Riverdale wears its inspirations like badges on a lettermen’s jacket. There’s Beverly Hills, 90210; Dawson’s Creek; and every high school soap about media-weaned, hot-and-bothered teens. There’s Twin Peaks, prototype for all mystery yarns and genre subversions, in which a shocking murder of some tragic PYT unravels a small town tangled with secrets. Each episode pays homage to a movie. River’s Edge. The Last Picture Show. Body Double. Touch of Evil. The most meaningful communion is with Archie Comics, the venerable publisher whose brand of happy-days kid bop helped to mint the tropes of pop adolescence. Stuck in time for decades, recent infusions of diversity, splashy topicality, and cheeky zaniness (zombie apocalypse!) have rejuvenated the company. (There was a Zombie Archie. Seriously.) Riverdale, in fact, is the sum of all trends: franchise extension, comic-book adaptation, theory-baiting crypto serial, edgy YA romance, and densely ironic deconstruction. Riverdale is keenly aware of this: Coded within its solidly satisfying juvie pulp is a sly spoof of itself and the business of reinvention.
Take Archie (KJ Apa), a cautionary tale about rebooting. We meet the all-American White Bread Everyboy newly transformed into a chiseled hunk after a summer of hard labor — a radical morph played with a wink. He’s come of age in another way, too, thanks to an illicit dalliance with his boundary-challenged young music teacher (Sarah Habel). Their summer lovin’ is a nod to Grease, but a sex scene homage to the losin’ it horror flick It Follows shades a romantic read: The lady’s a predator. Still, she leaves a mark he doesn’t mind: Instead of playing football, Archie dreams of being a guitar-strummin’ balladeer, and he seeks guidance from three classmates with a much stronger sense of self: Josie (Ashleigh Murray) and the Pussycats (Hayley Law and Asha Bromfield), reconceived here as a power trio of African-American girls brimming with talent and vision. One of their tunes is a remake of “Sugar, Sugar” by the Archies, the virtual band from the late ’60s Archie cartoon. Clever, clever.
Archie isn’t the only one in tumultuous, ironic flux. Betty (Lili Reinhart) is the goody-goody girl next door; Veronica (Camila Mendes) is the spoiled, sophisticated brunette brat; and neither of these walking-talking archetypes is happy with who they are. Their arcs are about busting their molds, though you worry they might lose something worth retaining in the process. By episode 4, Betty has already experimented with a Dark Betty persona, and there are hints that darker turns could come. Be afraid, be very afraid? Jughead (Cole Sprouse), an aloof cipher to start, is a jaded loner and our somber narrator. He’s writing a Capote-ish true-crime novel about the mystery that catalyzes the plot: the killing of Jason Blossom (Trevor Stines), the wealthy-jerk brother of Cheryl (Madelaine Petsch), Queen Beyotch of Riverdale High.
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Executive producers Greg Berlanti (who oversees The CW’s Arrowverse) and Roberto Aguirre-Sacasa (a skilled scribe and the chief creative officer of Archie Comics) have built a sturdy, appealing foundation. They’ve cast the parts well and created an evocative setting — a misty midcentury America Brigadoon slowly losing ground to the present. The sprawling intrigues are familiar but marked by a curious knowingness and buzzy themes. An Archie-Betty-Veronica love triangle is teased, then withdrawn, as if to say, “We’re not doing this cliché… for now.” There’s a “topple the patriarchy!” episode that sees the girls teaming to take down a misogynistic jock elite engaged in degrading, slut-shaming sex sport. Everyone quips and banters as if they learned English from Buffy or Twitter. Veronica is versed in everything from Mad Men to Stephen King. Sample quip: “Can’t we, in this post-James Franco world, be all things at once?”
Riverdale — a post-everything show — is impishly meta this way. Beverly Hills 90210’s Luke Perry plays Archie’s single, haggard father who sweats his son’s chaotic choices; Twin Peaks’ Mädchen Amick plays Betty’s domineering mom who fears her daughter’s corruption. Later this season: Molly Ringwald, icon of ’80s-era coming-of-age movies (Pretty In Pink, The Breakfast Club), will show up as Archie’s mother. The show is so possessed by cultural influences that it struggles for original identity, but it knows this, too, because that’s the conflict and rebellion of every character. And there’s something fiendishly inspired about the idea of Archie Co. — a brand rendered square and irrelevant by all the innocence-killing pop it’s quoting — remaking itself into po-mo cool for the purpose of telling a story that grieves lost innocence, that pays bunches of homages but maybe spits on them, too. A pastiche that’s earnest, subversive, and possibly a bit vengeful, Riverdale wants it all ways, and mostly succeeds. It’s so very James Franco. B
Riverdale premieres Thursday, Jan. 26 at 9 p.m. ET on The CW.