When The Vampire Diaries premiered in 2009, it took place at a high school. That’s what you expected from The CW: high school-centric stories, the bread and butter of teen dramas. But over the last few years the network has changed, and even grown up a little. The focus has stayed on the supernatural, but moved towards superheroes. Those shows and other recent favorites (The 100, Crazy Ex-Girlfriend, even newcomers like No Tomorrow) have focused on a slightly older set of characters, ones who tend to be in their mid 20s and dealing with careers (never over 30 though, come on). Now, with The CW’s new Archie comic adaptation Riverdale, the network has finally returned to high school. But there’s still a very strong resistance to allow the characters to actually be high schoolers. Instead, Riverdale creates a world of adult-acting teens and teen-acting parents that feels like old-school CW, but in all of the wrong ways.
Of course, there will be many viewers who like Riverdale for all of the reasons I don’t. Here’s a test: Do you like the idea of Jughead as Holden Caufield, of students having affairs with teachers who get defended by the parents, and of Pop’s Diner being renamed the “Chock’Lit Shoppe?” Then you will love Riverdale.
Though Riverdale is based more off of the recently revamped Archie stories rather than the old-school ones I devoured as a kid, you don’t need to be familiar with either era of Archie comics to dive into the series. Yet the show is at its best when it does embrace the better parts of the comics. Archie Andrews (KJ Apa) is still a fairly bland but likable character who every girl (and woman) fawns over, but Riverdale stands out with its portrayal of Betty Cooper (Lili Reinhart) and Veronica Lodge (Camila Mendes). As true friends rather than fighting frenemies, the girls bring out the best in each other, challenging the other’s extremes. Betty is still the sweet one who has a chaste friendship with Archie (though she would like it to be more), while Veronica is a former “It Girl,” has darker impulses, and more overtly chases after Archie. And yet, the two complement each other just as well as they did in the original comics, and betray surprising depth even early on.
While Riverdale does try to keep some of the vestiges of its comic characters in Archie, Betty, and Veronica, the same cannot be said for their parents (played by Luke Perry, Mädchen Amick, and Marisol Nicholas respectively). They are, in typical form, all young and hot and mostly single, so that their dramas can overlap with the kids’. But do we need it? Especially when so many other teen characters are overlooked; Josie (Ashleigh Murray) and her Pussycats, who are (save one other character) the only black students in the school, are brought into the story for musical crises only. Comic staple Reggie Mantle (Ross Butler) is still a jock, but instead of being a sometimes part of the gang, here he’s an undeveloped, low-level antagonist from afar. And then there’s the fact that the whole story hinges on a gothic murder plot revolving around some seriously over-the-top, Ryan Murphy-style twins, Cheryl (Madelaine Petsch) and Jason Blossom (Trevor Stines), whose tone feels at odds with the rest of the series. “You may be a stock character from a 90s teen movie, but I’m not,” Veronica tells Cheryl. She could not be more right.
Though Twin Peaks is often — wrongly — invoked when discussing the series, Riverdale isn’t as nearly as quirky as its early stylistic flourishes would like to suggest. By the fourth episode it has set up some decent world-building and embraces a unique style, but it does not even begin to broach the deep, immersive mythology of David Lynch’s series. Nor, frankly, does it need to.
The fact that Riverdale is so campy, self-aware, and overwritten will be catnip to some, but it feels like a missed opportunity to tell a strong, high school-set story that is not about kids with adult problems trying to solve brutal murders. The most genuine moments in the series are ones like when Veronica and her gay best friend Kevin (Casey Cott) hang out at the Drive-In theater, or when Archie explains to Betty he loves her just as a friend. Veronica encouraging Betty to join the cheerleading squad works much better than Betty later channeling her mysterious “crazy” sister in a faux menage a trois with Ronnie and a jock. A very quickly blown-through plot about cyber bullying is a great example of a story that should have carried more weight and played out over multiple episodes, instead of feeling like a shoe-horned after-school special that ends in poorly-conceived torture.
Riverdale doesn’t need murder plots, teachers sleeping with students, dour narration, and psychosexual revenge plots to be good. There’s plenty of drama in just being a high schooler.
Rating: ★★ Fair — Only for the dedicated
Riverdale premieres Thursday, January 4th on The CW