“Twin Peaks meets Gossip Girl meets Veronica Mars.”
“The most stereotypically CW show of all time.”
“Remember those comics about Betty and Veronica? Like that but with murder and washboard abs.”
These are just a few of the ways I’ve tried to entice various friends to watch the CW’s newest drama “Riverdale,” a small town murder mystery whose quality in no way matches the level of obsession it’s inspired in me. In fact, I should start this review by warning potential viewers that “Riverdale” is not actually about to become the next Twin Peaks or Veronica Mars. It’s not prestige television, nor is it trying to be. It is an enjoyably soapy addition to a long list of teen dramas, whose strong cast and intriguing premise distinguish it from other, similar shows.
“Riverdale” is loosely based on the iconic comics about Archie Andrews, Betty Cooper, Veronica Lodge, and their friends at Riverdale High. Unlike the original comics, in which Riverdale was an idyllic small town where nothing bad or R-rated ever happened, the television version of Riverdale is full of mystery and intrigue. The show begins with the mysterious death of football captain Jason Blossom and only gets more dramatic from there, with forbidden romance, criminal parents, and surprise pregnancies galore. If you read these comics as obsessively as I did as a child, you might already be sold on the delightfully bizarre premise of an “edgy” Archie and company. If not, feel free to keep reading.
Let’s start with the shallowest possible reason to start watching “Riverdale”: it’s easy on the eyes. I’m talking about the cast, of course, which is uniformly smoking hot. Whatever your type, from girl next door (Lili Reinhart as Betty Cooper) to femme fatale (Camila Mendes as Veronica Lodge) to hot parent (Luke Perry and Marisol Nichols as Fred Andrews and Hermione Lodge), you’re guaranteed to find someone to lust over. Personally, I can’t help but be charmed by the brooding, sensitive Jughead Jones (a shockingly convincing Cole Sprouse), who casually quotes Sartre and reminds me of every boy I had a crush on in high school.
“Riverdale” is packed with teen drama archetypes, and for the most part the cast does an admirable job of breathing new life into old characters. Betty Cooper is a kindhearted and overachieving cheerleader/school paper editor/devoted friend, and Lili Reinhart practically radiates sweetness without ever crossing the line into cloying. Veronica Lodge, Riverdale’s newest transplant, is a wealthy former It Girl in the style of Blair Waldorf, if Blair lost all her money and stopped treating her friends terribly. Cheryl Blossom (Madelaine Petsch), queen bee of Riverdale High, is a mean girl the likes of which Regina George can only aspire to. Jughead Jones is an aspiring true crime writer who makes a lot of mildly pretentious references and dresses like, well, a Wesleyan student. Most of the characters of “Riverdale” manage to draw inspiration from high school stereotypes without making them boring or irritating. And then there’s Archie.
Much like his peers, Archie Andrews (K.J. Apa) resembles many teenage protagonists who came before him. A handsome, well-liked young man with abs of steel torn between fulfilling the expectations of others (playing football) and pursuing his own passion (playing music), Archie has shades of Dawson Leery, Finn Hudson, Nate Archibald, and Troy Bolton, and much like all of those characters, he is not nearly as great as his peers seem to think. Though undeniably pleasant to look at, Archie is more than a little clueless, the kind of person who fails to notice his best friend is in love with him, tells women of color he “gets” their experiences, and is surprised to learn the name “Josie” is short for “Josephine.” To be honest, these flaws pale in comparison to his insistence on wearing his letterman jacket everywhere, including to such ludicrously inappropriate locations as a gangster-run bar and a dead classmate’s memorial service. Archie is by far the least interesting character on “Riverdale,” and while his friends deal with unsolved murders, impending homelessness, runaway siblings, and every possible variation of terrible parents, Archie mostly exists in his own world, dealing with stage fright and going on angsty midnight runs (shirtless, naturally). “Riverdale” is strongest when it acknowledges that Archie lacks the self-awareness and complexity of his classmates (such as during the aforementioned stage fright plot). Although the show comes close to embracing this characterization several times, it still, for the most part, presents Archie as the protagonist of the show and he inevitably drags it down.
One area in which “Riverdale” shines in comparison to other teen dramas is its frequent and refreshingly casual moments of progressivism. When it comes to issues of race, gender, and sexuality, many shows struggle to walk the line between being cliché or preachy and being insensitive, but “Riverdale” handles these issues with surprising grace. Veronica and her mother are Latina instead of white. Kevin Keller (Casey Cott), an openly gay character, is casually accepted by everyone around him, including his father and the alpha-males on the football team. Josie McCoy (Ashleigh Murray), a Black woman and the lead singer of Josie and the Pussycats, coolly eviscerates Archie’s claims that he can understand the sexism and racism she and her mother (the mayor of Riverdale) face daily. During the first few episodes of the series, Archie becomes entangled in an affair with his music teacher Miss Grundy (Sarah Habel), and although this plotline drags on too long and probably shouldn’t have been included in the first place, by the time the affair finally ends Grundy is fairly unambiguously portrayed as a sexual predator, and not simply a woman overcome by passion. These may seem like small things, but it’s a relief not to have to watch another show in which an LGBTQ character is forced to suffer in the closet, or a teacher-student relationship is portrayed as romantic and exciting.
There is one final point on which “Riverdale” differs from its source material, and in my opinion this difference is one of the biggest selling points of the show. In the comics, Betty and Veronica are friends, but their friendship comes second to their feelings for Archie, and this love triangle defines the three characters’ relationships. In the TV show, Betty and Veronica are both strongly attracted to Archie, but this conflict is quickly resolved and leads to the girls promising that they mean more to each other than any boy. Most people would be hard pressed to name a TV show about high school students in which best friends don’t end up competing for the same love interest, so the fact that Archie doesn’t ruin Betty and Veronica’s budding friendship is a delightful surprise. This friendship—played with remarkable sweetness and sincerity by Reinhart and Mendes—is one of the best and most unique things about “Riverdale,” and as long as the show continues to prioritize female friendship over male affection, it will be worth returning to.