I must admit that when I first heard the news that The CW was launching a dark, modern reimagining based upon the classic Archie comics, I was one of many who scoffed at the premise. Whenever classic tales are mixed with dark reimaginings things tend to go wrong, from Hansel and Gretel: Witch Hunters to the DC Extended Universe.
But Riverdale thus far has proven to be much more than just a cynical cash grab banking on upon the #nostalgia that is so popular these days. Nine episodes in and the fledgling series has proven to contain a surprising amount of heart and even more in terms of the ability it has to grab and pull you into the unfolding narrative, however cliché it may seem upon the surface.
Riverdale brings with it the typical trappings of teen #drama, so typical that it feels like something pulled from the '90s or early 2000s. But beneath that, the series taps into such contemporary issues as slut-shaming and (albeit briefly) white privilege, but avoids getting bogged down to the point that it becomes preachy (Episode 3 notwithstanding).
On the surface the series presents a typical small town teen drama, with a twist of darkness bubbling below the surface. Such narrative was popularized by the soon-to-be-revived Twin Peaks in the early '90s, and it's likely no coincidence that Mädchen Amick stars as Alice Cooper in #Riverdale, as she portrayed the unforgettable Shelly Johnson on Twin Peaks.
Indeed the two tales begin with a common narrative: A popular student has been murdered, and everyone in town becomes a suspect as secrets emerge on all sides. With Twin Peaks, it was Laura Palmer (Sheryl Lee) who lost her life, in the case of Riverdale it's Jason Blossom (Trevor Stines) — both characters placed firmly in the "it" crowd of high school society while hiding their own dark secrets.
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Despite the fact that Riverdale is based upon the eponymous Archie comics, the CW has essentially taken Archie, renamed it Riverdale and made the comics into The Betty and Veronica Show. The instant chemistry between the two female leads is electrifying, and aside from a small hiccup it swiftly sidesteps the cliché narrative of the hot new girl in town waltzing over the romantic inclinations of the unassuming and meek girl next door.
Indeed the tables are swiftly turned in Episode 3, when Good Girl Betty Cooper (Lili Reinhart) manages to outstrip Bad Girl Veronica Lodge (Camila Mendes) when it comes to getting revenge on a the ringleader of a group of football jocks who set out to make girls' lives a misery for their own amusement.
Veronica's path in particular is very engaging, as we watch her transition from a spoiled rich bitch to kind hearted do-gooder. As she attempts desperately to atone for the sins of her father, Veronica presents a refreshing take on a character archetype that has been parodied to death; now it is the daughter paying for the sins of the father rather than the son. And almost every other central character has a path as interesting as Veronica's, to the point that to list them all would take more words than this brief introduction is aiming to give.
Despite its contemporary setting, Riverdale doesn't exploit the notion of technology and social media to the point of parody like other shows of its ilk, such as Scream and Pretty Little Liars do, avoiding causing the audience to imagine a bunch of old men in a high rise boardroom asking each other, "what do teenagers these days like? Snapgrams? Instachats?"
While this also serves as part of Riverdale's retro-neon feeling, it also allows the series to go for the jugular, tapping into the oldest fears: death, rejection, and alienation, spanning family, friends and social peers. As Cheryl Blossom (Madelaine Petsch) tells Archie Andrews (KJ Apa):
"What did my dad say to you? That I'm a trainwreck? Jason was the golden boy, but me... People hate me, Archie. At school, that's fine, whatever, but this is my family."
Teens are made pariahs overnight, parents are painted as ruthless and downright evil, though usually with a hidden agenda waiting to spring forth and suddenly make us sympathize with them quite unexpectedly. The pull between the safety of family and the freedom of breaking away from that constraint is ever present, with a dose of Romeo and Juliet sprinkled in for good measure.
Like #TwinPeaks, Riverdale merges these storylines of over-the-top teen drama with real world issues and dark fantasy. And the cinematography and visual aesthetic is often reminiscent of a softer, more toned down Nicolas Winding Refn (Drive, The Neon Demon), with sugar-coated tones of red and blue popping off the screen.
The #retro vibe sinks into the town of Riverdale in both aesthetic and tone; the foggy, winding roads and woods and the cheery red vinyl of Pop’s Chock’lit Shoppe casting allusions to Twin Peaks.
Of course, Riverdale is not without its flaws, the sudden disappearance of certain controversial (and hella dodge) major characters with little mention of their effects being one — looking at you, Miss Grundy (Sarah Habel). But for what Riverdale is lacking in certain respects, it makes up for in sheer over-the-top entertainment value without falling too far into well worn tropes.
In the same way that Twin Peaks struck a certain cultural nerve, so does Riverdale. Both properties serve a slice of Americana-Nostalgia, with deep tensions bubbling beneath the surface, apt for the current social climate we find ourselves in.
The drama may be a little more over the top, and more screen time is given to Archie's abs than is entirely comfortable give his character's supposed age. But with Riverdale, such is the case with small towns, when you look beyond the surface you might just discover that things are not always as they seem.
Riverdale is currently streaming on Netflix, with Episode 10 set to release April 13, 2017. Have you been watching Riverdale? Tell us what you think of it in the comments below!