By: F. Daniel Kent
Please note:This review contains spoilers. If you’ve not yet watched the series premier of Riverdale it is available to stream for free on www.cwtv.com and its companion mobile app available from Google Play and iTunes.
Archie Comics were one of my first ever long term comic book obsessions. As a very young child, my overworked single mother bought me several copies of the Blue Ribbon Comics digest sized reprints from a local newsstand. It was what became a successful ploy to buy herself some free time. Little did she know the monster she was unleashing upon her pocketbook over the coming years.
Alongside similar digest sized Legion of Superheroes reprints, I read and re-read those pocket-sized treasures until they started to fall apart. My love of Archie and his gang of wacky friends followed me into adolescence and later into adulthood. To this day, I still harbor a minor fascination with Gingers – If I’m honest, both Cheryl & Jason Blossom alongside Archie Andrews drew my rapt attention equally.
The revival of the Archie stories in recent years has thrilled me to no end with both new, modern stories and fond memories of my childhood. As one might imagine, I had to suppress an interior pre-adolescent squeel when the new Berlanti Productions (Arrow, Flash, Supergirl) CW series Riverdale was announced. Last Thursday’s series premier did not disappoint. Though, predictably, a few things stuck in my craw, the show is definitely entertaining and seems to possess a lot of potential. I found myself pleased overall.
That said, despite the hype, If expectations are for a “modern-day Twin Peaks” , I advise waiting until the long anticipated David Lynch helmed third season (insert pre-adolescent squeel) comes out in May. There are certainly elements lending themselves to that notion and it’s clear show runner and Archie Comics Chief Creative Officer Roberto Aguirre-Sacasa indeed draws some inspiration from Lynch’s work.
Riverdale also boasts a familiar cast member from Twin Peaks in Mädchen Amick (portraying Shelley Johnson from that series) as Betty’s mother Alice Cooper (no relation). The premier episode opens with the mysterious death of Jason Blossom (Trevor Stines), twin brother to the fiery crimson maned and unforgettably controversial Cheryl Blossom (Madelaine Petsch).
Set in a small, secluded town, Aguirre-Sacasa’s vision is decidedly subversive, darker and more angst-filled than the source material; however, Riverdale skews more heavily towards the CW’s other Berlanti shows making the comparison to Lynch’s cult series look like a somewhat disingenuous publicity ploy at best. It seems to bear more the tone of Picket Fences or Pretty Little Liars.
By far, as a fan the best part of the episode was spotting easter eggs like the apartment building the Lodges live in being named “The Pembrooke” (originally the name of the upper crust town where the Blossom twins lived) , the Sherriff office having an establishment cornerstone reading “1939” (the year what would become Archie Comics was founded), hearing Betty tell Veronica Riverdale High was founded in 1941(the year Archie, Betty & Jughead first appeared) & the Riverdale sign reading “The Town With Pep!” (Pep Comics was the original name of the comic book before it was changed to Archie Comics . Also in the premier, as a nod to an old Archie story where he tried to take Betty and Veronica out on two separate but concurrent dates at the same restaurant, Betty & Veronica both escort Archie to the school prom. Hopefully, future episodes will feature more of these hidden treasures.
Leading the cast is K. J. Apa as the perennial All-American protagonist Archie Andrews. Apa seems a good fit for the role. There is the distraction during this episode of an immense amount of gold eyeshadow applied in order to make the obviously brunette Apa look closer to our hero’s traditional appearance, the dye job in which they soaked his hair having fallen short. I found watching on a big screen in high definition made his close-ups a touch distracting with the eye make-up.
While it was clear this is not your father’s Archie Andrews going into it, seeing the apparently straight Archie wearing heavy, but well applied eyeshadow was a touch odd. Make no mistake, I’m not one for shaming gender role switching, so this is more poking fun at the production. That humorous point aside, there were several other glaring differences.
Archie is still juggling writing music & playing guitar with playing on the football team. But, longtime fans will note while he is presented as somewhat awkward, the fumbling, bumbling Archie of old is replaced by a more together representation who never so much as drops a book or trips during football practice. We also see Archie openly and easily lie to his father Fred Andrews (Luke Perry) and the football coach, something the traditional Archie might find difficult if not distasteful (Golly!). Also gone is the traditionally lanky portrayal replaced by a now newly athletic and sexy Archie Andrews summed up by Betty Cooper’s (Lili Reinhardt) openly gay best friend Kevin Keller (Casey Cott) with the line, “Whoa! Game changer! He has abs now!” after spying Archie bare chested through the bedroom window.
Enter, Riverdale High School teacher Miss Geraldine Grundy (Sarah Habel) – her traditional aging spinster look now replaced by a gorgeous young woman. In flashback, we learn of a torrid affair occurring between Grundy and the underaged sophomore over the prior summer, the scene ending with the two undressed and having sex in a very uncomfortable place (the back seat of a Volkswagen). While statutory rape is definitely edgy, the subplot gave me pause if only because it seemed to be sold on the surface as somewhat “acceptable” between a hot young man and an older “cougar” teacher, as Reggie Mantle (Ross Baker) so delicately phrased it.
