Episode: “Chapter One: The River’s Edge”
Starring: K.J. Apa, Lili Reinhart, Camila Mendes, Cole Sprouse, Madelaine Petsch, Mädchen Amick, Sarah Habel
This isn’t your grandpa’s Archie, and Riverdale isn’t shy about saying so. Unlike the bright and happy-go-lucky vibe of the original Archie comics, Riverdale presents an edgier and more sinister perspective of the Archie gang.
It isn't the first non-comic adaptation of Archie, but it's the first to explore themes such as murder, sex and mental illness. Predecessors like the animated Archie Show and live action film Archie: To Riverdale and Back Again maintained the same cheerful feel as the early comics.
Riverdale opens with the mysterious death of Jason Blossom, a classic secondary character from the comics. Veronica (Mendes) is introduced as the wealthy, new girl who just moved to Riverdale, and she quickly strikes up a friendship with the good-natured Betty (Reinhart). However, she also catches the attention of Archie (Apa), who is Betty’s best friend and her unrequited crush. The classic love triangle between the three characters is clearly forming, but it’s later revealed that Archie has a third love interest: the young and attractive music teacher, Ms. Grundy (Habel), with whom he had an inappropriate sexual relationship over the summer. All this is framed in the context of Jason’s murder, and narrated by a grim Jughead (Sprouse).
Although the show is noticeably different from the 1950s nostalgia of the original comics, the Archie universe has ventured into darker and more serious content before. The comics have branched out into several horror series, and recent storylines have included the introduction of Archie Comics' first openly gay character and relevant social issues such as gun control.
Nonetheless, the classic character tropes that have been present since the comics' conception are also present in Riverdale. Archie is still the well-intentioned but somewhat clueless protagonist, Betty is the sweet girl-next-door, and Veronica is the sharp, privileged rich girl. But that’s probably where the similarities end.
The show wastes no time sexualizing Archie as a ripped football player and aspiring musician who could believably be the object of affection for several girls. Betty struggles with anxiety and self-harm stemming from the expectations put on her by her overbearing mother (Amick). Veronica is depicted as kinder and stands up to mean girl Cheryl Blossom (Petsch). Whether it’s a clue about her more manipulative nature, or the show’s sloppy attempt to create a complex character, viewers will have to wait and see.
Riverdale’s effort to be edgy succeeds in some parts but fails in others. It successfully paints Betty’s mother as perfectly villainous; she pushes Adderall into her daughter’s hand out of the guise of love and concern, reminding Betty that the most important thing is to get good grades for college above all else. The hatred Betty's mother has for Jason Blossom and his relationship with her older daughter reveals her more abusive side, especially when she forbids Betty from joining Jason’s twin sister, Cheryl's, cheer squad. The Blossom twins’ unsettling, almost incestuous relationship is also weird at first glance, but the discomfort it causes viewers hints towards Cheryl’s possible role in Jason’s murder.
The portrayal of Archie’s relationship with Ms. Grundy is also troubling. Based on the season premiere, it seems to portray it as a “forbidden romance” rather than a deeply inappropriate relationship with a possible minor. Reimagining Jughead as a gloomy and angsty aspiring crime novelist also gives the impression that the show is trying too hard to break out of its comedic origins.
Riverdale’s murder mystery in a small town plot is a little clichéd, but not as much as the high school drama it infuses. It’s clearly marketed as a teen drama, taking the same approach as shows like Pretty Little Liars and Gossip Girl that are also on the CW network.
Hopefully, the show doesn’t take itself too seriously. Its strength lies in its characters and the complexities within themselves and their interactions with others. Unnecessary drama added for the sake of having drama takes away from the potentially meaningful insight a show like Riverdale could give.