles for maximum dramatic effect.
The series opens with a voiceover from Jughead in which we learn that, during a leisurely boat trip, Cheryl Blossom’s twin brother Jason (Trevor Stines) fell overboard and drowned. Or did he? Meanwhile, over the summer Archie (K.J. Apa) has been working for the construction company owned by his father, Fred (Luke Perry), writing songs and getting ripped — the first time we see the character he is shirtless, explicity to acknowledge this fact — and having an affair with music teacher Geraldine Grundy (Sarah Habel). The two share more than just the secret of their forbidden tryst, they heard a gunshot on the morning when Jason died. While Betty’s gay friend Kevin Keller (Casey Cott), encourages her to finally get up the nerve to ask Archie out, her romantic plans are immediately complicated by the arrival of Veronica Lodge, who has moved to Riverdale from New York City with her mother Hermione (Marisol Nichols) to avoid scrutiny when her developer father gets involved in a high-profile embezzlement/fraud scheme.
The debut episode of Riverdale has a lot of exposition to get out of the way, as it’s likely that a large chunk of the CW’s target audience has only a passing familiarity with Archie comics. It is to Roberto Aguirre-Sacasa’s credit that the few clunky moments in the pilot that exist only to deliver information are masked by an otherwise snappy script that instantly makes audiences feel that they know these characters, even if they don’t.
The performances are excellent across the board, with Camila Mendes’ Veronica and Lili Reinhart’s Betty vying for MVP. (Perhaps fittingly). They bounce off of each other wonderfully, with instant camraderie — especially in the third episode when they hatch a plan that is pure wishfulfillment for fans of the ‘Betty Is Crazy’ meme. Madelaine Petsch‘s Cheryl Blossom seems to be having the most fun, delivering eye-rolling lines like “the weather’s predicting a downpour on the night of the rally but already you’re raining on my parade” with Mean Girls aplomb.
Any discussion of Riverdale should mention how there seems to be a genuine effort to make the TV version of Riverdale every bit as diverse as its comic book counterpart. First and foremost, the show has a subtle queer aesthetic that ranges from Cheryl Blossom’s meme-generating campiness to the honest, matter-of-fact portrayal of Kevin Keller as a young gay man — something that is much needed on TV in an era where the Bury Your Gays trope is sadly alive and well. The character of Josie McCoy (Ashleigh Murray) rightfully calls Archie on his white privilege when he wants to help the Pussycats write songs, explaining to him that the group chose their name because “we have to claw our way into the same rooms that you can just waltz into.” The third episode features a frank discussion about the impact of slut-shaming, and a constant throughout the four episodes is how the female roles are written much stronger than that of the male — with the notable exclusion of Ms. Grundy, who never really rises above her Letourneau trappings (although for the entirety of the first episode, Archie comes across as little more than a cipher, lost in the show’s sea of strong female characters). What is surprising about all of these factors is how authentic it seems as opposed to the producers having some sort of checklist of representation to fulfill. Riverdale wants to be reflective of our society because Riverdale in comics lore is, and has been for some time.
Make no mistake, Riverdale is most definitely a CW take on Archie. But it is one that is packed with enough mystery, great perfomances and Scandal-worthy mic drops to make it the breakout hit of 2017.
Riverdale premieres on the CW on January 26th.