The tone of Riverdale, the new series from The CW based on the old-school Archie comics that premiered on Jan. 26, can be easily summarized in one quote from the first episode: “Game changer: Archie got hot!”
This breathless declaration perfectly encapsulates how this is not your childhood’s Archie Andrews, for better or worse. For fans of the original characters, or those just mildly familiar with the comics like myself, fair warning: this is not a faithful adaptation of the original works, but a CW-fied version of Archie and his pals. While these changes have some fun, inventive bright spots, the overall product in the first two episodes struggles to cohesively come together despite having some potential.
If you were to catch Riverdale on television on Thursdays at 9 p.m., you would most likely be surprised to realize you were watching an adaptation of the famed comics. Still, the characters are very much based off their predecessors that were created in 1941 by publisher John L. Goldwater, writer Vic Bloom, and artist Bob Montana. The characters are where most of the comparisons begin and end, especially when it comes to the story.
The series was created, written, and produced by Roberto Aguirre-Sacasa, whose other credits include Glee and Looking; the director is Lee Toland Krieger, who also directed 2015’s The Age of Adaline, finds a nice balance between the old and the new. The classic love triangle between Archie Andrews (K.J. Apa), Betty Cooper (Lili Reinhart), and Veronica Lodge (Camila Mendes) simmers under the surface of both episodes, but the central storyline follows the murder mystery of popular quarterback Jason Blossom.
Aguirre-Sacasa’s bold writing is a mixed bag, but can be impressive. The central mystery had every opportunity to become either a campy mess or a bore, but it manages to avoid both and stays compelling thanks to the questions that linger about the mysterious death and the witnesses around it. Each character has a tie to the tragic death, and no matter how hard they try to push it away, it lingers menacingly in the background.
With the series adopting a darker tone, not only in the writing but also in visual aesthetics, this new mystery actually works well with the vibe the series is trying to set. Similarly, the silly, yet clever nature you would expect from the comics, and The CW, is still very much alive in the writing. Hilariously strange pop culture references and one-liners are present, such as “I’m Breakfast at Tiffany’s but this place is strictly In Cold Blood.”
Occasional heartfelt portrayals of family life and friendship also manage to make Riverdale somewhat compelling, despite its sometimes-rapid tonal shifts and cheesy dialogue.
The other main talking point regarding Riverdale is the characters and their portrayals, which is unfortunately where the series runs into some problems. First, it’s worth mentioning the elephant in the room that most teen series run into: age. While the show has been praised for using actors closer to the appropriate ages than most other high school set television shows and movies. Although all of the main actors range from ages 19-24, they can’t help but look like the adults they are, and not the 15-year-old high school sophomores they are supposed to be. It’s not a deal breaker for the series, but watching scenes of house parties, school dances, and “7 minutes in heaven,” just seem even more ridiculous when a visible 20-something is doing it.
The other big problem with character and cast revolves around the man of the hour, Archie. The show cleverly takes the focus away from Archie by naming the show Riverdale, adding new storylines, and giving equal amount of screen time to Betty, Veronica, and Jughead Jones (Cole Sprouse). Archie is still our apparent hero, who at the end of the day is boring, mildly cliché, and not well acted. In this adaptation, Archie is a broody beefcake who not only plays on the varsity football team, but also has recently discovered a newfound love of music. Imagine High School Musical’s Troy Bolton with more angst and less charisma. Apa is very attractive, which the role does call for, but he’s no Zac Efron. In comparison to his peers, Apa struggles to be more than just serviceable in the role. He does what he needs to and has perfectly fine chemistry with the rest of the cast, but doesn’t shine.
Thankfully, the rest of the cast of characters is quite fun to watch. Reinhart is great as the wholesome girl next door Betty, but also manages to portray the subtle, yet constant anxiety the character faces as she tries to please everyone but herself. Sprouse, most famously known for his childhood role on Disney Channel’s The Suite Life of Zack & Cody, is a reliable Jughead, thanks to an interesting reboot of the character in which he is a young sleuth writing about the murder of Blossom. The real standouts are Mendes as the chic, headstrong rich girl Veronica and Madelaine Petsch as Cheryl Blossom, the queen bee, resident mean girl, and twin sister of recently deceased Jason Blossom. Mendes has excellent delivery, and skillfully flips between cunning and surprisingly sweet as the script asks her to. The actresses behind Betty and Veronica also have fantastic chemistry, making their on-again, off-again friendship relatable and worth rooting for. Petsch is just pure fun as Cheryl. She’s the perfectly primped prom queen, while also being maniacally unhinged. You don’t know what she’ll do next, and Petsch seems to relish the role. If there’s any young talent to look out for on Riverdale, your best bet is Petsch.
If you’re looking for your childhood Archie, your best bet is to dig around your old bedroom and find those beloved Archie comics. If you don’t mind a slightly messy, yet bold update, it’s worth giving the series a try. Riverdale is not perfect, but does show the same potential Archie once did… you know, before he got hot.
image taken from www.legionofleia.com