Two episodes were provided prior to broadcast.
Although opinions surrounding The CW’s adaptation of the classic Archie Comics will vary depending on your devotion to said comics (or, like me, your complete lack of knowledge of them), one thing can not be denied about Riverdale: it passes The CW’s long-standing Hot Young Cast Test. Like token GBF Kevin Keller (Casey Cott) gushes to Betty Cooper (Lili Reinhart) early on in the premiere, “Archie got hot – he has abs now, six of them!”
That shouldn’t be the deciding factor for whether a television show is good or not, and like other series on the network (namely The 100), Riverdale starts off somewhat cheesily while managing to show major promise for the future. It’s pure teen angst pureed into a weird mix of wholesome dialogue (“Archie is swell,” Kevin says right before counting his abdominal muscles one by one) and whodunnit violence for the post-Scream-on-MTV age. The combination works addictive wonders more often than not, thanks in large part to a troupe of young actors who readily embrace their stereotypical origins by infusing each character with some hard edges and – of course – dirty secrets.
The whole story centers on a much-spoken-about (but largely unseen) summer, wherein lanky guy next door Archie Andrews (K.J. Apa) becomes a teen hearthtrob thanks to months of construction work at the business owned by his dad, Fred (Luke Perry). With help from some Gossip Girl-style narration, courtesy of Jughead (Cole Sprouse), we also learn that the summer wasn’t traditional tranquility in the town of Riverdale: on an otherwise normal afternoon out kayaking for the Fourth of July, weirdly close twins Cheryl (Madelaine Petsch) and Jason Blossom (Trevor Stines) get into an accident, and Jason ends up missing.
As the school year starts up, Cheryl leads the charge in moving on from Jason’s disappearance while still attempting to keep him in memory, while Jughead works in the shadows, making sure that all of the events of the Fourth of July happened as everyone says they did. Of course, everyone has secrets from the summer, and Riverdale‘s best moments are when it decides to upend expectations of romantic “endgame,” as Kevin puts it, particularly surrounding what turns out to be a juicily complex central relationship between Archie, Betty, new girl Veronica (Camila Mendes) and a spoiler-ish fourth party.
As the lead, Apa is more than a few died strands of crimson hair and good looks – he juggles the all-Americanness of the role with aplomb, but without any of the ironic sarcasm or annoying meta-commentary a modern redo like this could have easily fell into. He builds houses, plays football and discovers a love of music (“What don’t you do?” Veronica mocks), but it’s all centered by a believably tense personal crisis he faces as the show opens and the summer ends. He’s a decent representation of Riverdale as a whole, actually: outwardly facing he’s attractive and seemingly plain, but under the surface he’s a hot mess of complicated. Apa straddles that duality with surprising grace.
As Archie struggles with his personal issues, Riverdale welcomes the arrival of a well-to-do new family, Hermione Lodge (Marisol Nichols) and her daughter Veronica, who are looking to downsize their life after Veronica’s father gets indicted on embezzlement charges. Veronica quickly stumbles upon Betty and Archie, and although a love triangle is all but guaranteed from Archie’s first slow-mo gaze at Veronica’s waltz into Pop’s Chock’lit Shoppe, the show isn’t so cut and dry with how everything plays out. The titular town they inhabit is also well-realized with a lurid quality, making certain shots – like someone standing in the neon-drenched parking lot of Pop’s, looking into its windows – distinctive and creepy.
Mendes as Veronica is maybe the most interesting off the bat, with a mean girl look that hints at an insta-rivalry with Betty, but she isn’t so generic. She’s using her move to Riverdale to become a better person, and although that means the writers have plenty of chances to give her roadblocks on her road to betterment, they never play out with cliché frustration, even when it puts Veronica smack dab in the middle of Archie and Betty. Mendes eventually plays Veronica as the group’s big city bulldog, biting back at any wrongdoers who attempt to belittle her new friends, which usually comes in the form of an awesome, giddy bitch-off between her and Real Queen Bee Cheryl Blossom.
Reinhart’s version of Betty lends Riverdale its first burst of heart as the long-in-love (and long-suffering) best friend to Archie, who’s having trouble reciprocating the feeling of attraction to his old pal. Stepping back from it all, it’s actually weird how well Riverdale works, and essentially all of that credit is owed to the endearing performances of Apa, Reinhart, and Mendes and their ability to solidify a silly premise with realistic grit.
Less seen but always welcome is Betty’s bonkers mom Alice (Mädchen Amick), who says things like “May Jason’s body burn in hell” as if she’s ordering a mimosa at Sunday brunch, and vehemently disagrees with every decision Betty makes in regards to everything from the friends she surrounds herself with, to joining the local cheerleading squad. While Riverdale‘s original Twin Peaks comparison feels disingenuous early on, the show’s willingness to go nuts, even in smaller moments, really begins to push it in that direction (it helps a tiny bit that Amick was also on the original Twin Peaks back in the 90’s).
Amick represents Riverdale in its purest form: a modern show abiding by the ebb and flow of classic primetime soaps while also going off on its own insane tangents. It’s at its most fun and addictive when it completely surrenders itself to these steamy interludes, shirking the idea of needing to be anything more than it is and completely at home in the updated debauchery of such a classic set of characters.
Converts (be it those opposed to soaps, or uproarious Archie fans) will not be made, but – sad to say – The CW doesn’t need them. Like the new Archie, Betty, and Veronica, there’s a younger generation that creator Roberto Aguirre-Sacasa is targeting with Riverdale, one that will laugh at every Twitter reference and gasp at every well-crafted cliffhanger. Archie with the wholesome, homegrown American adventures was for their parents and grandparents, Archie with the abs was built for them, and they’ll eat him up.
A blast from start to finish, Riverdale is packed to the rafters with hormonal teenage drama, endearing performances, juicy secrets and nutty dialogue, all resulting in 2017's first real appointment TV addiction.