Riverdale invites you into the shadows of its small-town teen drama

Riverdale invites you into the shadows of its small-town teen drama

Prior to Riverdale’s premiere, the concept of the Archie Comics-based series being “Twins Peaks meets [iconic teen drama]” has been the major selling and talking point. Less talked about, however, is how The CW attempted its own Twin Peaks meets sexy-teens series early on in the network’s existence with the Kevin Williamson-created Hidden Palms. The forgotten single-season series was a mess that came with the baby network’s unfortunate audacity to promote it as a “fresh,” “sexy” mystery and air it a week after Veronica Mars ended. It was an early example of everything wrong with the Dawn Ostroff era of The CW, taking a talented cast and crew and have them somehow crank out mediocre (at best) product in their attempt to try to fit a square peg into a round hole.

While Hidden Palms is one of the defining examples of this period of The CW, pretty warts and all, 10 years later, Riverdale continues the Mark Pedowitz era’s pattern of taking chances and somehow striking gold. Neither era is without fault, but the latter allows for another interesting choice on The CW’s schedule, as well as another reinvention for an almost 80-year-old comic book franchise that has a history of embracing outside-the-box choices.

Reminder: “Archie Meets The Punisher” is a comic book that exists.

Plus, Riverdale has the benefit of coming from Archie Comics’ chief creative officer, Roberto Aguirre-Sacasa, whose writing credits include Big Love, Looking, and Supergirl. It also has Greg Berlanti as an executive producer, which is probably just assumed for most shows at this point. But after viewing “Chapter One: The River’s Edge” and seeing “dark,” “sexy” Archie in action, I’d point to this interview with Aguirre-Sacasa as the biggest piece in Riverdale’s favor. Because after seeing this pilot, Aguirre-Sacasa’s inspirations for the show don’t just sound like lip service or grasping for references to sell the show: They’re accurate descriptions of what this show is and what it wants to be. And with such a clear vision, that could end up being something special—or at least a fun, memorable season of television.

“Derivative” feels like too critical a word to use for the show, but the pilot certainly wears its inspirations on its sleeve, similar to but not as blatantly as Stranger Things. There’s of course the episode title, opting out of the typical “Pilot” designation and making a statement right out the gate with a reference to the 1986 film River’s Edge. And those Twin Peaks comparisons are always bound to come up for any show with the mysterious death of a teenager in a small town, so Riverdale leans into it directly enough in the casting of Mädchen Amick as Betty’s mother, Alice, and even something as simple as its “Welcome To Riverdale” sign (“The Town With PEP!”). Immediately, Riverdale takes these inspirations and uses them to add color to its coming-of-age story. Pilot episodes are difficult enough as an entry point, but ones that truly capture the world of a series—almost instantly—are even harder to come by. And Riverdale does that here, keeping true to its source material, but with a twist.

The major talking point has been the idea of The CW doing a “gritty” Archie Comics reboot, the same way every other reboot must be gritty. (It would appear nothing was learned from 21 Jump Street or even, to bring it back to this universe, Josie And The Pussycats.) But even with a less-than-sunny tint, “gritty” isn’t exactly the best way to describe “Chapter One” and Riverdale. There may be those hidden shadows Jughead (Cole Sprouse) speaks of in voice-over and the neo-noir inspiration to the show’s style, but that’s all window-dressing, as the seedy underbelly that Riverdale is attempting to unveil is just as much a part of the story as the generally optimistic and good-natured world its main characters live in. Archie is at odds with doing the right thing, Betty is at odds with what it means to be perfect, and Veronica is at odds with being a good person. These are our central characters, and goodness and even lightness are still the key there.

Instead, perhaps “modern” is the best way to describe the show as a whole, though not in the way where it feels the need to draw attention to that all the time. It’s a coming-of-age story that just so happens to have a murder mystery, which is perfect for The CW—even if the show didn’t have established comic book characters as the focus and point of entry. There may be mentions of millennials and the presence of technology, but to compare it to MTV’s Scream the television series (or even Scream 4), the fact that this show takes place in the 2010s doesn’t mean that it needs to constantly address that. Like the comics in a way, Riverdale presents itself in a timeless fashion or even frozen in a time that doesn’t quite scream 2017. From Mad Men to Our Town to Ansel Elgort to Truman Capote, Riverdale relies on popular culture in a way plenty of its predecessors have, making certain not to latch itself to one specific era. It’s not exactly Gilmore Girls in terms of its references’ obscurity (especially for its target demographic), but Riverdale hopes to make a deep connection through pop culture. That’s the type of thing that can hook an older audience or even inspire a younger audience, even when the references don’t quite land: Veronica’s Capote reference works much more than Archie’s appreciation of it, but even as an introduction to the advanced, “new girl from New York,” she’s almost on reference overload here.

