Don’t get too caught up in the buzz that The CW’s new teen drama Riverdale is adapted from decades-old Archie Comics stories about Betty, Veronica, Jughead and good old Archie. It is, and who cares. Riverdale is compulsive and razor sharp; it knows exactly what it is from the first scene.
What is is, though, is a little more complicated.
One logline you’ll see a lot is that it’s Dawson’s Creek meets Twin Peaks, but that’s mostly in the broader strokes. There are four attractive, middle-class, innocent(-ish) teen leads and lots of low-bore Young People Problems a la Dawson’s Creek. There’s an underlying murder-mystery storyline with lots of moonlit fog (and occasional steam) as on Twin Peaks, but Riverdale is neither as melodramatic as the former or as weird as the latter.
Riverdale is closer to a stylish and stylized teen noir like Rian Johnson’s 2005 film Brick or a younger, darker take on Desperate Housewives. Creator and showrunner Roberto Aguirre-Sacasa, who was a writer-producer on Glee and Supergirl, filled Riverdale with kids who dress like Prada models and talk like they’re in a David Mamet movie. These teens call each other Freida Shallow and Justin Gingerlake. They know their Truman Capote. They binge-watch Making a Murderer. And even when it genre-hops into an elaborate Glee-inspired cheerleading routine or a Moonrise Kingdom-ish hipster scout meeting, Riverdale maintains its atmospherics.
The early episodes are overstuffed with typecasts (the Mean Girls-y head cheerleader, the sensitive jock, the gay BFF) and cliches (the girl-on-girl kiss, the school dance). Having characters call out those typecasts and cliches doesn’t subvert them or make them less stereotypical, but the show is able to do that over time by digging underneath them. Sometimes they’re exactly what you think, but sometimes—and increasingly as you go—they’re not what you think at all.
The series opens with the news that Riverdale teen Jason Blossom drowned in a boating accident. (Note: He definitely did not drown in a boating accident.) Lies are told, asses are covered and the first episode unfolds with introductions of the major characters. Archie (K.J. Apa) is next-door neighbors with Betty (Lili Reinhart), who’s secretly in love with him. Veronica (Camila Mendes) is the new girl in town. Jughead (Cole Sprouse) is writing a novel about the murder and doubles as a Veronica Mars-like narrator for the series.
As with Archie Comics and The CW’s lineup of superhero shows, Riverdale has a well of characters waiting to spin off into an expanded universe. The first should be Josie and the Pussycats. Ashleigh Murray plays Josie with crisp confidence and has the voice to back it up; she’s a scene-stealer and a major talent. Her cover of Cyndi Lauper’s “All Through the Night” in the pilot episode is terrific. And then maybe a River Vixens series where the oppressed cheerleaders of Riverdale plot to overthrow villainous—and also stingingly funny—head cheerleader Cheryl Blossom (Madelaine Petsch).
The casting will rankle some as too homogeneous and too post-everything—a millennial version of Lake Wobegon where all the kids are above average and also above racism and homophobia and sweatpants—but I took that more as Riverdale trying to find its conflicts along different, less-traveled paths like slut-shaming and cyberbullying, as well as illicit affairs and, you know, murder.
With its built-out world, multiplying subplots and underlying murder mystery, Riverdale is imminently bingeable, which may be a big frustration for viewers given that it’s on broadcast television. I watched the first four episodes in quick succession without commercial interruption, but most viewers will have to watch it the old fashioned way—one week at a time and chock full of tonally disruptive Doritos commercials—or wait until later this year when it lands on Netflix.