Let me tell you why I’m the best Nerd Bastard to review Riverdale: I enjoyed (and still enjoy) The OC, I watched Gossip Girl from beginning to end, and I kept tuning into One Tree Hill long after etiquette allowed me to give up the obsession. In other words, you want a Nerd Bastard to bring some kind of expertise to something so blatantly teen soapy as Riverdale then you’ve come to the right Bastard. So, having said that, how does Riverdale shake out after one episode? Intriguing, I say, filled with the usual trappings of teen TV drama, but expertly made, well acted, and maybe a little mysterious.
Put simply, this series has been sold as Archie Comics by way of Twin Peaks, but aside from the somewhat bleak and grey Pacific Northwest weather, Riverdale episode one was way more focused on the teen drama than the mystery of what happened to Jason Blossom on one fateful Fourth of July morning. Jason Bloom’s bloated cadaver, and who cadaverized him, feels like the hook to get us back into this Archie’s world, so the the real test would be how the actors inhabited their iconic characters, and by that metric the show’s done very well for itself. I’m no Archie purist, but after spending one hour with these kids I can say that I’m actually looking forward to spending more time with them.
Now admittedly, this Archie skewers a little emo, but K.J. Apa brings a decent sense of earnestness that manages to broach the way we think about Archie and the way he’s portrayed here. Like a lot teen soap heroes, Archie is pulled between the realm of being the dumb jock with a life laid out for him, and a more ambitious idea of a torture musician. I also appreciate that Archie resolves to balance all the various plates rather than commit nobly to one cause or the other. One of the hallmarks of being a teenage is confronting the uncertainty as your pulled between all the various opportunities in front you, so Archie’s dilemma, and its resolution, feels right.
Then there’s Archie’s other dilemma: the girls. The real finds of Riverdale are Camila Mendes as Veronica and Lili Reinhart as Betty, who quite believably become fast friends and bond over their own internal family dramas, Veronica’s father’s fall from grace in New York, and Betty’s sister’s mental collapse. Thankfully, the friendship is genuine and not hinging on them being secret romantic rivals, although Veronica knows Betty likes Archie in more than a best friend way, and by the end Veronica knows that Archie has strong romantic feelings for her.
Now that was inevitable. At the heart of Archie stories for seven decades is the push/pull between Archie and Betty, and Archie and Veronica, and the series handles it as well as can be expected. Of course, so many teen series have paid homage to the original high school love triangle that it might be hard for Riverdale to do anything new with it. Betty and Veronica do kiss during cheerleader tryouts, which was Veronica’s idea for a way to “heat things up,” but that seemed like pro forma lipstick lesbianism meant to shock those uptight about this 21st century Archies. It might have been bolder if the kiss had been more genuine, perhaps creating a somewhat odder shaped triangle where Archie likes Veronica, and Betty likes Archie, but Veronica likes Betty. Then again, perhaps Roberto Aguirre-Sacasa was worried about too much shell-shock for older fans, especially with Moose being a little bi-curious and going for moonlight skinny dipping swims in the lake with Kevin Keller.
Another indelicate teen soap trope is the teacher/student romance, and Archie’s summer dalliance with Miss Grundy, who gets the She’s All That treatment where she has glasses and a severe hair style while school’s in session, but in the summer, when she’s on the prowl, it’s like night and day. In defense of the show, it seems like the Archie/Miss Grundy tryst is more about motivating Archie’s love of music and providing a key piece of the “Who Killed Jason Blossom?” mystery than the idea that they both share some wonderful romantic connection that transcends the serious consequences if it became public. If there’s a good thing to this plot, it’s that we have an inappropriate teacher/student relationship where both parties seem to have genuine regrets.
Also having some regrets, although there isn’t enough time to get into it in this pilot episode, is Jughead Jones, who had some kind of falling out with Archie that they briefly address in the midst of the latter dealing with his girl troubles. I like how Jughead’s outsider roots have been reconfigured in a millennial way, and there’s definitely some of the latter Beat influences in how Cole Sprouse plays Jughead; a loner, staying up all hours at Pops and tapping away at a novel based on current events. I’m intrigued to see more Jughead, but wish I could say the same about Reggie, who’s played as just another dumb jock by Ross Butler. I want Reggie to be a proper heel!
I suppose that it will be up to Cheryl Blossom (Twitter handle @CherylBombshell) to fill the role as the show’s main antagonist playing the practically textbook sociopath Queen Bee who’s the first and most obvious suspect in her twin brother’s murder. She seems all too willing to use her misfortunate one minute, but barely seems haunted by it the rest of the time, and her mind games (such as they are) are tiresome by the time we get to the end of the episode. That has nothing to do with Madelaine Petsch‘s performance, she’s fine, but Cheryl so far is terribly one note and most of the other characters seem already bored of her game. Except Kevin Keller. If there are more scenes of them one-upping each other for one-liners, bring ’em!
Like a lot of teen shows, the parents are kind of a weak link, although I was suitably impresses with Luke Perry‘s transition to Father Knows Best. He was able to sell his only real scene with paternal authority and understanding as he advised Archie to man up and chase his dreams whatever they maybe. Because of Perry’s status as a teen heartthrob several generations ago (in TV terms) it will be interesting to see where he takes the part of Fred Andrews, especially since it’s hinted that he’s also had a dalliance with a Lodge woman. Marisol Nichols is fine as Veronica’s mother Hermoine, but I’m taking bets now that Betty’s mom Alice (played through “no wire hangers” gritted teeth by Mädchen Amick) is going to be Jason’s killer.
Regardless, I’m surprisingly bullish on Riverdale, and I so desperately wanted to work in that Simpsons clip of Homer being tossed from a car by the Archies telling him to stay out Riverdale. But no, I have fallen under the teen soap allure of Greg Berlanti‘s latest comic book imperial conquest. The cast, aside from being very photogenic, is just too damn appealing. I want to see if Betty and Veronica can circle the square of their mutual romantic entanglement with Archie and still be friends! I want to see if Archie and Jughead can bury the hatchet! I want to see more of the oh so fierce Josie and the Pussycats and how they handle the arrival of soul man Archie Andrews and his weeping guitar.
As for who killed Jason Blossom? If Dale Cooper rolls up to investigate, I might take an interest, but Pop’s is known for its chocolate shakes, not cherry pie.