Created by Archie Comics’ chief creative officer, Roberto Aguirre-Sacasa, with teen drama luminary Greg Berlanti (Dawson’s Creek, Everwood, Supergirl) as showrunner, Riverdale is populated with familiar teen-soap types decked out in the iconography of the comic-book characters: Betty Cooper (Lili Reinhart) is a good girl chafing against her mother’s impossible expectations, her hair perpetually swept off her face in a Peggy Olson-esque high ponytail; Veronica Lodge (Camila Mendes, whose eyebrows steal every scene) is the raven-haired new girl in town, arriving in Riverdale from New York City fresh off a scandal that’s drained her family of their wealth; Jughead Jones (Cole Sprouse), our narrator, is the loner, an aspiring writer in a crown-shaped wool hat; Cheryl, the head cheerleader, is the mean girl — or as Veronica calls her in one of the show’s many pop culture references, “a stock character from a ’90s teen movie.”
And, of course, there’s Archie Andrews (K.J. Apa), whom the show transforms from an apple-cheeked nerd with a sweater vest to a muscle-bound dreamboat with flaming orange hair, a sensitive guy who plays football but would rather write songs on his guitar. Oh, and he’s fucking Miss Grundy (Sarah Habel), who’s no longer a white-haired schoolmarm but a sexy young music teacher rocking the hot-for-teacher look: oversized glasses, hair in a bun.
Like HBO’s The Young Pope, Riverdale is a ballsy new show that functions as a winking comment on its own high drama. There are just enough tossed-off references to the very clichés and formulas the show relies on to signal that Riverdale is in on the joke: On her first day of school, Veronica confesses, “I’m Breakfast at Tiffany’s but this place is strictly In Cold Blood”; later she laments, “Ten minutes in and I’m already the Blue Jasmine of Riverdale High.”
Riverdale joins other nostalgia-baiting reboots, like Twin Peaks and 90210, in casting actors that viewers of a certain generation will no doubt associate with small-town and/or teen-drama series of the 1990s — like Twin Peaks (Mädchen Amick, who plays Betty’s mom, Alice) and 90210 (Luke Perry, as Archie’s dad, Fred). The show’s greatest strength so far is the subtle indication of long-simmering relationships, like Fred and Hermione Lodge (Marisol Nichols), who dated in high school; Archie and Betty, best friends and next-door neighbors, although Betty harbors feelings that Archie can’t return; and Archie and Jughead, who used to be close but have lately had a falling-out, the details of which remain murky.
It would be easy to bemoan the violation of the sanctity of the Archie Comics, which up until recently have presented a sunny-side-up vision of the life of the typical American teen since 1941. The “dark, sexy twist on a beloved entity” has become a wearyingly predictable trend (see, for instance, Emerald City). Of course our first glimpse of Betty finds her in front of the mirror in a baby-pink bra putting on makeup and tying her hair up in that prim ponytail. Of course Miss Grundy is a pervy young thing who leers at Archie from her car while sucking a lollipop.
But the characters in the comic books didn’t use to talk about slut-shaming, either, or white privilege, nor were any of them openly gay, up until a few years ago, or — in the case of Moose Mason (Cody Kearsley) — a little bi-curious. The comics didn’t center on the kids’ amateur espionage attempts, but in a way, smartphones have turned all teens into little spies, upping the intrigue and paranoia of the typical high school experience. The comics certainly didn’t cater to/bait lesbian and bisexual women and girls by subtly gesturing toward a possible romance between Betty and Veronica. And yeah, I’m disappointed that the show’s creators decided to trade in Archie’s sense of humor and personality for a six-pack. But come to think of it, the original Archie didn’t have much of either; the big joke of Betty and Veronica’s long-standing competition is the utter banality of their prize. The smartest move Riverdale makes in its early episodes is to center the series around B and V, as they come to call each other, and to make them friends before rivals.
While hardcore fans of the old-school comic books will find little fandom fodder on Riverdale, there’s a kind of fidelity in the show’s revision. Its loyalties clearly lie with its current teen audience and not the decades-old comic books, which in a way is true to the spirit of the original Archie Comics. What’s implicit in this reimagining of the comics is a loss of innocence. We’re no longer in the sun-dappled Archie universe; we’re in Riverdale, and life isn’t all jukeboxes and chocolate shakes.
Riverdale premieres Thursday, Jan. 26 at 9 p.m. on the CW.