Archie, Jughead, Betty, Veronica, and the rest of the gang that you remember from the classic pulp comics are back in a new revamped series titled Riverdale on The CW from Warner Bros. Television. But when I say the characters are “back,” I mean that in the loosest of terms, as this new series tells the lives of Riverdale High and its families through the dark noir filter of a murder mystery inside a small town full of secrets and hidden pasts.
Riverdale takes this drastically bold approach to modernize these characters and stories that were very much a product of their time, but barely resemble the youth of today. After viewing the first four episodes, Riverdale succeeds more than it fails with its sardonic twist on the Archie catalog of characters in a show that falls somewhere between Vampire Diaries and Veronica Mars, with its mix of CW high school schlock and contrasting gritty, dark undertones.
The series kicks off with the oddly creepy red-headed twins (with no relation to Archie) Cheryl (Madelaine Petsch) and Jason Blossom (Trevor Stines) dreamily going for a canoe ride in the beautiful forests of Riverdale, but only Cheryl returns – frantic and without her brother. James is then assumed dead as the new school year begins and everyone is affected by the beloved golden boy’s absence, causing tensions and rifts among the town.
Archie Andrews is still the quintessential American teen, but that stigma has changed greatly since the character was first conceived. K.J. Apa stars as the iconic red-headed romantic bringing his chiseled good looks and physique to this doofy version of the character. Archie is a solid athlete on the football team at Riverdale High, but after the summer’s tragic events, he goes all Varsity Blues’ Van der Beek by telling his dad Fred (a very affable, bearded Luke Perry): “I don’t want yer liiife” and instead decides to pursue a career in moody acoustic teen music.
But this updated, internet-age Archie usually has his heart in the right place, even though he’s consistently quite… shall we say… slow? Apa will certainly fill the eye-candy quota necessary for a CW show, but Archie is a frustratingly dim character that quite often gets overshadowed by the show’s other leads, the legendary love interests: Betty and Veronica.
Betty Cooper (Lili Reinhart) is the cute, intelligent blonde next door and lifelong friend of Archie that is inexplicably stuck in his friend zone, while Veronica Lodge (Camila Mendes) is the new girl in town seeking refuge from New York after her family is disgraced in a business scandal. Not only do both actresses turn in solid performances, but the characters are written surprisingly complex and tend to surprise at every corner. Their growing friendship and complicated connections to Archie are one of the most endearing and sincere aspects of a very weird and sometimes goofy show.
The supporting cast is also filled with very interesting and colorful characters all with unfolding connections to Jason’s disappearance. Cole Sprouse as Jughead Jones doesn’t factor very heavily into the first two episodes, but is an integral part of the story as the pseudo-detective in this outcast version of Jughead that thankfully still sports the character’s trademark crown hat, but in hipster beanie form. A high point of the early episodes is to watch the main quartet of Archie, Jughead, Betty, and Veronica slowly come together as friends for the first time.
Madelaine Petsch as Cheryl Blossom is also fun as the scenery chewing “mean girl” character that seems to know more about what happened to Jason than she originally let on. Unfortunately not all of her moments are the greatest and aside from some terrific genre skewering one-liners, she falls into the category of misses more than hits. There’s also the eye-rolling choice of a sexy younger Mrs. Grundy whom is in the middle of an inappropriate dalliance with the underage Archie, and Josie and the Pussycats are also grating as they act like superstar divas, even though they’re just a small town band.
Riverdale is such a strange and ballsy experiment that I’m curious to see how the show connects with audiences. The content is so extremely far removed from the original source material that it might turn off die-hard fans, and it falls a bit too often into soapy teen high school romance for those looking for a neat, noir murder mystery. But after four episodes, I’m oddly invested in this world of macabre color palettes and twisting mysteries that comes with an unfortunate heaping helping of teenage angst.
Riverdale premieres Thursday, January 26 at 9pm ET on The CW.