Verdict: A promising, if imperfect start that establishes a show that’s at once eclectic and familiar, equally eager to embrace and shun the tropes on which it’s built.
Full disclosure: I’ve never picked up an Archie comic. Despite their iconic status in America, they’ve never caught on across the Atlantic. So while the announcement of the CW’s darker take on the show was met with a wave of controversy that’s still ongoing from American fans about whether Riverdale diverges too far from its seemingly wholesome source material, this is the first time I’ve gotten to know Archie, Betty, Veronica, Jughead and the rest of the assorted colourful characters who inhabit Riverdale. What I can’t do, therefore, is judge how good this show is as an adaptation.
Thankfully, Riverdale is smart and engaging enough to stand on its own two feet as an introduction of sorts into the world of Archie comics. Like every pilot, it doesn’t come out of the gate fully-formed, and some characters are immediately far more interesting than those who spend the entire episode as little more than an archetype. Yet unlike most pilots, it’s confident in its own vision from the first frame and committed to a particular approach and aesthetic that doesn’t waver throughout the hour. It’s especially impressive because Riverdale is, essentially, two shows in one that only occasionally collide with each other – a teen drama straight from the CW stable, updated with a 2017 social consciousness, and a disconcerting murder mystery in the vein of Twin Peaks. Both stories constantly inform one another, with the teen drama’s unsettlingly dark streak and focus on secrets contrasted with the murder mystery’s links to the tangled relationships of Riverdale High, and there’s a sense that, for all of the criticism of the concept of a dead body at the show’s centre, both parts need to be there for the concept to even get off the ground.
As for the murder mystery, The River’s Edge holds its cards close to its chest – the basic mystery of Jason Blossom’s death is sketched out in the first scene, and the inciting incident of the entire investigation into his death comes at the very end of the episode when his body washes up. On one level, it’s familiar stuff – the visual of a lone dead body of mysterious origin discovered in a small town is one that mystery box TV is especially fond of. On another, though, Riverdale is very good from the start at providing its own idiosyncratic spin on this idea by committing to the sheer weirdness of it all. Whether it’s the creepy, dreamlike tone of Cheryl and Jason Blossom’s fateful morning boat ride or the grotesque final image of his rotting, bloated body washing up, Riverdale manages to spice up the story by always going for the most unusual approach to any of given situation in the murder mystery. Whether this engaging weirdness will hold once the clues start coming in and the suspects start racking up is unclear, but it’s a promising start for what would have seemed like the weak link of the show on paper.
Over at Riverdale High, there’s a lot more to immediately latch onto. The River’s Edge introduces just about every major character we’ll be getting to know over the next 12 episodes in some capacity, but for the most part, the spotlight is on the core triangle of Archie, Betty and Veronica. It’s with the centre of the triangle where the pilot comes up short, unfortunately. KJ Apa is immediately engaging as Archie, and his sincere performance is crucial to Archie coming across as a sympathetic character at all, but it’s a messy start for the character that’s defined by Archie making a series of really ill-advised decisions; whether it’s his affair with Ms Grundy, his lying to both his dad and football teacher or kissing Veronica, the pilot is dominated by his mistakes. Ms Grundy, in particular, is the real elephant in the room. It’s rife with subtext and creepy weirdness that Riverdale skims over entirely in this first episode, and Archie’s infatuation with her reflects badly on his character from the start. In some respect, the pile-up of mistakes is natural for a show focusing on teenagers, who, apparently, don’t always have the best judgement. But when Archie’s introduction is crammed with so many of these destructive decisions, it’s hard to really invest in his emotional struggles and care about his success when most of his defining characteristics seem to be selfishness and impulsiveness right now. Here’s hoping that later episodes will flesh out Archie’s more sympathetic side, as he’s easily the least interesting of the main three characters at the moment.
