Riverdale Season Premiere Impressions – Archie’s Realistic Mysteries!
As an avid comic book reader, and an outspoken Archie Comics advocate, it was with some palpable hesitation that I sat through the first episode of the CW’s new TV series Riverdale, which takes elements of the classic comic and sets it smack dab in the middle of the bizarre murder investigation of popular teenager, Jason Blossom . Advertised by the network as “A subversive take on Archie and his friends, exploring small town life, the darkness and weirdness bubbling beneath Riverdale’s wholesome facade,” I had reasonable concerns that Riverdale might be too grim for its own good. That the elements that pertained to the spirit of Archie Comics would be there in name only. It’s a genuine concern of all adaptations of long running popular franchises that are given the “dark and gritty” treatment. Case in point: the DC Comics Extended Universe films which are universally panned for their tone and poor representations of their core characters. I’m merely illustrating this point so that you can fully understand my concern. On the other hand, I was also quite intrigued and excited to see Archie, Jughead, Betty & Veronica, and the whole Riverdale crew brought to the small screen in a live action teenage soap opera. More or less, I was being torn apart with both hype laden excitement to watch Riverdale and a horrifying dread that the creative team behind it was going to make a product that was too far removed from the what I had read in various Archie Comics all of my life. So what did Riverdale turn out to be in the end? A bit of both actually. Honestly, Riverdale is a difficult show to review for the sole reason that it is so different than what you are likely expecting and yet so similar to the source material at the same time. It is one of those shows that you have to see for yourself, because it is a hard show to peg, and the trailer simply does not do it justice. On its own merits, independent of any connections to Archie Comics, Riverdale is a perfectly entertaining show that you should definitely check out. However, it still works quite well as a modern day realistic take on the Archie franchise. I take a look Riverdale from both sides of the equation in my mostly spoiler free (I won’t discuss any major plot points in detail) impressions of Riverdale’s premiere.
How can Riverdale be both a faithful adaption and darker take on the subject matter? It’s simple actually, Riverdale is a version of the Archie mythos that is set in a modern day real world scenario. For all of my love of Archie Comics, I have no misgivings about the setting of the books, which are set in a Riverdale that borders on nearly being a perfect American town. In the comics nearly all things are in harmony, the townsfolk are generally happy, there are no over-the-top politics, and the only trouble comes from the shenanigans that the teenagers get into (which is also relatively harmless). The TV series is set in a decidedly more realistic setting, one where a town can have secrets, family rivalries, and teenagers who have genuine problems that are not always relatively harmless. This approach works because the characters (for the most part) are accurate portrayals of their comic book counterparts. Archie is still the all-American boy who plays football, writes music, and is generally liked by everyone. Betty is still an overachiever that is always bending over backwards to please everyone, and is quite timid when it comes to confronting her feelings for Archie. Veronica is still the designer clothes wearing belle of the ball with a silver tongue that commands attention with her very presence, and is quite blunt in her interest in Archie. Where things go askew from their comic representations is when the more realistic world setting forces those characters to adapt to a not so perfect version of Riverdale. Archie is a troubled youth that has information about the murder that is currently being investigated, but can’t tell anyone about it because it would expose a truth about him and Miss Grundy that would cause them both a huge amount of trouble. Betty’s future is being micro managed by her domineering mother due to her inability to remain focused (likely ADHD), resulting in her being on Adderall. Veronica is adjusting to life outside of the limelight and away from her family’s fortune, as her father is currently under investigation for fraud and embezzlement. All of these elements add up to characters who live far more complex lives than they normally would in the comics, and yet they still maintain the spirit, original intent if you will, of who Archie and the whole gang are at their core.
