During the past few years, the CW has been on an upswing in content. While it struggles with ratings, the network has been producing a number of quality television shows catered to progressive, young adult audiences. The CW’s hilarious female-driven comedies (“Crazy Ex-Girlfriend” and “Jane the Virgin”) have become award-winning critical darlings, while its long-running dramas (“The Vampire Diaries” and “Supernatural”) and superhero-centric programs (“Arrow,” “The Flash,” “Arrow” and “DC’s Legends of Tomorrow”) have developed online cult followings. The newest addition of “Riverdale,” an updated adaptation of the famed Archie Comics, seems to fit the CW mold perfectly, but its ability to draw in both acclaim and devout fan bases is still up in the air.
In the promos preceding “Riverdale” ’s premiere, the show was thought to be a grittier, darker take on the much more lighthearted comic series. The description is certainly true for the most part — “Riverdale” uses a tantalizing, neo-noir murder mystery as a framing device for establishing the characters, story and location. But contrary to the initial perception, “Riverdale” is much more than “‘Twin Peaks’ meets Archie.” The show maintains a sly self-awareness to its own soapy nature and thus infuses unabashed melodrama, pop culture-heavy humor and a cast of attractive characters into its story.
From the first minute of the pilot, the show’s laconic narrator, Jughead (Cole Sprouse, “Suite of Zack and Cody,” in a welcome return to television), sets the story in motion: After the sudden, mysterious death of a beloved high school student, the residents of the titular town must grapple with the tragic news while dealing with secrets and inner demons of their own. There’s Archie Andrews (K.J. Apa, “A Dog’s Purpose”), the football player/aspiring musician whose affair with his music teacher Miss Grundy (Sarah Habel, “Whip It”) threatens both of their reputations. The seemingly perfect blonde Betty Cooper (Lili Reinhart, “The Kings of Summer”) has been harboring a crush on Archie for quite some time, but finds some competition in rich girl Veronica Lodge (newcomer Camila Mendes) to win his affection. With a few twists and turns, “Riverdale” sets up its intriguing premise in admirable fashion, but not without a few bumps along the road.
Though “Riverdale” is right on the cusp of being something more than a typical teen mystery drama (think Freeform’s “Pretty Little Liars”), it occasionally falls into the trappings of one. The dialogue has genuine moments of wit, but for the most part, its excessive reliance on pop culture references makes it almost grating to listen to. Unlike “Gilmore Girls” or “Veronica Mars,” “Riverdale” seems a little too keen on making references that are obscure (“I'm already the Blue Jasmine of Riverdale High”), cheesy (“You should be the Queen Bey of this drab hive”) and just plain confusing (“Can't we, in this post-James Franco world, just be all things?”).
Moreover, the personalities of the characters are a bit far-fetched. In particular, Archie has yet to show a single character flaw — he’s talented, athletic and a tad too gorgeous to be considered a relatable protagonist. Conversely, the show’s main villain, redheaded queen bee Cheryl Blossom (newcomer Madelaine Petsch), has yet to show a single redeemable quality — she’s manipulative, entitled and a note too one-dimensional to be considered a compelling antagonist.
At the same time, “Riverdale” seems confident in developing these characters by intertwining its mystery subplot with a coming-of-age story that gets at the heart of its source material. The love triangle between Archie, Veronica and Betty was always an integral part of the original comics, but to see it fully realized in a live-action take is quite entertaining and could easily prompt a “Team Betty vs. Team Veronica” situation. But instead of simply pitting Betty and Veronica against each other, “Riverdale” stitches the two into a strong female friendship that modern television could really use.
The internal conflicts underlying Archie, Betty and Veronica also offer some insight into the characters’ lives, especially with their complicated family dynamics. Veronica tries to reinvent herself when she moves to Riverdale in an attempt to disassociate herself from her father’s mysterious scandal. Archie wants to fulfill his passion for writing music against his father’s wishes. Betty represses her pent-up anger against her authoritarian mother. All of these complex issues make it clear that “Riverdale” still cares deeply about the characters and how they fit into the larger narrative of growing up in a world that can be cruel and dangerous (hence, the murder mystery subplot).
The show’s soundtrack, too, complements the era well, incorporating songs from M83, Santigold, Tove Styrke and Tegan and Sara. There’s even a wonderful synthpop cover of Cyndi Lauper’s “All Through the Night,” performed by the school’s ferocious girl trio Josie and the Pussycats. If there’s one thing “Riverdale” is doing right in terms of recreating Archie for today, it’s with its music choices.
While the writing and characterizations may be uneven, the parts that do work absolve the majority of “Riverdale” ’s faults. The pilot’s cliffhanger — more clues on the death and possible murder of the student are revealed — certainly makes “Riverdale” engaging enough to continue watching. Perhaps after it builds some momentum, “Riverdale” can hopefully join the ranks of its fellow CW binge-worthy programs.