The CW adds another comic show to its lineup, starring broody teens in an overcast setting doing sexy things, because they’re teenagers. Based on the classic Archie Comics characters, Riverdale represents an audacious attempt at making Archie Andrews and his gang “hip”. But does it work?
Archie is not one of those comics that I “get”. Certain books/movies/shows are beyond me, for reasons of taste or simple understanding. I know the basic premise of Archie comics, but I don’t understand the appeal aside from following it because you were a fan already.
Riverdale eschews most of the Archie Comics personality for a Twin Peaks vibe, which would probably make more sense if I watched Twin Peaks. Anyway, this ain’t your grandpa’s Archie. One of the strengths of the pilot is its characters, they’re sexy teens with engaging and somewhat relatable problems: Archie wants to study music instead of play football or work at his father’s company, Betty wants to date the hottest guy in town whose also her (straight) best friend, Veronica wants to forget about her troubled past that brought her to Riverdale and Kevin is sort of just there to have fun. The pacing is brisk, the dialogue isn’t too obnoxious and the acting is fairly on point for a teen drama starring teen actors. It of course wouldn’t be the CW if there wasn’t sex appeal throughout and Riverdale’s cast is mostly dripping with it unless they’re suffering from personality disorders. The tone of the show is sort of a hyper caricature of the average drama, and while this makes it interesting it also acts as a double edged sword.
The story kicks off with Betty and Archie on a nighttime catch-up before school starts tomorrow where they meet Veronica Lodge. Normally, her arrival would be school wide news but everyone is too focused on the death of a infamous football player who passed away mysteriously last year and the debate over if they should have a school dance on the anniversary of his demise. The writers wisely add some twists on the Archie tropes, his main love interest isn’t Betty or Veronica although both share an interest in him, the teens’ parents have an almost Glass House aura about them and the sister of the dead football player seems like the main antagonist for Archie and his friends. All of this is well and good, but occasionally the rest falls behind.
Take Kevin Keller, who’s gay. He’s Betty’s gay best friend, and Veronica’s gay best friend. He also is attracted to Archie, but Archie is straight and Kevin is gay. The pilot really hammers all this home and that would be fine if he didn’t feel like a stereotypical representation of that cast type. He has the perfect advice or topical reference at any moment, like Betty being like Betty Draper/Francis from Mad Men. I love Mad Men, I love Betty Draper/Francis, and I love January Jones, all of that to say “I could be watching Mad Men right now, why am I watching this?” Mad Men’s Sal Romano was also gay and a fan favorite character, whose story arc seems more independent and emotionally investing then Kevin Keller’s right now. Of course this is just the pilot, but even still, Kevin’s presence can be used more effectively to portray a character than simply someone to deliver meta commentary on what we’re watching.
It’s not an unreasonable tactic to namedrop Mad Men once or three times in the pilot, as both are about the darkness behind the glamour in each setting. Like Riverdale, Mad Men also heavily made use of sex for its stories. However, Mad Men functioned so well as a drama because it makes you work at understanding the characters even if you know their dark backstory. In Riverdale, the characters just spell it out and even if they’re lying in some way, it doesn’t have the same punch. Why Don Draper constantly sleeps with woman after woman begs more examination than if Archie Andrews really does love his female best friend. Riverdale uses a lot of familiar archetypes where as Mad Men built three dimensional people to follow through one of the most important decades of American history.
If I had to come up with my own comparison, it would be Netflix’s Stranger Things. Stranger Things was a mystery in a small town that playfully homaged 80’s movies and music people loved but also told a succinct and satisfying story without feeling like a hodgepodge of other works. Riverdale feels like a lot of other shows you’ve seen before, and while that’s not bad it doesn’t give it much distonction.
I mentioned in my post about East of West and Westworld that TV could use more comic shows not based on superheroes. Lo and behold, two weeks later Riverdale premiers. On a network with at least four comic book shows featuring DC superheroes, the CW wants to add a teen drama/mystery series based on a comic that may grab headlines but isn’t a hot commodity. In spite of that, Riverdale is more or less the exact show I was hoping for. It’s not a big budget Sci-Fi Western, but it is something different (in terms of comic book shows, otherwise it may seem too much like to other CW shows). Executive Producers Greg Berlanti (of Arrow, The Flash, Supergirl, etc) and Roberto Aguirre Sacasa (of Afterlife with Archie and Chief Creative Officer of Archie Comics) have effectively rebooted Archie Andrews for a modern audience, something which I had long thought impossible. Again, the show is one on the CW network which carries almost iron-clad expectations that test many viewers patience and the pilot isn’t without flaws. Most of the interesting twists that are established, like the unusual approach to Archie and his love interests, is abandoned by the end of the pilot, and the show’s cast is so dialed up in intensity that it’s hard to look at them as real people. Even the references the kids drop don’t feel entirely true (what high school student is watching Mad Men?) which cracks the suspension of disbelief a bit. It’s a bit too full of itself, unless it slows down enough to let us follow Archie/Betty/Veronica react to a problem or dilemma. All that said, the show is actually fairly entertaining for what it is.
For Archie fans, it could be the best adaptation of the character yet. For average viewers, it’s a decent diversion until other more established shows like Game of Thrones or The Walking Dead returns.