[This is a review of the Riverdale series premiere. There will be SPOILERS.]
The CW has become somewhat of a destination for comic book adaptations; between the network’s four shows based on DC Comics superheroes as well as iZombie — adapted from the Vertigo comic of the same name — The CW is home to many series inspired by beloved comic book characters. Now, the network adds an iconic set of comic characters to their lineup with Riverdale, an adaptation of Archie Comics’ titular character — but in a story fans have never seen before.
Riverdale follows high school students Archie Andrews (K.J. Apa), his – former – best friend Jughead Jones (Cole Sprouse), girl next door Betty Cooper (Lili Reinhart), new girl in town Veronica Lodge (Camila Mendes), queen bee Cheryl Blossom (Madelaine Petsch), and lead singer of Josie and the Pussycats, Josie McCoy (Ashleigh Murray). The series kicks off with quite a few new spins on Archie’s legacy, but the all-American high school student is still at the heart of this teen drama, which takes its inspiration from Twin Peaks and The O.C. in equal measure.
In the series premiere of Riverdale, ‘Chapter One: The River’s Edge’ — written by creator/Archie Comics chief creative officer Roberto Aguirre-Sacasa and directed by Lee Toland Krieger (The Age of Adaline) — Archie and his friends are still reeling from the death of local golden boy Jason Blossom. As the mystery surrounding Jason’s death unfolds, Archie and his fellow Riverdale High students must additionally deal with the ups and downs of high school — including love, rivalries, and figuring it all out.
On the whole, ‘The River’s Edge’ is a tightly woven pilot. The episode’s opening sequence of twins Cheryl and Jason Blossom driving through Riverdale in a cherry red convertible — featuring shots that heavily reference Twin Peaks — is narrated by an ominous voiceover from Jughead, setting the stage for a series as much about the dark side of the town’s residents as the titular city itself. The theme established in this opening is bookended by the final sequence, which features local police pulling Jason’s body out of the river with all the major players standing around in formalwear. The pilot ends with Jughead’s portentous voiceover teasing some of what’s to come, but not giving nearly enough away to satisfy viewers.
In fact, the way in which the story of Jason’s death is laid out, from Jughead’s perspective while he is seemingly speaking for the whole of Riverdale, very clearly implies there’s plenty about the events of July 4th that neither he nor the town at large know. The dichotomous narration — between acknowledging there are missing pieces to the story, then foretelling what’s to come — is an exceptional way to build tension, which is what makes for the best must-watch TV (and Riverdale is definitely must-watch TV).
As for Jason’s death, while it’s not necessarily integral to the plot of the premiere, it hangs over the town of Riverdale for much of the episode. It seemingly influences the actions of many characters, although it’s difficult to discern which actions are influenced by the traumatic event and which are normal for the residents of Riverdale. For instance, as the closest person to Jason (and there are visual hints that there’s more to their relationship than viewers are told), Cheryl’s behavior ranges from bereaved sister and friendly socialite to tyrannical and manipulative queen bee.
For the most part, in fact, there’s more depth to many of the characters and relationships in Riverdale than the viewer is initially told. Fred and Veronica’s mother Hermione (Marisol Nichols) have a past, one in which they dated briefly. Betty harbors an incredible anger at those who pigeonhole or attempt to manipulate her; Veronica has a sadness to her that she’s adept at hiding. Meanwhile, Archie is perhaps the most flat of all the main characters introduced thus far. His entire story and his feelings regarding everyone in his life are laid out with much more telling than showing than all of the other Riverdale residents.
With that said, Archie is the point around which the rest of Riverdale is built — and the rest of Riverdale has plenty to offer. The dynamic between Betty and Veronica especially is a highlight in the series premiere, going against convention for the characters’ Archie Comics legacy and becoming friends. In fact, since their friendship becomes incredibly important to both girls, Veronica kissing Archie later in the episode is that much more heartbreaking. Additionally, since Archie reveals he doesn’t believe he’ll ever be worthy of Betty, Riverdale sets up a love triangle that doesn’t feature the cliche of two women competing for one man – rather, it’s more complicated, and more realistic.
On a larger scale, Riverdale capitalizes on a number of tropes established both by the Archie Comics themselves and television’s long legacy of teen dramas, attempting to subvert cliches like the gay best friend and two straight girls kissing for attention – though certain instances are more successful than others. While Betty and Veronica’s friendship is well-developed and compelling so far, the same cannot be said for Kevin Keller. Introduced early on in the premiere as Betty’s close friend, Kevin checks all the boxes of the gay best friend trope. Although he is accused of playing into the cliche by Cheryl, Kevin isn’t developed nearly enough for the attempt at subversion to be elevated beyond a simple attempt.
Still, perhaps the biggest subversion of expectations going into a show based on Archie Comics is the revelation late in the episode that Archie and Jughead are no longer friends. Hints at the revelation are scattered throughout the series premiere – Jughead’s lack of presence in the episode overall as well as Archie and Betty’s continued insistence that they’re each other’s best friends being the most obvious. But, it’s perhaps one of the most intriguing mysteries established in ‘The River’s Edge’, as there is obviously a deeply emotional reason for the rift between Archie and Jughead, one that will no doubt be explored throughout the season.
All in all, the series premiere of Riverdale lays the groundwork for a soapy teen drama as addicting as Pretty Little Liars or The O.C., with plenty of the charm fans of Archie Comics grew up loving. Although the characters are in much different situations than they ever would have been in the comics, Riverdale honors the new Archie run by providing compelling drama on top of the overarching mystery concerning Jason’s death. How Riverdale unfolds remains to be seen, but if the series capitalizes on all the groundwork of ‘The River’s Edge’, it could easily join the ranks of other TV teen classics.
Riverdale continues next Thursday, February 2 with ‘Chapter Two: A Touch of Evil’ at 9pm on The CW.