Friday, January 27, 2017

Pilot Review: Riverdale

Riverdale (Thursdays at 9:00 on The CW)

The influences on this newest iteration of the Archieverse are obvious. From the Pretty Little Liars-esque murder mystery to the casting of the original teen drama badboy, Beverly Hills 90210's Luke Perry, as Archie's dad and Twin Peaks alum Madchen Amick as Betty's mom, there's a moodiness and a brooding that readers of the brightly colored and cartoonishly drawn original comics won't recognize. It begs the question of if Riverdale even really is "Archie" as he's come to be known in popular culture. Even I, who has never read a single issue of the comics or seen an episode of the 1960s animated series, am aware enough of the characters and 1950s wholesomeness of Archie Andrews and the gang to realize that this is barely related. But for those who are more familiar with Aguirre-Sacasa's recent reboot and the zanier plotlines of the 1990s (Archie Meets the Punisher, for example), Riverdale will feel somewhat more familiar. Those comics proved that these characters and their world are ripe for updating, so why not have them reflect what's popular with young audiences? And when it's done this well, it's hard to argue against such an update.

There's something very comforting about Riverdale and very unsettling at the same time. Aguirre-Sacasa, whose TV writing credits include Glee, Supergirl and Big Love, has written a kind of timeless pilot about growing pains, young love, and secrets. There are moments that are clear throwbacks to great teen soaps of yore. The Betty-Veronica-Archie triangle this time around has shades of Dawson's Creek; the small-town-in-the-woods and retro feel of Riverdale recalls Everwood; the snarky witticisms and pop culture references reminded me of Buffy the Vampire Slayer and Veronica Mars; the Lodge family's riches, and Veronica's quick retorts and attitude, are similar to Gossip Girl's Blair Waldorf; Jughead's narration and philosophical rumblings are like those of Angela in My So-Called Life. Film director Lee Toland Krieger's washed-out scenery and overcast cinematography even make the show look like a product of the 90s. But then the teen murder storyline and the hiding of damaging secrets are akin to Twin Peaks and Pretty Little Liars. There are hints of incestuousness and a portrayal of statutory rape, as well, that detract from the comfort of familiar 90s TV tropes and make Riverdale feel more adult and contemporary, but they also never feel gratuitous or like Aguirre-Sacasa is trying too hard. Somehow, it all really does feel like a natural progression for these recognizable, even to those who only having glancing familiarity with Riverdale, characters.

Of course, there's Archie (K.J. Apa), the introspective every-teen who got jacked over the summer working for his father's construction company; there's Betty (Lili Reinhart, in the pilot's stand-out performance), the girl-next-door who secretly pines for her best friend while trying to please her perpetually displeased mother; and there's Veronica (Camila Mendes), a New York transplant who quickly blends into Archie's circle of friends while simultaneously disrupting their balance. And there's Jughead (former Disney star Cole Sprouse), who's given a makeover this time around into a brooding, hipster writer (and the show's narrator) who's had a falling out with Archie. Jose and the Pussycats are around, still performing their music and trying to make it big, but this time they're black and their cat ears are styled from their hair. Cheryl Blossom (Madelaine Petsch) is not only rich and privileged now, she's also the mean girl head cheerleader who's used her twin brother's disappearance as a means to further her popularity. And most welcome, there's Kevin Keller (Casey Cott), Betty's openly gay friend who was first introduced to the comics in 2010. He provides some interesting twists to the other characters, including a late-pilot storyline where he becomes sexually involved with a closeted jock (and one of the original Archie gang). It's not until Jason's body is found in the pilot's final minutes that a true plot emerges, but it doesn't matter because of how naturally and seamlessly this extensive cast of characters work together. Like the best teen dramas, the gamut of adolescent personalities are covered, and this cast of mostly newcomers bring those characteristics to life.

Apa is slightly too stiff, and his orange dye job is tragically awful, and Sprouse is criminally underused in the first episode, but the rest of the cast is not only likeable and attractive in that CW way that's completely unrealistic but also surprisingly adept at bringing out emotions and landing jokes (the majority of which feel way too adult and/or esoteric for the network's target demographic, with references to Thornton Wilder, Truman Capote, and Mad Men that are very clever but not exactly realistic when coming from the mouths of fifteen year-olds). The only true criticism I have for Riverdale is its weird setting. There's a kind of Wayward Pines feel at times, and not just because some of the physical locations are like living in a time warp (Pop's Chockit Shop is here, and it's more like a real 50s diner rather than a replica of one like those you can find across America). Dialogue makes clear that Riverdale is set in the present, with references to texting and calling an Uber, but we almost never see anyone with a cell phone in hand (except when they're listening to one of Archie's songs) nor does anyone mention social media. Betty dresses primly and conservatively in clothes direct from the 60s, but Jughead wears a beanie and Veronica would be right at home on the Upper East Side today. Cheryl mentions she and Jason were conceived to the Cyndi Lauper song "All Through the Night," despite it coming out more than a decade before they would have been born. It's a little confusing; not because it's necessary for the characters to all dress in a contemporary style or because actual teens of 2017 would be talking about Snapchat and Instastories, but because rooting a show in a time period and being consistent in that setting grounds everything.

But beyond that, Riverdale is definitely a winner. It's nostalgic, both in the way you'd expect a show based on characters with a 60+ year history to be and in a way millennials can relate to, and well-written and lively despite its broodiness.

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