From the opening moments of Riverdale, you will either decide it’s too over-the-top for you or fall in love with its commitment to being as ridiculous as possible. But if you stick with it, you’ll find that there’s a lot more heart to the show than you expected. It’s weird, campy, beautiful, and delightful. I instantly wanted more.
In case you didn’t know, Riverdale, premiering tonight, is the CW show which takes Archie comics and turns it into a teen noir/soap opera. In this version, Veronica’s new to town, Archie’s estranged from Jughead, and Jason Blossom has been murdered. How you react to this description will basically determine how you react to the show.
Riverdale is desperately trying to be much more than the sum of its parts. Is it a show about the murder of a high school football player? Or about teens bucking what their parents want in order to follow their dreams? How about political corruption and finance? Or is it about how awful teens can be to each other? Forbidden love? How about the fact that Archie (K.J. Apa) is allergic to shirts? It is all of these things.
There is an episode which tackles slut-shaming and race—in both cases, straight up and head on, with no coyness or subtlety so audiences could infer it. It has characters say things like “It’s slut-shaming” and “Do you know how much hate my mom [the Black mayor] gets?” This is not a show for nuance.
That said, it’s still shockingly fun. The voiceovers drop plot bombs all the time and I don’t really care that they come from nowhere. Because the most compelling drama of Riverdale has nothing to do with Jason Blossom’s murder, or even Archie’s forbidden relationship with his music teacher. It’s friendship.
It’s Kevin Keller (Casey Cott), the only gay person in the town, and his support of Betty (Lili Reinhart) and Veronica (Camila Mendes). It’s Cheryl Blossom (Madeleine Petsch) thawing as a result of friendship with Betty and Veronica. It’s Jughead (Cole Sprouse) and Archie’s friendship falling apart and being put back together. It’s Archie and Betty being best friends since kindergarten and them trying not to ruin that amidst all the craziness.
And it is mostly Betty and Veronica. Betty and Veronica, with all due respect to Archie, are the heart and soul of this show. How Veronica might feel about Archie clearly means less to her than becoming friends with Betty. In fact, everything means less to her than that friendship, and Betty—whose mom is a terror—is in turn empowered by it. It’s a testament to the writing and the actors that a short estrangement early on in the season makes you root for them. We barely know them, they barely know each other, but you already know that them fighting each other feels wrong.
Their relationship is so strong that it makes the gay-baiting in the pilot, where Betty and Veronica kiss to get on the cheerleading quad, really frustrating and retrograde. It’s unnecessary and drags down an otherwise very good first episode.
All the actors are strong, but certain people stand out. Cole Sprouse pulls off a very difficult job as Riverdale’s version of Jughead, a dark loner with a passion for writing. It could and should be a cliché, but he underplays the loner parts and focuses on the strained connections he has with others in just the right way. Ashleigh Murray plays Josie McCoy as a strong artist with a very clear-eyed view of the world she and her band (i.e., the Pussycats) have found themselves in. Madelaine Petsch’s Cheryl Blossom is inspired; she’s crazy and bitchy and just damaged enough to feel three-dimensional, but still manipulative enough to be a good foil for the heroes.
And I swear to god Camila Mendes was actually a comic book character in another life. She looks and sounds like she stepped off the page, and she has to give a lot of exposition about her family, her old life, and what her plans are. And all of it works! Her early confrontation with Cheryl will have you cheering. In a later episode, she swears she’s going to go “scorched earth” on someone who wronged her, and you not only believe it, you can’t wait for it.
Riverdale’s also stacked the deck by bringing in Mädchen E. Amick, Luke Perry, Marisol Nichols, and Skeet Ulrich as the adults. As is typical for a teen drama, they mean well, but they don’t really get their kids. As is typical for noir, they’ve all got secrets coming out their asses, but I’m sure their discovery won’t upend the kids’ life at all.
On the downside, Riverdale wants you to know how clever it is more than anything in the world. It does this through the almost bludgeoning effect of references. Every kid in this show—and only the kids, I assume so you know how much better they are than the hapless adults—has Juno syndrome; their dialogue is unrealistic, overly clever, and peppered with references to things no actual teen would say.
Within seconds, a single jock insults Jughead by calling him “Suicide Squad,” which feels like something a teen would know, and “Donnie Darko,” which doesn’t. Veronica introduces herself by saying that she’s Breakfast at Tiffany’s and Riverdale is In Cold Blood. None of this makes the people talking sound smart, but it does make clear that the target audience isn’t actual teens as much as it is people in their 20s and 30s.
While the pop culture references clang, the references to Archie Comics sing. Josie and the Pussycats have their ear headbands. Teen genius Dilton Doiley’s (Kyle Stehura) appearance will make you pull something from laughter. Veronica calls Archie “Archie-kins.” Jughead says that he and Archie will deal with things over many burgers. When Betty and Veronica zip up their cheerleader outfits for the first time, I was unreasonably excited. Those little things which tie this dark and twisted take back to its source material are more fun than a thousand bits of strained dialogue. (Another actual example: “No straight man has that body.” “Speaking of bodies, have you recovered from finding Jason’s body?”)
Riverdale’s so much fun, it’s easy to look past its fault, but hard to bear the wait between episodes. The campiness of the noir elements are a pure joy to see., and the core friendships between the characters keep the whole thing from feeling empty. Even if you know nothing about Archie Comics, Riverdale is a must-watch.