Archie may have been born as a comic book character, but it was Greg Berlanti and Roberto Aguirre-Sacasa who gave him a superhero physique. That is not a critique, but it is perhaps the first thing you might notice about the CW’s new take on the 76-year-old all-American high schooler, now making his live action television debut.
“Riverdale” could be seen as a “Island of Doctor Moreau”-esque attempt to cross-breed the DC TV universe currently thriving on the CW with a “Gossip Girl”-style teen drama made which was so popular in the CW’s early days. In fact, that might be the easiest way to describe it. And yet there’s just enough happening underneath the surface to make it worthy of deeper study. This is no zombie corpse of a comic book adaptation. A heart beats here.
The basics, as gleaned from the first four episodes (all enjoyably titled after classic films): Archie (played by K. J. Apa) is a high school sophomore in the small town of Riverdale. His dad (Luke Perry, and yes that’s a bit mind-blowing) wants him to play football so he can go to college. His best friend Betty (Lili Reinhart) wants to know if they might one day be more than friends, but Veronica (Camila Mendes), the new girl in town, is pretty intriguing…
…oh, plus, at the beginning of the pilot, one of their fellow classmates is presumed missing. And the parents of these kids have no shortage of secrets. “Riverdale’s” not the first show to invoke memories of “Twin Peaks” — it just happens to be the most recent.
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That said, “Riverdale” also brings with it a certain stylized weirdness that could prove divisive. Teen drama has always seemed to swing between the pendulums of realism and idealism when it comes to their dialogue. But while shows like “The O.C.” might have gotten dinged for over-stylized quips issued by its under-18 set, “Riverdale” makes that show feel like “Friday Night Lights.” Only a sampling of the bon mots slung about by Archie’s friends, just from the premiere:
“I’m already the ‘Blue Jasmine’ of Riverdale High.”
“The redheaded Anson Elgort?”
“[They] aren’t dating, but they are end-game.”
“You should be the Queen Bey of this drab hive.”
“Can’t we, in this post-James Franco world, be all things at once?”
Really, there are so many lines which snap with the same cheap pop of bubble gum, aiming for the depth of post-modernity but oftentimes just playing into the obvious. Kevin Keller (Casey Cott) is every girl’s gay best friend to an extreme previously only seen in the worst romantic comedies, but does acknowledging the stereotype in play with explicit lines of dialogue make it any better? Not really.
But Kevin as a character does work better once he gets more time on screen (including a real sex life, which defies the gay best friend stereotype). In a “post-James Franco” world, is this sort of dialogue choice a bad thing?
It certainly proves to be distracting at times, but there’s a charm to it, which leads to the most important thing about the show: “Riverdale” is 100 percent committed to creating its own little world. Much like the CW’s “Arrow” sought to define a new television universe that would grow to include three other series, there’s a certain level of commitment happening on screen that has some meat on the bones.
In the first episode, Archie finds himself at a crossroads: He’s surrounded by people with expectations for him, and his desire to balance all that pressure with his own newfound passions — a solid enough basis for any teen protagonist, leaving out what he may or may not know about that missing person mentioned above.
And weirdly enough for anyone who previously wrote off the Betty vs. Veronica dynamic as a 1900s verison of Madonna vs. Whore, “Riverdale’s” take on Ms. Elizabeth Cooper is perhaps the most interesting component of the show. Betty is not your platonic ideal of a good girl, but she’s not also a “good girl gone bad.” It is almost as if she’s (gasp!) a fully realized young woman, with desires and goals and a extremely complicated inner life. Veronica, due in part to Mendes’ scene-stealing performance, is almost there as well, but much of her character gets lost in the attempt to defy any expectations assigned to her.
Betty fares the best of all the characters, though that’s based on only four episodes, which feature a few ill-advised distractions that keep folk from standing out. Jughead never goes full goth, but has enough emo edge to feel like a realistically broody teen in the year 2017, and there’s plenty hinted at with his initial presence to promise more.
These character notes are almost entirely inspired by what’s seen in the episodes, because prior to “Riverdale,” my only real knowledge of the “Archie” universe was a vague awareness of the Archie-Betty-Veronica triangle. This is not something to brag about — instead, it’s something that made me reach out to some friends who might have different feelings about the franchise, in order to understand what kind of resonance it might have.
Many of their memories seemed deeply connected to young adult yearning for their future adolescence. But they also had a deep appreciation for the fact that, while “Archie” as a franchise has always seemed rooted in a certain innocent nostalgia, in recent years it has received some modern tweaks that led to out-there crossovers like “Archie vs. Predator” and true 21st century upgrades.
This all comes with a side order (sorry, the Chok’lit Shoppe is on the brain) of strong visual choices, leaning towards an intense noir sensibility that trades primary colors for dark neon in a way that proves magnetic. Though… the red hair is an obstacle. Archie, as well as the show’s other two key redheads, look eerily unnatural, making the hair color choice feel as strange as pink or blue.
It’s just another modern twist to which “Archie” can adapt, and something that “Riverdale” gladly embraces. “Riverdale” likely won’t warp any deeply held affection for these characters, if only because the characters of “Archie” have always lived in something like a state of flux. At the very least, in over 75 years of comics history, Archie has never made the truly hard and final call between Betty and Veronica, right?
This is not a time for nostalgic innocence. This is a time for staring right into the face of how dark and nasty the world can be. And TV has always been a medium where, given the opportunity, all possibilities are there. For many, “Riverdale” might be an acquired taste. But there’s plenty to chew on here.