Imagine the hand wringing were it Betty or Veronica similarly hooking up with Fred Andrews or a younger Pop. There’s a hint of misogynistic mentality in the whole thing which makes me grind my teeth a bit. It may be resolved well in the end but we’ll have to wait and see how the story develops. Though given the track record of such things in shows aimed at a younger male demographic, it may be reaching too much to have high expectations.
Lili Reinhardt seems well cast as Betty, her characterization pretty much intact – starry eyed and innocent, though way less tomboyish, and still struggling with unrequited love for Archie. The strained relationship with her perfectionist mother Alice and the extreme deviation in story as regards her sister, Polly were unexpected and interesing. I look forward to seeing Betty grow some claws, preferably Jungle Red, mother!
Aside from her initial somewhat out-of-character moral compass and depth, I adored Camila Mendez as Veronica Lodge. She pulled off the posh, well groomed and fashion forward look fans expect from the character with ease. As noted above, she initially seems more sweet and thoughtful than the traditional character. But, the gloves definitely came off and we were treated to a taste of Veronica’s more vicious side during the exchange with Cheryl Blossom during the cheerleader tryouts. Her “ice queen” line used to force Cheryl into letting Betty join the squad was priceless and classic Veronica. The unnecessary and gratuitous same sex kiss between she and Betty earlier in the same scene, much less so.
I freely and unashamedly admit to having squeed a little when she later used her signature pet name for “Archiekins”.
I found the heavy usage of tired, overused tropes and stereotypes with Kevin Keller disappointing if not surprising. Seriously, fooling around with a closeted football player in the men’s room during prom and lines like, “Six more reasons to grab that ginger bull by the horn and ride”? As if the clean cut, gay best friend peeping at the hot neighbor boy weren’t enough. Casey Cott is capable and convincing in the role (” Archie’s just swell!” made me giggle) but I dearly hope they give him better material as the series progresses.
As trite as the only openly gay boy in school hooking up with a closeted football player is, using the traditionally dim witted and aggressive Moose Mason (Cody Kearsly) for that subplot is at least a plausible move if they simply must use it. Much like the Archie/Grundy subplot I seriously hope they are going somewhere worthwhile here. That being the case, I’ll wait to be pleasantly surprised rather than raising my expectations.
Madelaine Petsch as Cheryl was a disappointment as well. She managed the over-the-top bitchy essence of Cheryl but fell short of the larger than life and super devious character I fell in love with so many years ago. No body shaming intended, but as gorgeous as Petsch is, I expected someone with more curves. I mean, the character scandalized readers in her first appearance in 1982 by wearing a revealing bikini and showing off her significant… ahem… assets. I was also disappointed by her lack of any real “fire” despite her demands for that from the other girls. I look forward to seeing just how devious they can manage to push the character. So far, outside a couple small moments, I found her shenanigans kinda milquetoast and petty. Seven minutes in heaven decided by spin the bottle? Uh huh…right.
As to the big plot point about the death of Jason during what appeared a “romantic outing” on a boat between the twins, I’ve always felt an incestuous vibe between the Blossom siblings. Even in older comics they always seemed a tad too close. I’m certain I was just interpreting unintended subtext, but seeing it actually play out first in “Afterlife With Archie” and seemingly now on screen I feel validated in my long held eye arching over the twins. Besides, I’ve watched “House of Yes” far too many times for twincest to sneak up on me.
I’ve read a few complaints about Josie McCoy (lead singer of Josie & The Pussycats) being played by a Black actress (Ashleigh Murray) and even one comment about her coming off as “a stereotypical angry black girl”. Now, I already said I love redheads and Josie is definitely in that mix too. But, like Nick Fury before her, I care far less about the race of the player and more about being true to the character. Ms. Murray *owned & sold* that role top to bottom.
Further, if all one took away from her brief time on screen was “angry black girl”, they were clearly not paying attention. Indeed, Murray’s portrayal of Josie was not only spot on but it breathed new life into a character who has not really aged well. She channeled not only Josie’s passion and capability for her art while adding some much-needed depth and motivation to the role.
When Archie barged in on the Pussycats’ closed rehearsal and rudely tried to insert his own work into the mix, Josie shut him down quick. She wasn’t angry, she was matter-of-fact about the intent and vision of the band then sent him on his way in much the same way as the traditional Josie would have in a similar situation. This was a high point of the episode. I was happy to see the opportunity to open conversation about white people feeling entitled to insert themselves into black spaces in a show aimed chiefly at young white men. I’m interested to see where this leads.
Of all the issues I had, my biggest is the portrayal of Jughead Jones (Cole Sprouse). In this iteration he is the former best friend of Archie who also serves as the narrator of the series as he chronicles the events of the previous summer leading up to the present. I’m ambivalent about Sprouse but not because of his acting. This version is almost completely inverse to the Jughead we know and love. He may as well be wearing an evil looking goatee.
He’s far too emo and angsty and they have him delivering his lines like a young Fox Mulder. Not to mention, he didn’t so much as look at a burger or a foot-long hotdog the entire episode. The complete lack of anything resembling happy-go-lucky from him is off putting. At least he looks mostly the part and he’s wearing something resembling the crown hat and the iconic S on his shirt. Sprouse has also said he’s pushing to have Jughead be written as asexual in the television series as was recently established in the character’s current comic series.
New episodes of Riverdale air on The CW on Thursday nights at 9/8 Central.