Archie Comics is an odd publishing company. Around for a million years – alright, since 1941 – the Archie franchise has always forbidden fan works. Yet, over the decades, the title character has faced a zombie plague, and even had to contend with the Predator. There have been some very bold, unconventional decisions on the comics and cross-media spin-offs. TV series Riverdale is the latest, putting Archie’s cast of wholesome Midwestern high schoolers through a Twin Peaks filter, and targeting more mature viewers.
Six episodes into the first 13-episode season (with Season 2 already approved), I still can’t decide whether I like Riverdale or not – whether it actually works as the “subversive teen drama” it’s been marketed as.
At its core, Riverdale is a murder mystery. Episode 1 opens with the disappearance of town golden boy Jason Blossom. When he’s found murdered, everyone in Riverdale is shaken. Suspicions are high; decades-long, screechy family rivalries are revived; and secrets surface like boils.
Everyone has secrets in Riverdale, you see, though it’s only really girl-next-door Betty Cooper (Lili Reinhart) and cynical loner Jughead Jones (Cole Sprouse) who are committed to solving Jason’s murder. Others have their own problems to contend with, like Archie (KJ Apa) and his song-writing vs. football aspirations, and transplanted rich girl Veronica Lodge (Camila Mendes), whose family is embroiled in financial scandal.
For the record, Riverdale is a CW show, so it’s stuffed with good-looking young people dealing with their soapie issues. Apa as Archie is clearly supposed to be the heartthrob for heterosexual girls, with his cute, crooked smile and buff, often shirtless, physique. His Archie is a far less interesting, though, than Reinhart’s Betty, arguably the series’ most intriguing character. After years of trying to please everyone around her, this pony-tailed good girl is starting to crack. Through those cracks, viewers glimpse a much darker, unhinged side that even Betty may not be aware of.
For the record, the famous Archie-Betty-Veronica love triangle is present in Riverdale, but largely remains on the backburner for now. This isn’t to say that Veronica and Betty haven’t provided some fan-service titillation for viewers on two occasions already, even if it is a conscious tease on the part of the characters.
One other comment on casting is that Riverdale has been quite sly in regards to the teens’ parents. Although the young stars are largely unknown, many of the adult actors are associated with iconic teen series and movies from yesteryear. These include Beverly Hills 90210’s Luke Perry as Fred Andrews, Scream’s Skeet Ulrich as Jughead’s father, Head of the Class’s Robin Givens as Riverdale’s mayor, and Brat Packer Molly Ringwald as Archie’s as-yet-unseen mom. Then there’s actual Twin Peaks veteran, Mädchen Amick as Betty’s brittle mother, no doubt present to drive home Riverdale’s association with the cult classic.
Now there’s a lot of overwrought drama in the CW show, to the point of irritation. Amick’s character, as well as the women of the Blossom family, cannot appear on screen without berating someone, or succumbing to supreme bitchiness within seconds. The relentless awfulness from most parents in the show is also repetitive, and slows down the show’s pace. This said, if you can push through the tedium, from about Episode 4, the plot begins to unfold more fluidly.
Actually, what may keep you watching (as in my case) is Riverdale’s ominous tone and aesthetic – again screaming Twin Peaks. Riverdale frequently has a slowed-down, surreal feel, as if it perched on the line between sleep and wakefulness. Everything feels subtly “off,” and ripped out of time in the same way that It Follows was. High schoolers hang out at Pops’s corner milkshake bar, and wear dated cheerleader outfits, yet wield smartphones and contend with topical issues like slut shaming. By taking visual cues from its comic source material, and dipping them in moodiness, Riverdale is very effective in portraying the nostalgic idyll of small town America as warped and decaying in reality.
It’s this approach that is perhaps Riverdale’s greatest and most enticing strength. Long-time comic readers may be watching to see how beloved characters are depicted – changes to Jughead’s sexuality have already upset some fans. For everyone else though, there’s pleasure in exploring Riverdale’s dark, mouldering world. It’s a pity, though, that in order to experience these subdued pleasures, you need the patience to sit through some very contrived family drama.
Right now, at the midpoint of Season 1, Riverdale still feels somewhat stronger in concept than execution. Here’s hoping that it still finds its groove so it can be fully embraced.