Lately, The CW has reveled in taking the soda shoppe-clean characters of viewers’ youth—Archie Andrews, Betty and Veronica, Nancy Drew—and sending them off on as dark a path as possible, toward gloomy cults, serial killers, and supernatural haunts. Katy Keene, protagonist of the latest Archie Comics/CW hybrid, seems downright sunny by comparison, even as she lives in an intimidating metropolis and scrambles at the bottom of her career ladder. As the characters of Katy Keene, The CW’s latest, never tire of saying, NYC is a cakewalk compared to murder capital Riverdale.
Katy Keene was always among Archie Comics’ most fashionable creations, as her plethora of heart-accessorized paper doll clothing would attest. To its credit, the new Katy Keene series stays close to its source material, especially Katy’s red-toned wardrobe, various heart appliqués, and favorite holiday (Valentine’s Day, naturally). Lucy Hale’s impassioned Katy is still steeped in the fashion world, a wannabe designer currently in the employ of fancy department store Lacy’s, where she aspires to become a personal shopper and adds her imaginative touches to the store windows.
Naturally (and fortunately), Katy has backup as she strives toward that arduous goal: social media maven Pepper Smith (Julia Chan, voice of BoJack Horseman’s Pickles), lunkhead boxer boyfriend K.O. Kelly (Zane Holtz), and best of all, roommate Jorge (Jonny Beauchamp), a Broadway hopeful who’s also a drag performer, Ginger Lopez. The show is billed as a musical, which so far mostly amounts to Ginger’s many engaging club performances. We’re introduced to Katy’s Sex And The City: The Early Years lifestyle by way of Riverdale transplant/new Katy pal Josie (Ashleigh Murray). It’s a few years past the Riverdale timeline (Josie mentions what Veronica was like “back in high school”), and Miss McCoy is still pursuing that professional music career dream even without the Pussycats. Twin moguls Alexander and Alexandra Cabot, mainstays from the Josie comics series, hang out at distant regions of the gang’s close circle, even with Alexandra’s trademark silver streak hairstyle intact (though their too-close relationship rivals even Cheryl and Jason Blossom on the creepiness scale).
If all that familiarity weren’t enough for you, Katy’s boss has distinct overtones of The Devil Wears Prada’s Miranda Priestly, right down to the hairstyle; a handsome prince shows up, appropriately named Errol Swoon; and there are even, lord help us, more than a few Mannequin references. During his audition for a Broadway musical, Jorge offers an unsolicited monologue that seems right out of Rent. This is New York—and, to the series’ credit, it shoots on location—but it’s an extremely romanticized, fairy-tale version. It’s a New York where Josie gets discovered on her very first day job-hunting while singing with a busker in Washington Square Park, newcomer Jorge appears to have so many auditions he’s able to turn down a touring show, and Pepper bolts on a hefty hotel bill without even a slap on the wrist. The fun foursome survives on Chinese takeout before heading out clubbing every night—best not to dwell on the magical math that would make such a lifestyle possible on their respective salaries. This is the “if you can make it there, you can make it anywhere” Big Apple, a place of endless possibilities, with characters still young and hopeful enough to believe that all their dreams will become reality, set against an idealistic, glamorous, relatively crimeless backdrop.
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Katy Keene would dangle on the precipice of cloying sweetness if its performers weren’t so charming (and effortlessly diverse) across the board. Beauchamp is an exceptional find, whether he’s donning his third or fourth wig of the episode or flirting with a handsome firefighter who comes to save his apartment. Murray retains the effervescence that Josie brought to Riverdale, easily segueing into life as a New Yorker while juggling suitors and songwriting. Smith’s Pepper has a Warhol-esque plan for her many creative friends and an adorable girlfriend to boot.
As the title character, Hale is saddled with most of the series’ heavy lifting, and she makes it seem weightless, even with childhood flashbacks and numerous voice-overs. Hale hasn’t been able to land another successful starring role since Pretty Little Liars ended in 2017 (the unfortunately disease-themed Life Sentence only lasted 13 episodes in 2018). But she’s completely engaging as Katy, a twentysomething trying to carve out her life even as she’s faced with fate-altering career and relationship decisions (the charmless K.O. is probably not long for this world, not when there are actual princes lurking about). She’s a devoted and loyal friend, willing to stay up all night sewing because Ginger needs a new sequined outfit, taking her own dress off her back if a Lacy’s customer wants to try it on, doggedly determined to stay in New York until her many dreams are realized.
Katy Keene is far from drama-filled (or reality-filled), the type of show unlikely to make an Emmy nomination list. But you could do worse for weeknight escapist fodder than tuning in to the weekly travails of Katy and her friends. They may just bring to mind your own dusty dreams you have socked away somewhere—if only you, too, were fueled by Chinese takeout, a solid group of pals, and a galvanizing scarlet wardrobe.