'Riverdale' Has Yet to Justify Its Continued Existence
Despite a keen visual flair and an intriguing performance from Camila Mendes as Veronica Lodge, Riverdale has some work to do.
RiverdaleAirtime: Thursdays, 8pm
Cast: KJ Apa, Lili Reinhart, Camila Mendes, Cole Sprouse
Subtitle: Season 1, Episode 1 - "Chapter One: The River's Edge"
Air date: 2017-01-26
Riverdale is a show that I'm fairly certain no one familiar with the original Archie comics was clamoring for. As someone who, from the ages of roughly nine to 14, eagerly bought all of the digests and double digests jumping out at me in the supermarket checkout line, enjoying the lighthearted silliness of the adventures of Archie, Betty, Veronica, and Jughead, my reaction to learning that the CW, home of Gossip Girl, The Vampire Diaries, and other faux-lurid teen fare, was making an Archie TV series amounted to a groan and eye-roll. Especially with the announcement of the series' nature as a mystery-drama rather than the more typical slice-of-life of Archie's world, I was increasingly skeptical of why anyone would want this show.
The casting announcements did little to stoke my excitement, and the leaking of details about the storylines caused more annoyance than anticipation. (Despite the edgy plotlines of recent Archie comics, the series is fundamentally undramatic as a rule.) For example, in the world of 2017, do we really need another plotline with a clandestine student-teacher tryst? Do we really need the participants in said forbidden relationship to be Archie (KJ Apa) himself and a sexed-up version of Geraldine Grundy (Sarah Habel)? If Archie comics are to be adapted, do they really have to jump on the mysterious serialized Peak Television bandwagon? Most importantly, are we really going to pretend that Betty Cooper (Lili Reinhart) and Veronica Lodge (Camila Mendes) can't do better than Archie Andrews in the first place?
After watching the season premiere of Riverdale, I can conclude that many of my suspicions were confirmed. Riverdale has traded in the generally comedic style of the source material for what's basically Gossip Girl combined with a severely watered-down Veronica Mars. Beginning with the announcement of the tragic death of teen socialite Jason Blossom, Riverdale then spends its pilot episode introducing us to type-A good-girl Betty Cooper, glamorous new arrival Veronica Lodge, and Archie Andrews, who's ditched the dorky sweaters for six-pack abs, and setting up the inevitable Betty-Archie-Veronica love triangle within the context of this morbid mystery.
Of course, nothing's as it seems in Riverdale, because nothing's as it seems in any small town on television. Over the summer, Archie hooked up with Miss Grundy, the music teacher, and they might just know something about how Jason died, but of course coming forward would reveal their affair. Veronica's mother Hermione (Marisol Nichols), having moved her daughter to her old hometown of Riverdale after a financial scandal involving her husband, clearly has the hots for Archie's dad Fred (Luke Perry), her recently separated high school fling. Alice Cooper (Mädchen Amick), Betty's overbearing mother, has it out for the Blossom family due to the catastrophic relationship between Jason and Betty's older sister Polly, who apparently lives in a group home as a result of a mental breakdown caused by said relationship. (That isn't even touching on why Josie and the Pussycats are also here, in a truly tangential way, because frankly I'm not even sure Riverdale even needs them at this point.)
It's really all material we've seen before, merely molded into the shapes of the Archie comics characters we all know and love. Jason Blossom is Riverdale's version of Veronica Mars' Lilly Kane (Amanda Seyfried), while Veronica is going to fulfill Gossip Girl's Serena van der Woodsen (Blake Lively) role. Fred Andrews and Hermione Lodge's rapport is clearly inspired by Gossip Girl’s Lily van der Woodsen (Kelly Rutherford) and Rufus Humphrey (Matthew Settle); that is, the parents of a potential couple, from different social classes, who clearly have something going on under the surface.
In a strange tweak on the apparent Gossip Girl formula, however, it's Jughead Jones (Cole Sprouse) who seems to be filling the role of the erstwhile blogger. Jughead narrates the opening sequence of the episode, but doesn't play that large a role within the general plot of the pilot, as well as being transformed from an asexual happy-go-lucky foodie into the kind of person who sits alone for hours in diners, and strangely, isn't even Archie’s best friend, as he is in the comics.
As for the quality of the show, Riverdale is most certainly a mixed bag, to be enjoyed as the guiltiest of pleasures, if at all. The visuals are striking and noir-ish, with plenty of fog and dark colors to suggest the turmoil beneath Riverdale's serene façade. The performances, however, vary from strong to forgettable, but even the best work by the show's actors can’t rescue Riverdale's first episode from a pedestrian storyline and some truly unrealistic, god-awful dialogue. Putting aside the fact that none of these so-called high school sophomores look young enough to even be college students, the interpretations of the classic Archie comics characters are hit-or-miss. Reinhart's Betty is unfortunately established right off the bat only by her pining for Archie; her plotline about joining the cheerleading squad in defiance of her mother is nothing new.