So, why use Archie characters if it could easily be another teen drama with a genre twist? The recognition of these characters, especially when it comes to the Archie/Betty/Veronica trio, is a major part of the hook, and “Chapter One” introduces them in ways that make them recognizable both as their comic origins and their teen drama archetypes. It’s a trio that fits perfectly in this type of medium, as does its cast of supporting characters—the Archie-verse is quite large, after all. So what’s old is new again, and what’s new knows that showing what’s so good about the old can’t hurt.

The baggage that comes with Archie Andrews—whether he’s the goofy comic book protagonist or the hot Archie of this series—is one that stems from being the de facto lead, while not necessarily being the most interesting or fascinating character. The pre-Riverdale Archie is the type of character who’s more average than anything else, and the major question about the comics is why either Betty or Veronica would want him. Making Archie hot, however, doesn’t necessarily change that though; instead, the transformation is simply another form of growing pains, as this Archie’s (KJ Apa) not much more of a catch than pre-growth-spurt Archie. Because while he’s still into being a good son, a good friend, a good musician, and a good student, he just doesn’t quite know how to do it all, which is basic coming-of-age material.

The “sexy” teacher-student affair doesn’t make Archie more interesting, as much as it checks off a teen drama trope that can go off the rails quite easily. But outside of that, given Archie’s role as the central figure here, there’s every chance for Archie to become the Dawson Leery to Veronica’s Jen Lindley and Betty’s Joey Potter, which would be detrimental to trying to make this character work as an interesting lead. In fact, “Chapter One” sets that up with things like Veronica’s transfer from New York (complete with slow motion introduction à la Michelle Williams in the Dawson’s Creek pilot) and Betty’s obvious-to-everyone-but-best-friend-Archie pining. But what helps Archie as a character, even when he’s juggling a secret about the day of Jason Blossom’s death and an affair with the school’s hot music teacher, is that he already has a self-awareness and compassion that Dawson always lacked, proven by his final one-on-one scene with Betty when he tells her that she’s “too good” for him.

The biggest takeaway from Riverdale’s reintroduction of these characters, however, is that while Veronica Lodge (Camila Mendes) is a whirlwind that will surely dominate the conversation (and for good reason), viewers shouldn’t sleep on Betty Cooper (Lili Reinhart). While it’s easy to jump on the “pushover” designation for the fair-haired half of this pair, “Chapter One” shows that there’s quite a bit of inner anger and pain in Betty just waiting to boil over. And even if it doesn’t, there’s something to be said about the character’s inherent goodness, especially when it’s not treated in a sanctimonious way. While Archie’s goodness can be a possible argument for his character’s blandness, it can be argued that Betty’s goodness makes her far more interesting, especially as she doesn’t have the easiest life in comparison. When Archie calls Betty “perfect,” the audience sees the imperfections in her delicateness, but it’s understandable that he wouldn’t see those imperfections and even more understandable why people like Veronica would be drawn to her.

As for the iconic “Betty versus Veronica” conflict, even with the post-dance Seven Minutes In Heaven debacle, “Chapter One” makes a point throughout the episode that any form of pitting the two characters against each other comes from preconceived beliefs about the established characters or a desire for there to be a “choice” of one or the other. A competition between Betty and Veronica isn’t something Riverdale truly introduces, at least not yet, and that’s important both for the Archie/Betty/Veronica story and female friendships on televisions. Veronica’s battle cry—“Betty and I come as a matching set. You want one, you take us both.”—is the highlight of “Chapter One.” Come for the neo-noir Archie spin, stay for the strong female friendships.