Thankfully, Betty and Veronica manage to pick up a lot of the slack. Conversely to Archie, their characterisation is multi-faceted and complex from the start, and a lot of that’s down to the clever way that Riverdale evolves from its source material. It takes the basic archetypes of the good natured girl next door and the rich, privileged girl, which have dominated all kinds of romantic stories over the years, and applies them to characters who want nothing more than to break out of those reductive descriptions, and certainly don’t want to be defined by their attraction to Archie. Therefore, we have a Betty who has plenty of Veronica’s resilience and sharpness, and a Veronica who, like Betty, is a genuinely nice person with no ulterior motives. Their friendship, which is at once unlikely and completely credible, is instantly engaging – it’s heartening to see them strike up a healthy and supportive relationship, with their feelings towards Archie laid on the table from the start, instead of starting them off in a veiled and passive-aggressive rivalry as a lesser show could have done. Lili Reinhart and Camila Mendes instantly establish their takes on Betty and Veronica with admirable nuance and warmth, bringing realism and pathos to moments that could have slipped into overwrought melodrama on the page. Mendes’ acerbic take on the show’s dialogue, in particular, makes her a really compelling screen presence, while Reinhart layers in an intriguing well of resentment and fury lurking just an inch below Betty’s polite and personable surface. Betty and Veronica are both presented as characters with definite, sometimes destructive flaws, but those flaws are balanced with a clear good-heartedness that instantly made this viewer want to root for them, even if their goals are sometimes at cross purposes.
The fourth character at the core of Riverdale is more of an enigma in this pilot, and that’s Jughead. He gets the very first lines and last lines of the episode as part of a novel that displays… interesting writing abilities, and in a sense, he’s our viewpoint character as the only one who can provide an objective birds-eye perspective on the tangled conflicts and mysteries of Riverdale. We see very little of the actual Jughead, however. His one major scene with Archie is a good one, establishing a complex and messy relationship in just a couple of minutes that has ample potential for exploration later on down the line, and it’s clear that Cole Sprouse has the dry, sardonic edge of the character pinned down, but there’s not a lot to work with here in terms of development for his character. As with the Jason Blossom mystery, though, perhaps it’s best that Riverdale is keeping a lot behind the veil right now. Jughead’s mysterious yet important role in the lives of Archie and Betty provides an undercurrent of unpredictability that ensures that the following episodes won’t just circle around the core trio, and it’s very likely indeed that he’ll be guiding us through the mystery of Jason Blossom as the clues stack up in the coming weeks.
On the balance of it, this was an opening episode that was marked by confidence and a clarity of vision. The murder mystery and teen drama are carefully balanced, and the mix of the two creates an unsettling tone that’s hard to quite pin down in the best way possible. In a channel full of shows precision-crafted for a niche audience, it’s good to see that Riverdale is leaving behind the broad, mainstream-appeal version of itself and embracing the weirdness inherent in this vision of the show. Yet it’s conventional where it needs to be, relying on good, solid characterisation for its two central women that modernises and deconstructs the age-old Betty and Veronica archetypes, even if Archie is somewhat lacking as a character at the moment. It’s an unusual blend of the very old and the very new – and if it doesn’t completely hit the mark in every regard, then the promise of mysteries yet to be revealed and for exciting new character stories is worth sticking around Riverdale for. This was a good start, but there’s every chance that it’s setting up something genuinely great.
Odds & Ends
- The villain of the high school drama appears to be Cheryl Blossom, who appears to be one part Mean Girl archetype, and one part modern day Cersei Lannister. It’s too obvious to make her the killer, I think, but she’s definitely hiding something important about her brother.
- There’s some drama with the parents, too, with Veronica’s mother evidently having history with Archie’s dad. It’s not bad, per se, but the most interesting drama of the episode definitely comes from within Riverdale High.
- Veronica’s gallery of pop culture references puts us all to shame. No teenager is this pop culture literate, but her dialogue is too entertaining to complain about.
- Stealth MVP of the pilot: Kevin, who progresses beyond the ‘gay best friend’ cliché with a personal life that’s very much his own, even if he’s a bit overly eager to provide certain details to Betty.
- Over on these shores (the UK), Riverdale is uploaded weekly on Netflix, and it’s been tagged as a Netflix Original. Could that help its renewal chances, especially given how the CW are craving a newbie hit?