'Riverdale': TV Review

Riverdale - H
Katie Yu/The CW
A crazy, sometimes successful, dare of a TV show.

With a murder mystery and all manner of tawdry darkness, The CW's latest comic book adaptation isn't your father's take on Archie, Betty, Veronica, Jughead and the gang.

Dares are about attitude, not aptitude. They're about taking a ridiculous challenge and going with it, not necessarily how well you execute.

The CW's new drama series Riverdale is a crazed dare of a TV show, and while it may defy conventional qualitative norms when it comes to things like narrative coherence and character consistency, it is utterly committed to the strange thing it's doing.

Adapted for TV by Roberto Aguirre-Sacasa (Glee), Riverdale is not your father's Archie story, but the Archie that older viewers probably remember from decades of digests and double digests — the redhead with the beat-up jalopy and rarely enough money for one weekend date, much less to split his affections between dedicated and mechanically handy blonde Betty and spoiled, manipulative brunette Veronica — hasn't existed for a long time. More recent incarnations of the character in comics, most masterminded by Aguirre-Sacasa, shifted from innocent small-town shenanigans to shocking character deaths, risqué explorations of sexuality and even dalliances with the undead.

Riverdale is full of recognizably Archie elements, but the familiar character names and some of their superficial traits have been funneled into a creepy murder mystery with shadings of incest, inappropriate student-teacher relations and corruption that would make the original Riverdale gang blush. Think Dawson's Creek meets Twin Peaks, rather than 1990's famously awful Archie: To Riverdale and Back Again.

After a quick geographic overview and a voiceover promising, "Our story is about a town, a small town, and the people who live in the town," the Riverdale pilot teases the tragedy of wealthy queen bee Cheryl Blossom (Madelaine Petsch), still mourning the disappearance of her beloved twin brother.

K.J. Apa, he of the red-dyed hair and loosely covered Kiwi accent, plays Archie Andrews, newly returned from a summer working construction for his father (Luke Perry, making you feel old) with musical dreams and six-pack abs. As everybody's resident gay best friend Kevin Keller (Casey Cott) observes, "Archie got hot," which might as well also be The CW's tag line for the show (or the network at large). Girl-next-door Betty (Lili Reinhart) is determined to finally tell best friend Archie about her love for him, but immediate complication comes in the form of Veronica Lodge (Camila Mendes), daughter of a disgraced businessman and new to Riverdale.

Many of your favorite Archie universe characters are there, assuming you have such things, but they're all just a bit askew. Jughead (Cole Sprouse) is a melancholy writer working on a book which, judging from the hackneyed voiceover, isn't going to be very good. Josie (Ashleigh Murray) is hard at work with the Pussycats, who are now a Destiny's Child-style girl group. Ms. Grundy (Sarah Habel) is a sexy cellist, Dilton Doiley (Major Curda) is a slightly unhinged scout leader and Ethel Muggs has no real interest in Jughead (and is played by Barb from Stranger Things, otherwise known as Shannon Purser). Periodically, the series deigns to pander to more old-school fans — a tossed off "Lil Archie" mention or Veronica's instant inclination to call Archie "Archiekins" — but those moments are just as often countered by sacrilege like giving The Archies' classic "Sugar, Sugar" to Josie and the Pussycats. For shame!

Feigned outrage aside, the Archie-Betty-Veronica love triangle is still lightly simmering near the center of the story, but it feels perfunctory because Archie himself feels like an afterthought. Making Archie brooding, even if he's also ripped, was the least interesting choice imaginable, and Apa's performance is one of several that, while not bad, registers as flat. The best of the four episodes sent to critics was the third, in which Betty and Veronica work together to bring down a group of icky football players shaming and sexually assaulting female students while Archie is off doing something boring in the B-story. Reinhart shines as it becomes clear how tightly wound and damaged Betty is, even if that character evolution blurs the traditional contrast with Veronica, whose decency, rather than snootiness, is accentuated in Mendes' performance.

By the fourth episode, most of the things that speak to traditional Archie-ness are secondary to the murder plotline and a multigenerational conspiracy that brings co-stars like Marisol Nichols, Mädchen Amick and Robin Givens into play. Young and old, the women rule on Riverdale, providing the sexiness, scheming and delicious bitchiness while the men are mopey, sleazy or, worst of all, stable and unremarkable. The exception is Cott's Kevin, liberated and open and fearless in a town in which too many residents are hiding things.

Lee Toland Krieger, director of the first two episodes, has given the show a good-looking template that accentuates the darkness and adds menace to comic-standard locations like Pop's Chock'lit Shoppe, now a murky, neon-splashed nightmare, or the local drive-in, now terrorized by a leather-clad biker gang out of a different era entirely. Everything wholesome in Riverdale has been made twisted and if there was ever any levity in the scripts, it's been drained. Aguirre-Sacasa and the other writers still get some humor out of reference-heavy patter that's sometimes witty and sometimes wildly over-the-top — the latter courtesy mostly of Veronica, whose ability to cite multiple Truman Capote books, Mildred Pierce, Diablo Cody and Oscar Wilde makes her both clever and desperate. It's funny how Riverdale wants its world to be both a timelessly archetypal Small Town Rotting From Within, but also grounded in very specific social media and pop culture touchstones.

That Riverdale is contradictory is part of its charm. It's a heavily serialized show based on a property that reset its romantic status quo every issue. It hopes to generate compulsive and passionate viewership for material that initially succeeded through bland innocuousness. Although I can list questions I don't need answers to and relationships I'm not invested in, Riverdale is all-in on its gimmick, and I can admire that.

Cast: K.J. Apa, Lili Reinhart, Camila Mendes, Cole Sprouse, Madelaine Petsch, Ashleigh Murray, Luke Perry, Casey Cott, Marisol Nichols, Mädchen Amick
Creator: Roberto Aguirre-Sacasa
Premieres: Thursday, Jan. 26, 8 p.m. ET/PT (The CW)