Last Thursday, riding a wave of hype that lasted for the better part of a year, Riverdale premiered on Netflix to mixed reviews. For some, the dark spin on the beloved comic franchise was a cheap ploy to reel in a younger audience, and many dismissed it as just another teen drama, devoid of what they loved about the source material. For others, the Twin Peaks-esque approach gave a much-needed edge to a story that would’ve otherwise been about a bunch of white kids getting along with each other. And where’s the fun in that?
A significant departure from the cheery storylines of the Archie comics of yesteryear, the first episode of Riverdale centers on the murky details surrounding the death of Jason Blossom, twin to Cheryl Blossom and this town’s Regina George.
In this gussied up version of the gang, Archie Andrews is no longer the skinny goofball but a six-packed beefcake who’s struggling between pursuing his passion for music, playing varsity football, and helping his dad out with the family business. Though still seeemingly sweet-as-pie, girl-next-door beauty Betty Cooper, appears to be on the verge of potential pill addiction. Veronica Lodge, who could easily be seen as having the most potential for a fucked up storyline, has traded in her rich, mean girl persona for a decidedly more feminist attitude to friendship. In this world, Jughead is the de-facto Gossip Girl as the show’s narrator. No longer friends with his comic best bud Archie, Jughead (in a slouchy beanie reminiscent of his signature crown) spends most of his time behind a computer, huddled in a booth at Pop Tate’s Chock’lit Shoppe.
Behind the helm of this franchise’s revamp is Roberto Aguirre-Sacasa, chief creative officer over at Archie Comics and the man who first dared to bring the comic into the 21st century back in 2013 with Afterlife with Archie, a 12-issue alternative reality that places Archie and the gang in the middle of a zombie apocalypse.
A playwright-turned-comic book writer, Aguirre-Sacasa is no lightweight when it comes to writing for television. He’s written for critically acclaimed shows like Big Love, Looking, Glee, and most recently Supergirl. Looking at his past credits, you start to understand the brush Aguirre-Sacasa used when he created the kind of world Riverdale and its characters inhabits.
On the surface, Netflix Original Riverdale reads like any other CW teen drama (FYI, the CW is one of the show's producers): You’ve got a handful of beautiful people making terrible decisions who periodically grind their private parts against each other along the way.
It’s understandable why lifelong Archie fans that were hoping for a light-hearted, slice-of-life take on the show were disappointed. They wanted white bread, and instead they got a chalupa. That isn’t to say that white bread doesn’t have its merits, but when you’re trying to make compelling television in 2017, you’re gonna need something with a little more kick.
Riverdale doesn’t just wear its influences on its sleeve, it flaunts it like a defiant teenager who’s just discovered punk rock by casting two people from its own grab-bag of inspiration, with Madchen Amick, who played Shelly Johnson in Twin Peaks, as Betty’s mom, Alice Cooper, and the original teenage badboy Luke Perry, aka 902010’s Dylan McKay, as Archie’s dad, Fred Andrews.
But for the litany of pop culture references it rattles off through both dialogue and direction—from Mad Men to Capote’s In Cold Blood—it never comes off as derivative; less of a love letter and more of an homage to all the twisted teens that came before.
Despite Riverdale’s similarities to Gossip Girl and Pretty Little Liars, the characters we all know and love still manage to shine through without being weighed down by the plot or sometimes clunky dialogue—and it’s in those moments where Riverdale really shines. It manages to pull off what few shows of the same ilk rarely do, especially in their pilot episodes: the characters and the world they inhabit feels fully fleshed out.
When Veronica stands up to Cheryl Blossom for Betty at cheerleading tryouts, you get goosebumps because this friendship that’s lasted all but five minutes already carries with it enough emotional weight to elicit a reaction that’s more than just a shrug. And then, moments later, when Betty stands up to her manipulative mother, you can’t help but feel a twinge of pride. That kind of character development is a feat in film let alone a 40-minute show about horny teenagers.
On the surface, it might be easy to dismiss this show as just another vapid iteration of the same banal drivel churned out by its producers, but to do so would be disingenuous and lazy.
While the show isn’t perfect by any means, and while it does have its fair share of tone-deaf moments—like the relationship between music teacher Miss Grundy and an underage Archie being passed off as a forbidden romance even though it’s essentially statutory rape; and the gay tokenism of Kevin Keller who can’t go ten seconds without making a catty remark—the missteps feel forgivable, if not part of the necessary growing pains of a first season run.
Whichever way you swing it, adapting a 78-year-old comic franchise into live-action in the year 2017 is bound to piss a few people off.
If pop culture has taught us anything it’s that fans of longstanding franchises are not fond of big changes. For the pearl clutchers who were put off by the show’s edgier plot points, there’s no love lost. The show was never written for them in the first place, and watching "River’s Edge" (the episode’s title), you begin to understand that Aguirre-Sacasa never felt beholden to the fanbase, and rightfully so.
Without cow-towing to the fans, they’ve created a world that feels fresh and, for lack of a better term, necessary. After all, fan service will only get you so far. And that’s where the beauty in what Aguirre-Sacasa and company have done with this show lies: The show isn’t for everyone, but just like the subversive cult hits Riverdale takes it cues from, truly great things rarely are.