Apa's Archie, the object of Betty's affection and her best friend, fares worse. Apparently, he's torn between pursuing songwriting and playing football, but this attempt at dramatic tension is meaningless in a pilot episode because we don’t have any way of knowing about what football or music had meant to him previously. He's just bland and passive, although arguably those adjectives also apply to Archie in the source material. Mendes brings a captivating, mischievous spark to Veronica, but she's weighed down by bad dialogue: she compares herself to Blue Jasmine and Archie to actor Ansel Elgort (of The Fault in Our Stars), of all people; pop culture references sure to be dated in five years. In an overwritten monologue about trying to be a better person, she has to deliver the following doozy:
"When my father got arrested, it was the worst thing ever. All these trolls writing horrible things about us. We get letters and e-mails saying that Dad was a thief, Mom was a clueless socialite, and that I was the spoiled rich bitch ice princess. And what hurt the most about it was, the things the trolls were writing were true."
While Mendes does her best to sell this laundry list of woes, someone should tell the writers that these insults aren't even remotely what trolls would say or do.
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Cheryl Blossom (Madelaine Petsch), Jason's grieving twin and Riverdale High's queen bee, has potential to become a creepy suspect in Jason's death down the road or something along those lines, seeing as how she refers to Jason as her "soulmate". Despite a valiant attempt to deliver it, Petsch gets what is probably the most cringeworthy line in the episode (among so many) when she tries to get Veronica to follow her on Twitter. And these are merely the more memorable characters, since Jughead really doesn't get to do much, Reggie (Ross Butler), Moose (Cody Kearsley), and Josie (Ashleigh Murray) have approximately two lines apiece, and the less said about the acting from the various parents, the better.
Riverdale is clearly trying to establish itself as more self-aware than it is, mocking the teen-soap genre while basically hitting all the marks. Betty and Veronica end up making out during cheerleading tryouts for no good reason, only for Cheryl to scoff that fake-lesbian kissing isn’t edgy anymore. Similarly, every line out of Kevin Keller's (Casey Cott) mouth is an incredibly lazy "gay best friend" cliché; having Cheryl point that out doesn't mean that Riverdale is being subversive or even creative. Perhaps this superficial attempt at self-criticism should've been applied to Archie and Miss Grundy's relationship, because it's just another classic soap opera detail that really doesn't work thus far. Considering the fact that Archie is definitely underage, it's also just unsettling and inappropriate.
The Betty-Veronica kiss is also insulting in the extreme, because it's a blatant example of queerbaiting: we know Betty and Veronica will never actually get together, locked as they are in their eternal war over the completely unremarkable Archie, even though in this iteration Betty and Veronica have far more chemistry with one another than with him. While there is, of course, an obligatory Veronica-Archie kiss to further the classic love triangle, what actually stands out is Veronica's immediate defense of -- and devotion to -- Betty, as seen in a tense standoff with Cheryl during the cheerleading tryouts. Keller might say that Betty and Archie are "endgame", but my vote is already going to the pie-in-the-sky possibility of Betty and Veronica realizing they're better off together than fighting over a boy.
Ultimately, Riverdale, as a work of storytelling, is really only excusable if it all turns out to be a fabrication of Jughead's wild imagination, the novel he's working on as the actual text of the show. The utter clichés and canned dialogue littered about this first episode make perfect sense if they're the product of someone who doesn't spend a lot of time in the real world amongst actual people. If the Jughead of Riverdale is meant to be a lingering presence on the margins of the show, rather than someone we see actively engaged with his peers or integral to any of the storylines introduced thus far, it's possible to take the leap of faith in the creators of Riverdale and hope that the show is so overwrought and melodramatic because it's meant to be real-life fanfiction written by the loner Jughead about the people in his life: Jughead as the 21st-century flaneur.
In fact, putting this kind of spin on the material would actually make for a much better show than what we have now, in that it would allow for a decent character study of Jughead as someone who's so far removed from those around him that he literally has no way of understanding how real people behave in one another's company. Archie's struggle to balance music and football, while clearly meant to be tortured and meaningful, would work better on this fictionalized meta level as an illustration of his inability to make decisions and his desire to have his cake and eat it too, which is basically how Archie has acted with regards to Betty and Veronica since day one of the comic's run. Betty and Veronica's gratuitous kissing ploy during cheerleading tryouts is something that someone who has no idea what cheerleading routines consists of would write, and Kevin's behavior makes more sense if it's penned by a Jughead who has no gay friends in his orbit. In this vein, the way-too-involved behavior of Alice and Fred in their children's lives are clearly the work of a teenager who can't conceive of parents with interiority.
I'm pretty sure, however, that this hypothesis won't exactly pan out. I'll continue to watch Riverdale for Veronica and Betty, as well as Jughead's potential, albeit with one metaphorical foot out the door.