Months ago, when the first teaser poster for the new CW series Riverdale debuted, I had doubts about its direction. A half-sunken rowboat set against a cobalt blue-toned creek and landscape? That hardly captured the frivolity and humor of the 75 year old comic book franchise. It looked like Billy Wilder’s version of Archie.
Which is exactly what it is.
And it’s brilliant.
Riverdale was developed by Archie Comics’ own Robert Aguirre-Sacasa and uber-producer Greg Berlanti. The show stays true to the legendary characters, yet gives them a modern update.
The pilot begins as all great crime/noir stories do: with a voice over. Our narrator is Jughead Jones (Cole Sprouse), and he’s writing a Truman Capote-esque novel about the summer death that rocked Riverdale.
Who died? Jason Blossom (Trevor Stines), who – with his scarlet-haired sister Cheryl (Madelaine Petsch) – were the dictators of Riverdale High School. On July 4th, the Blossoms took an (incestuous?) hand-in-hand walk down to the Sweetwater River for a rowboat ride for two. Hours later, kid brainiac Dilton Doiley (Daniel Yang) discovers Cheryl washed ashore, in a near catatonic state.
Jason wasn’t found at all. The river was dragged. Ultimately it was concluded that his body was swept away by the current after trying to retrieve his sister’s glove. Jason’s accidental death is turned upside down by the end of the episode when his body washes up… with a bullet hole dead center of the skull.
Just like Dawson’s Creek and Buffy The Vampire Slayer before it, Riverdale launches at the beginning of everyone’s sophomore year of high school. We’re introduced to Betty Cooper (Lili Reinhart) and her gay bestie Kevin Keller (Casey Cott). With some urging by Kevin, Betty is on the threshold of revealing her simmering love for long-time friend Archie Andrews (KJ Apa).
And how could she not? To both her and Kevin’s shock, Archie got chiseled over the summer. Definitely an upgrade from the clumsy ginger in the comics.
Of course, Betty’s plan and confidence is threatened by the arrival of New York debutante Veronica Lodge (Camila Mendes). Veronica and her mother Hermione (Marisol Nichols) have just moved to Riverdale after Veronica’s father Hyram crapped out the family fortune over sleazy business practices.
If you think it’s an all-out cat fight between Betty and Veronica, think again. Kevin makes it clear to Veronica that Archie and Betty are an official un-official couple, and Veronica respects that. In a nice twist, timid Betty and confident Veronica forge a friendship against a common hated enemy: Cheryl Blossom. Betty wants nothing more than to be a River Vixen, one of the school’s cheerleaders. But as head cheerleader, Cheryl has made that impossible. However, she wants Veronica for the squad. Veronica only agrees to be a River Vixen if Betty is allowed to join. This surprising show of solidarity empowers Betty with a confidence she didn’t know she had.
Our hero Archie isn’t without his own dilemmas. While working for his dad Fred’s (Luke Perry) construction company over the summer, Archie fell in love with music. Not to mention his Pacey Witter-like tryst with the high school music teacher(Sarah Habel). Take note: this is so unlike the character of Archie and should’ve been excised from the show. In any event, Archie has a decision to make: pursue music as a career or take over the family business from his father. Disappointment weighs heavily on Archie’s decision.
The episode ends on a heartbreaker. After a school dance, Cheryl invites Archie and friends back to her house for a game of spin the bottle. Archie and Veronica step into the closet and actually kiss! Remorse inevitably follows for both; they’ve betrayed Betty. Upon rejoining the party, they discover that Betty is gone.
On Jughead’s advice, Archie talks to Betty. They reveal their feelings for each other. While Archie loves Betty, it isn’t a romantic love. In fact, he doesn’t think he’s good enough for her. Hopes destroyed, Betty slinks back inside her house, leaving Archie reeling.
I’m no Archie expert. I’ve only took an interest when writer Mark Waid rebooted the comic series in 2015, and have been a fan ever since. The show’s tone may differ drastically from that of the comic book, but the characterizations and spirit remain the same. There’s even a few nods to the history of the comic. The sign welcoming everyone to Riverdale features the word “pep” in a slogan. A reference to Pep Comics, where Archie first debuted back in 1941. The same year in which Betty tells us that Riverdale was founded. Josie (Ashleigh Murray) and the Pussycats even show up! We better hear their theme song at some point.
Two interesting departures from the comics to take note of concern Betty and Jughead. Betty is on Aderal to cope with the stress of living up to her mother Alice’s (Madchen Amick) high expectations. Most surprising is that Jughead and Archie are no longer best friends. Something has caused a rift between then, evident by a chilly, tense exchange post-dance at Pop’s.
Riverdale has the opportunity to be a culturally influential teen drama like Glee and Dawson’s Creek. The writing is sharp and witty. The characters are relatable. Hell, they even dress like small town high schoolers, not wannabe adults fresh off a Lord & Taylor shopping spree. Except for Cheryl and Veronica, of course.
Whether or not every episode lives up to the greatness of the pilot remains to be seen. But if the premiere is any indication, Riverdale will be around for a long, long time.