It's significant that the title of the CW's Archie comics adaptation isn't Archie, but Riverdale. While Archie Andrews is still the main character—though, thankfully, slightly less at the center of Betty and Veronica—the series cares more about exploring the town as a whole, looking at the more sinister aspects of a place that seems perpetually stuck in time.
Riverdale is exciting because it's the long-overdue live-action Archie Comics adaptation, but also because of the direction that promotion for the show has hinted at. Riverdale is serious and gloomy, a murder mystery that's a strange blend between Veronica Mars, Gossip Girl, and Twin Peaks. It's the Twin Peaks comparison that has been most prominent, and Riverdale isn't exactly shying away from it—from the similar opening title sequence to the theme of darkness lurking within a small town. Even Twin Peaks's alumna Mädchen Amick is cast as Betty's mother, Alice.
The core of Riverdale remains familiar. Blond, perfect-student Betty Cooper (Lili Reinhart) is in love with her best friend, redhead and literal boy-next-door Archie Andrews (K.J. Apa)—but the wealthy, ultimately good-at-heart Veronica (Camila Mendes) might like him, too. Archie plays both football and guitar, Betty wears a constant ponytail, Veronica's on the cheerleading squad, Jughead (Cole Sprouse, a surprising standout) is often found in a booth at Pop Tate's, Reggie (Ross Butler) is a loveable dick, and all eyes follow Cheryl Blossom (Madelaine Petsch) whenever she walks down the hall.
But it's the differences between the comics (specifically, the original run—which took place before weird zombie plotlines and the excellent Mark Waid and Fiona Staples reboot) and the television show that make Riverdale such a deliciously soapy watch—and it helps that most of the differences align in consistency with the characters themselves. Of course Betty takes Adderall; of course Moose might want to experiment with guys. Riverdale puts the subtext and fandom of the comics on display, as Betty and Veronica make out within the first episode, only to have Cheryl shoot down their faux-lesbianism. Later, bitchy bombshell Cheryl is actually called a "stock character from a 90s teen movie."
The show delights in small bits of meta-commentary, particularly when it comes to Archie's newfound attractiveness and abs; he's the most objectified character of the show—by all genders, too. (Another nice surprise: The male students of Riverdale High are frequently shirtless, while the women are not). Riverdale even comments on the ultra-whiteness of the comic-book series with a diverse cast throughout—most notably, an all-black Josie and the Pussycats who are reminiscent of Destiny's Child and already deserving their own spinoff. When Archie asks for help with his song, Josie responds by explaining why they're called the Pussycats: "We have to claw our way to the same rooms that you can just waltz into."
Riverdale leans heavy into tropes—there's a requisite teacher/student affair that initially makes no sense—and even though it doesn't always quite work, it certainly has a lot of fun trying. Like all teen dramas, it suffers from eye-roll-worthy dialogue ("I don't follow the rules, I make them. And when necessary, I break them") and an insistence on trying to shove in cultural references ("Can't we, in this post–James Franco world, be all things at once?"). One episode takes on slut shaming and rape culture, with a revenge plot that shows the strength of "B and V" when they work together. (It should be noted that Riverdale doesn't care too much about the love triangle, instead focusing on the friendship between the two girls and their existence outside of Archie.) It's these teen-drama aspects that count as the series's weakest points.
The good news is that even as Riverdale goes full teen-soap (ramping up the parental/child drama, teasing mysterious hints about Betty and Jughead's respective families, routinely flashing back to steamy car sex), it never forgets the overarching murder-mystery that's introduced in the pilot. Jason Blossom is found dead, and the murder produces a ripple effect throughout the whole town. It's a genuine mystery, both the "why?" and the "who?" Riverdale makes it clear that no one is totally free of suspicion, from Jason's classmates to his teacher to his twin sister. Even nerdy Dilton Doiley doesn't come out completely clean. The story of the town—told through broody, misfit Jughead who narrates the series—is endlessly engrossing and heightened by the overall look of Riverdale.
A good portion of Riverdale is purposely dark and bleak—it even rains during pep rallies—but in turn, the colors are jarring: Archie's comically red hair, the lights of Pop Tate's sign, the bright blue and yellow varsity jackets. But this extra attention on the more normal and safer aspects of Riverdale—a town where teens still go to drive-ins and drink malt milkshakes!—is just as misleading as everything else in the central mystery. What Riverdale really seems to be hinting at is that even the most all-American teenagers in Anytown, USA, have the capacity to become unhinged.
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