The first thing I felt when I saw Riverdale, the new CW series based on the Archie Comics, was betrayal. The show takes the outlines of the Archie universe — the iconic love triangle between the blonde, the brunette, and the redhead; the yellow-and-blue letter jackets; the after-school chocolate shakes at Pop Tate’s diner — and colors them in with a mixture of dark melodrama and faux-retro camp. Finally, a fight about comic-book faithfulness I can get invested in! Is this how the Ghostbusters bros felt?
Riverdale, which premieres on Thursday, casts a Lynchian shade over its source material. Its inciting incident is the death of Jason Blossom, who was last seen going boating with his twin sister, Cheryl (Madelaine Petsch), on the Fourth of July. The show has less in common with the Archie Comics than Pretty Little Liars and Gossip Girl — glossy, aspirational versions of teenage life, full of murder and intrigue and perfectly coiffed hair and teenagers who are frighteningly sexually competent. Look closely at this ordinary town, the narrator intones in the pilot, and “you start seeing the shadows underneath.”
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.