Let’s just get this out of the way: Riverdale is not good. At least, the first episode isn’t. Which is really disappointing. I’ve never read the original comics but I’ve been a fan of how the Archie-verse has always been a useful palette on which to paint. There’s the 2001 movie, Josie and the Pussycats, which was just too good for its time if we’re being honest. There’s the bizarre departure of Afterlife with Archie, the surprisingly interesting Chilling Adventures of Sabrina, and of course the Mark Waid/Fiona Staples “New Riverdale” Archie comics. It just made sense that the CW would be able to take this world and remake them in the network’s rising image.
Alas, it falls short in every possible way. Or perhaps it is too much the CW. With their hits like The 100 and anything from the Arrowverse, the CW has taken very solid story foundations and built a layer of soapiness and indulgence into it. But perhaps it is because the ideas of Riverdale’s residents are a bit bland that there’s nothing for the schmaltz to adhere to. Instead, it all slides off into a messy pool at the feet of generic characters pulled from other projects.
Archie himself (K.J. Apa) is as bland as they come. We’re talking Peeta bland. He has no drive except that he’s popular, pale, good at everything he does, and is weirdly ginger. I say that because of the styling, makeup, and cinematography, he ends up with dark red painted hair and zombie-pale skin. There is nothing going on with this guy, and yet he is given every romantic storyline in the show. Betty has a crush on him but is relegated to the perpetually platonic friend. Veronica wants him though they have the chemistry of a noble gas. He’s even having an affair with one of his teachers, though other than abs I can’t imagine why he appeals to anyone. Perhaps I shouldn’t have started with him as he’s not from another show. He’s from any other show.
Jughead (Cole Sprouse) is so trying to be the Veronica Mars of this show and it’s so very not going to happen. The issue here is that he’s a narrator but he’s not a very good one. The show hasn’t settled on any single tone. There’s a hearty dose of soap opera but also an attempt at Twin Peaks. That attempt is limited to using odd camera angles and a lot of fog machines, but it’s there. There’s really no noir tone to the production except for Jughead’s narration. He sort of exists in a bubble, or a single seat at a booth while he writes the noir story himself. This might work if they show were a bit more focused but it’s not.
Betty (Lili Reinhart) and Veronica (Camila Mendes) are possibly the only interesting pieces of this messy puzzle. Betty could be the only original character to fit whatever show this is trying to be, while Veronica feels like an American take on someone from the latter season of Degrassi: The Next Generation. They have a bit of cattiness between them due to their inexplicable interest in Archie, but the fact that they have to remain friends because of the source material means the writers are actually pushed to keep their relationship dynamic and multilayered. There is still plenty of WTF to match the rest of the show, for example, sharing a bizarre kiss as the big finale to their cheerleading routine. Seriously, it comes out of nowhere and makes no sense in context and left me wondering why this show chosen now as the opportune time to cash in on Cruel Intentions.
Cheerleading leads us next to Cheryl Blossom (Madelaine Petsch), someone I’m not familiar with at all. I’m assuming she’s not so clearly lifted straight from [insert your preferred Ryan Murphy project here]. That’s all there is to say about her. She has that “too pretty, and too mean” thing going on. I don’t know if they’re doing the same juxtaposition of beautiful on the outside and ugly on the inside, or just picking her out of Glee/Scream Queens, but at the moment there’s nothing more to say about her.
Unless they make things weird with her brother, in which case they’re going to start pulling from Bates Motel.
The worst part is the promise that this version of the Archie-verse had. CW has been hitting it out of the park with their lineup of late. The Arrowverse, Supergirl, Jane the Virgin, Crazy Ex-Girlfriend, The 1oo (for a while), and even iZombie to a lesser extent. There’s quality to be had. And as I mentioned above, there’s room for a version of Archie in today’s media climate of dark and gritty. There were even moments in this episode that showed attention to craft, such as this sequence from the opening exposition:Bold center framing, jarring cuts, expressionist makeup. That shot is gorgeous and intense and is never even approached again by this show. Sorry Riverdale, but the town seems like neither a great place to live nor visit on a weekly basis.