As for the actual foil in the Betty/Veronica pairing, while Alice Cooper makes for quite the villain as an adult character, Cheryl Blossom (Madelaine Petsch) is an interesting high school mean girl (a necessary evil) herself, especially when it comes to how weird the character is. While we get both “gay best friend” Kevin Keller (Casey Cott) and faux lesbian shenanigans in this episode, Riverdale deserves a pat on the back for immediately calling out both tropes almost as soon as they bring them up. The fact that those call-outs come from the otherwise unpleasant Cheryl is quite the choice, though, given her behavior the rest of the episode. Cheryl is an unlikable character as things stand right now (and possibly a brother-murderer), but there is no moment in this episode that better backs up Kevin’s classification of her character as a “psycho” (and again, speaks to the show’s early character-building) than at the dance, when she introduces herself as the “honorary chairperson and de facto queen of the festivities.” It’s the character throwing out absolutely empty designations as she gaslights the entire school into making her the queen bee. And it’s working, as no one even bats an eyelash at her calling her own brother her “soulmate” or talking about the song to which they were conceived.

Riverdale’s introduction into the teen drama compendium also means an examination of the parental units in this world, and while the Archie Comics never needed to make the parents an important part of the story, Riverdale makes an educated choice to do so. Part of The O.C.’s early appeal was how it made its adult characters as compelling as its teens, and given Riverdale’s small town/big secrets, it would be a mistake for the show to have the parents take a back seat or simply be caricatures. So Riverdale starts things off by making clear that, despite the stress Archie puts on himself throughout this episode, Fred Andrews (Luke Perry) is not the one-dimensional father character who forces his views on his son. Instead, it effectively nips the idea of an expected “I don’t want your life” outburst from Archie in the bud, which is one of the best things it can do for both characters. Alice, on the other hand, is the one prominent parent in this episode who fits into that simple “parents just don’t understand” role, but that’s also part of why the character sticks out: In the “perfect” world of Riverdale, she’s the first character to be anything but that, making her the official entry point into the the town’s “not what it seems” nature.

Knowledge of previous teen dramas certainly makes Riverdale feel more complete, but outside of that, Riverdale succeeds just by being different from The CW’s current programming and even Freeform’s or MTV’s. It’s not as over-the-top as Pretty Little Liars and not as dumb as Scream the TV series. It has a style all its own, feeling different from anything else on The CW, like Supernatural and The Vampire Diaries once did.

Sure, there are pretty people emoting, the ultimate criticism of CW programming, but that’s really just a description of television in general. The murder mystery that supposedly makes the show “gritty” feels more like a fringe story in what could easily be a fascinating small-town character study, which should satisfy Archie purists. The characters here are recognizable as both millennial TV characters and characters who are slightly off due to (or at least very much affected by) their small-town “everybody knows everybody’s business” lives. As a pilot episode, “Chapter One: The River’s Edge” does the job of making the audience want to sit and watch these characters on a weekly basis. It remains to be seen if it will live up to its many influences, but it certainly has a lot going for it from the start.

Stray observations

  • Riverdale Roulette: The only other show I do special stray observations for is Brooklyn Nine-Nine, but I think Riverdale deserves its own special thing, too. Here, the “special thing” will be a pick of the week, mostly from the teen drama genre. This week, I’m going with the rather obvious inaugural choice of the season-one Veronica Mars episode “Betty And Veronica.”
  • One more note on Hidden Palms: It was not good, but Michael Cassidy (whose character proved villainous early on by kicking a dog) and Tessa Thompson made the best of what they had there, and Amber Heard was very pretty. Also, a pre-Gone Girl Gillian Flynn reviewed the show for Entertainment Weekly, which is one of life’s fun facts.
  • Speaking of single-season teen dramas, I must compare Archie/Ms. Grundy to Life As We Know It’s Ben/Ms. Young. As that ABC teen drama taught me, never trust a young teacher who drives a VW Beetle: She only wants to use it to sleep with her students. It was true for Marguerite Moreau, and now it’s true for Sarah Habel.
  • Despite Betty’s jealousy over Archie/Veronica, this episode makes it clear that the biggest obstacle between the Archie/Betty “end game” is his feelings for Ms. Grundy. In fact, it makes Archie’s crush on Veronica feel forced, because he’s still very hung up on his teacher.
  • Jughead and Archie: They used to be friends. A long time ago. Wonder what happened there.
  • This Jughead is straight out of Brick, but his vibe isn’t exactly the same. He’s his own thing, kind of like the murder mystery. The voice-over for his novel is really something to get used to though, especially as it has more of an omniscient feel than it probably should.
  • “Smithers” is the type of name you’re rarely going to encounter outside of a comic book (or cartoon) butler, so for as much as Marisol Nichols brings warmth to her character so far, she really can’t convincingly make “Smithers” come across as anything other than… “Smithers.” It’s funny where the line ends when it comes to suspending one’s disbelief.

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