Best Shots Review: The CW's RIVERDALE Is Daring, Divisive, & Dark

Still from "Riverdale"
Credit: The CW
Credit: Francesco Francavilla (The CW / Archie Comics)

Riverdale - Episode 1
Starring K.J. Apa, Cole Strouse, Camila Mendes, Lili Reinhart and Madelaine Petsch
Directed by Lee Toland Krieger
Written by Roberto Aguirre-Sacasa
Produced by Berlanti Productions
Premiering Oct. 3, 2016 on the CW
‘Rama Rating: 8 out of 10

Who is Archie Andrews?

With its string of recent relaunches such as Mark Waid and Fiona Staples’ Archie or Chip Zdarsky and Erica Henderson’s Jughead, it’s a question that’s been asked many times by publisher Archie Comics, but there might not be a more public answer than on the upcoming television show Riverdale, arriving on The CW as part of its midseason offerings. Written by Afterlife with Archie scribe and Archie Comics Chief Creative Officer Roberto Aguirre-Sacasa, Riverdale is a polarizing take on a classic, evoking Gossip Girl and Twin Peaks far more than a modern-day Dawson’s Creek.

In many ways, naming this series Riverdale rather than Archie feels like a conscious choice. Instead, Aguirre-Sacasa takes his time before he introduces the town’s most famous redhead, showing off side characters and local landmarks like Pop’s Chock’lit Shoppe, the local comic book store, or even Riverdale’s welcome sign, giving a tip of the hat to Archie’s first appearance as it proudly proclaims, “the Town with Pep!” Cinematographer David Lanzenberg and editor Harry Jierjian do some beautiful work with the visuals here, evoking crime thrillers like Gone Girl and Mystic River with great sense of pacing, lighting and composition that makes this town look particularly foreboding.

And perhaps that is the biggest departure from the classic Archie comic books, as Riverdale’s central driving narrative isn’t harmless teen drama and romantic hijinks, but instead follows the mysterious death of Jason Blossom, and the ripple effects his disappearance has had on the rest of the teens at Riverdale High. Aguirre-Sacasa has set the stakes high here, and as the episode progresses, he uses this shocking incident to dig deeper into his central thesis, narrated by noirish writer Jughead Jones, played with edge by Cole Sprouse — that a place like Riverdale is bound to have dark secrets festering underneath its seemingly wholesome veneer.

While this murder is the show’s official hook, it’s when Aguirre-Sacasa gets to his iconic love triangle that the real strength of this series reveals itself. Following a summer internship working in the magazine industry, girl next door Betty Cooper is bowled over when she discovers her childhood crush, Archie Andrews, has muscled up working in construction, but her plans to make a move are thrown in upheaval by the arrival of Veronica Lodge, the daughter of a disgraced embezzler who has fled from New York with her mother to the only property left in their name.

It’s this dynamic that affords this show its most engaging performances as well as its most interesting twists. It would be very easy to paint Betty and Veronica as stereotypical “frenemies,” but Aguirre-Sacasa keeps things complex between the two, as Veronica often oscillates between standing up for her new BFF to malevolent queen bee Cheryl Blossom, but also completely tanks Betty’s chances with Archie later in the episode. By placing Cheryl so prominently as the villain of the show, Aguirre-Sacasa paints himself into a corner a bit as far as to how much he can establish Veronica as the gorgeous mean girl of Riverdale — right now she claims she’s trying to be a better person, but with nearly 75 years of comic books on her track record, I can’t help but be skeptical this might change soon.

The love triangle also gives the actors a chance to shine. Lili Reinhart’s take on Betty is easily the highlight of the show, as she gazes longingly at Archie with just the right balance of humor and adolescent angst. K.J. Apa, meanwhile, channels a young Josh Hartnett as teen beefcake Archie Andrews. Camila Mendes is given the most high-brow gags to deliver as Veronica Lodge, and while she doesn’t always convincingly deliver some of Aguirre-Sacasa’s more literary references, the sexual tension between her and Apa is palpable, leading to some truly steamy encounters near the end of the episode. (It’s second only to Apa’s forbidden fling in the back seat with Sarah Habel’s Geraldine Grundy, which cuts across the screen in flashes of rippling muscles and raw passion.)

Credit: The CW

That said, if Riverdale has one big sin, is that it might go too far in its attempts to court controversy. Scenes like Betty and Veronica having a girl-on-girl kiss feel gratuitous rather than provocative (something even Cheryl sneers back at them), while much of Betty’s home life (including a crazy mother and a bottle of Ritalin that feels like a Jessie Spano freakout just waiting to happen) feels more like overreaching than establishing tension. Meanwhile, Kevin Keller, who made history as Archie’s first gay character, feels just a shade stereotypical, while the inclusion of another longtime Archie character as at least sexually curious feels a bit too much like a punchline rather than an organic inclusion. Additionally, there were some dramatic moments that fell flat near the end of the episode, leading more than a few audience members at Comic-Con to chuckle in their seats.

What will make or break a show like Riverdale is whether or not audiences are willing to accept this darker version of what was once a staple of classic Americana. What makes Riverdale differ from the company’s comic book relaunches such as Waid and Staples’ Archie is that the comic books remixed what stories came before, added in some relatable drama and humanity, and ultimately settled on a place of hope. Riverdale takes the opposite approach, rejecting the idea of such an impossibly happy and wholesome place, defining this town by how deeply it falls short of its aspirational image. It’s a daring, if divisive, take on Archie and the gang, but if the mystery and characters can find a smart payoff to justify this dark twist, Riverdale might turn out to be the CW’s most satisfying comics destination yet.

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