Riverdale — the newest teen drama offering by American network The CW and, perhaps, more familiar to us north of the border under the banner of Netflix — is a gritty and modern adaptation of characters from the beloved Archie Comics. It’s also named after the idyllic town in which the characters live. Despite a few failings, Riverdale is a surprisingly compelling show with a lot of potential.
Right up front, the show’s roots from The CW are very obvious. That is to say, all of the characters are very pretty. Like, weirdly pretty. And that might be a bit surprising for those who are expecting the goofy 1940’s comic book design that many are familiar with.
The rather clichéd dark-and-edgy tone might also be jarring for those expecting classic Archie. Betty (Lili Reinhart) is straining under the pressure of good grades and a controlling mother, Veronica (Camila Mendes) is reeling after her father is incarcerated for fraud and embezzlement, Jughead (Cole Sprouse) is a sad and brooding wannabe novelist, and Archie (KJ Apa) himself is torn between playing for the football team and pursuing his passion for acoustic guitar. Plus, there’s a mysteriously murdered classmate they all get wrapped up in investigating because, of course, the adults are useless.
However, it is in this meeting between the gritty and the idyllic that Riverdale is most successful.
The show excels when it is being aware of the clichés it uses. One episode called out the gay best friend character for being the gay best friend character. Another mocked the local mean, popular girl for being a “stock character from a ’90’s teen movie.” Most notably, a surprising chunk of the first episode features multiple characters separately, yet repeatedly, being surprised at how hot Archie got over the summer. The show follows through with this by having Archie shirtless at least once in each of the first few episodes.
In combination with the more realistic tone, this awareness and reshaping of expected character traits add a level of depth to what might have otherwise been shallow, one-note characters.
At one point, while investigating the murder that begins the series, Betty says to Jughead that “nothing this bad was ever supposed to happen here, but it did,” and that is the very argument the show is making. The town is supposed to be a perfectly peppy little community, but the murder is the thread which unravels that idea both in the citizens of Riverdale and in the eyes of the viewer.
Though it has already been renewed for a second season, being a show with a central mystery means that everything is dependent on a successful finish. If the final episode of this first season does not reward its viewers with a satisfying conclusion, it will retroactively make the previous episodes pointless and irrelevant. However, if the season finale is able to match the potential of what has been laid out so far, then Riverdale will be a fantastic show.
New episodes are released Fridays on Netflix.