Life spent as a prolonged, if not perpetual, adolescent amounts to something of an American ideal, whether or not we choose to fess up to it. And what better personification of the highs, lows, mids, and rebootable Groundhog Day–ish loopiness of that situation than the saga of Archie Andrews (K.J. Apa) and his might-be/could-be loves, Veronica Lodge (Camila Mendes) and Betty Cooper (Lili Reinhart). Inevitably, and not entirely comfortably, those well-drawn, perfectly proportioned high school heartthrobs, trapped in a frozen, hormonal time machine since first appearing in comic book form in 1942, have arrived at a television viewing platform near you, courtesy of the new series on The CW: Riverdale, which premiered in January.
We’ve grown accustomed to the idea of two-dimensional cartoon characters springing to living, breathing, live-action movie life with superhero comics, most recently in Marvel Entertainment’s Logan, the surprisingly inventive twist-up of Old Man Logan (an offshoot of Marvel Comics’ Wolverine series). But, in contrast to the phantasmagorical aspects of superheroes transformed into the flesh (with help from makeup and CGI), life in Riverdale, at least on the high school level, is something else — something at least slightly clued into reality and humanity as we know it. That aspect makes Riverdale both unique and periodically dubious, as the sometimes melodramatic and overly serious sheen and gurgle of the show’s take on Archie’s world rubs against our time-honored understanding of what that world is and should be.
These time-trapped teens have the accoutrements of life in the ’10s, with ready social media access and vernacular vocab of the day, Archie’s nuzzling relationship with the often leopard-clad singer Josie (she of the band The Pussycats), and a lesbian kiss as part of Betty and Veronica’s cheerleading audition for the River Vixens.
We know that something at least slightly sinister — and running-subplot-driven — is afoot in Riverdale (and Riverdale) from the very first moments of the show’s pilot, called “The River’s Edge” (echoes of the 1986 teen-y thriller River’s Edge). In the first instance of the occasionally and usually vaguely ominous narration, Jughead Jones (Cole Sprouse) intones, “Our story is about a small town … get closer, and you start seeing the shadows underneath.” Said shadow play includes an opening scene with the redheaded Blossom twins going to Sweetwater River, where Jason (hunky captain of the football team) goes missing. There are subtle suggestions of “twincest” with catty sisters Penelope and Cheryl Blossom, and Jason’s dead body is discovered during a gay triste in the woods. No, this is not your father’s Archie and gang.
Speaking of fathers, simmering troubles in Riverdale range from adolescent adventures and flirtatious energies to their parents’ dark sagas. Jughead’s father is battling alcoholism and has gang connections, while Archie’s father suffers woes in his construction business — partly because of the heartless power broker and family-feud-tender Cliff Blossom — and references to Veronica’s white-collar-criminal father freely circulate. In episode eight, “The Outsiders,” Polly Cooper, pregnant with Jason’s baby, is heading to live with the dreaded Blossom family, and Neil Young’s “My My, Hey Hey (Out of the Blue)” takes us into the end credits. What next?
Riverdale may be a bit too serious, gothic, soap-operative, and smartphone-age-centric, considering the cheeky and vintage feel of the comic. Melodrama keeps getting the best of things, and humor is all too desperately wanting. Somehow, though, the series can be almost perversely and illogically alluring. Through it all — the blandness and warm, fuzzy moments mixed in with the murderous intrigue and hints of a very dark side in the otherwise clean ’burb-ishness of Riverdale — we keep wondering, “What would David Lynch do with this material?” Stay tuned for the (reportedly) imminent return of Twin Peaks for an alternate viewpoint on American teendom.