Does this “subversive” take actually work? Again, it’s a bit of both. Mostly it works, as the show itself is not necessarily drowning in darkness or grossly contrary representations of the characters. This is not a TV series that is trying to be Lemony Snicket’s a Series of Unfortunate Events or anything of that morose ilk. This is a show about a seemingly perfect town that has been turned upside down due to a bizarre murder case that starts to bring the flaws in the community to light. Their is certainly a seedy underbelly to this incarnation of Riverdale. A lot of history is implied in this first episode, some of it good and some of it is bad. There are a lot of separated parents, hurt feelings, and grudges that are brought to the forefront by both the murder of Jason Blossom and the return of Hermione & Veronica Lodge. When these elements are put together in a way that challenges the characters, the results are some fantastically entertaining TV drama. It does fall a bit short in other ways. The manufactured rift between Jughead and Archie seems out of sync, Betty’s mother seems almost too controlling and harsh to believe, and Josie McCoy (Of Josie and the Pussycats) feels way out of character with her “I will not help others but only work on things that furthers the success and brand of the Pussycats” mentality. Seriously, the way Josie shut Archie down when he asked for her help with his song writing was legitimately jarring. A few nitpicks aside, this subversive real world drama formula works for this series and gives the creative team a lot of room to work in fresh ideas for future episodes. Choosing a murder mystery as a starting point helps to diversify Riverdale from other similar teen dramas, and certainly will help it from turning into Dawson’s Creek 2.0 too quickly.
Does it still feel like the Archie Comics? Yes and no. It feels more in line with the popular “New Riverdale” line of comics that launched last year than with the classic line of Archie Comics to be certain. This is not to say that the this new TV series is nothing like the comics. Plenty of the staples are there. The love triangle between Betty, Archie, and Veronica is still heavily in play. Pop Tate’s Chock’lit Shoppe is still a popular hang out for the teens. Moose is still a jock. Reggie is still a douche. In many ways, all of the necessary “iconic” parts are in place as you would expect they might be, it’s just that some of them are tweaked and/or altered from their source material. The content is sometimes there in spirit more than in a 1:1 representation. When the show makes a strong connection to the original comic material, it genuinely feel like you are watching an Archie Comic come to life, it can actually be that 100% spot on. The major breaks from the source material tie back in to the subversive nature of the series: broken family dynamics, ADHD, stronger sexual tones, dark town secrets, etc. If I had a major gripe with Riverdale and how it relates to the source material, it’s that the show is not very family friendly at all. The sexual content alone, especially the nature of Archie’s taboo relationship scenario in the premiere, is enough to stop me from letting my 13 and 11 year old children from watching it, which is bummer as they both love Archie Comics just as much as their pop does. Regardless, as long as you are willing to go into the series with an open mind, the Archie-ness starts steadily coming through the cracks in the subversive darkness that they have set Riverdale in. Essentially, one does not have to watch the premiere for too long to start seeing the source material inspiration.
I don’t necessarily want to go over the specifics about plot points and whatnot, as I would rather you experience them for yourself and form your own opinions, however, here are a couple of vague quick thoughts on the premiere:
- Not nearly enough Jughead in the first episode. Sure he does the narration, but he’s hardly in the episode otherwise. Hopefully his role expands as the season progresses. He does wear the crown beanie though, which is nice! Also, he never has a cheeseburger in his hands once in the episode… what’s up with that?
- The Pussycats better not be the typical teenage “Mean Girls” clique of the show. Josie was the only Pussycat who had any meaningful dialogue in the premiere, so we don’t know what kind of personalities Melody and Valerie will ultimately have. I would like for the Pussycats to interact with teens outside of their band, and to perhaps not be as closed off as Josie appears to be in the premiere.
- That being said, the music by the Pussycats was quite good! I am looking forward to hearing more tunes from these talented ladies, and also from Archie too. The little snippets that we heard of Archie’s demo songs had potential.
- Cheryl Blossom, twin sister to the recently murdered Jason Blossom, needs to be more than the mouthy/bitchy captain of the cheerleaders. She needs to be smarter and more Machiavellian in her manipulation of the Riverdale student body. It’s too soon to tell with this version of Cheryl, but I want her to be pulling the strings on a very high level that no one sees coming.
- Kevin Keller was quite the charming little scene stealer. For reals, Keller had some of the best dialogue of the bunch and the actor nailed the delivery.
- Jughead’s narration at the end of the episode was on point and gave the audience a massively compelling reason to tune into episode 2. It was different than the ordinary premiere cliffhanger or hook. It was an ironclad promise of more wild twist and turns to come on the show, and they are coming really quickly. ‘Nuff said!
Riverdale currently airs new episodes Thursdays on the CW Network in the United States at 9 PM Eastern time zone. Episodes can be watched the next day online at the cw.com or on the CW app for smart devices/streaming platforms. If you live outside of the USA, check Netflix in your country, as Riverdale episodes are available to watch the next day in many countries via their streaming service.
Here’s the trailer for Riverdale. Check it out, and then watch the premiere. Trust me on this one, it is well worth your time.