james debate
james debate

Friday 5 May 2017

Created by Archie Comics
Network The CW, Netflix
Starring KJ Apa, Lili Reinhart, Camila Mendes, Cole Sprouse, Luke Perry
Genre Mystery, Teen drama
Running Time 42 mins each

riverdale archie comics cw netflix veronica jughead molly ringwald luke perry

What an utterly bizarre idea for a TV show. Riverdale, as some of you may be able to guess, is based on the iconic Archie Comics series, that classic slice of Americana which is set in the fictional town of Riverdale.

Some 76 years old now, the Archie series is notable for having stayed surprisingly true to the wholesome "aw shucks" sensibilities of its era. Through its many iterations and spin-offs, Archie has always followed the innocent lives of the high school students of small-town Riverdale, in particular Archie Andrews, his best friend Jughead, and his two romantic interests Betty and Veronica. Together they drink malts, play baseball, go to the drive-in, and various other American cliches of a time gone-by. The tone is almost universally kept as light as possible, with rarely a more serious dilemma on hand than awkward dates, or try-outs for the football team. Despite the focus on teen romance, sex and sexuality of any kind is very rarely if ever referenced.

Notable spin-offs include Josie and the Pussycats, a series about a girl band who dress up like cats, and Sabrina the Teenage Witch, about a teenager, who also happens to be a witch. It's all really about as light and fluffy as anything can get. So when The CW announced a TV show based on the characters of this comic book series, the last thing I expected to see was Riverdale.

Riverdale is a dark, gritty reimagining of the Archie world. In this Riverdale, people get murdered, students have affairs with teachers, homes are broken by divorce, poverty, alcoholism and gang violence. Crime, jail, promiscuity and overt hyper-sexualisation set the backdrop for shenanigans here. The tone is about as far from its source material as it's possible to get. It's kind of like doing a dark reboot of Snoopy. It's a very weird idea.

As a longtime fan of the comicbook series, I was conflicted between excitement at the promise of a TV adaptation, and skepticism towards its darker interpretation. Ultimately, Riverdale didn't make this year's Hot List, but it came within a whisker of the final cut. My worry was no so much the change in tone, but the fact that these teenage melodramas are about a dime a dozen, and from the implausibly attractive no-name leads to the hyper-sexualised content, this felt like nothing more than jumping on the bandwagon. The OC or One Tree Hill, but with Archie characters. Fortunately I was wrong.

Now don't get me wrong. This is a very silly show. The melodrama here is indeed dialled up to a 10, with characters who seem to love nothing more than handling a situation in the most dramatic and over-the-top way as possible. The dialogue is often similarly hackneyed and predictable, while the plot twists and relationship rollercoasters are so ridiculous as to elicit groans. But despite, or possibly because of this, it is all so much fun to watch.

The trick is that Riverdale is extremely self-aware of its own campness. The writers have managed to strike that very difficult balance between cheesy good fun and trash, buoyed by surprisingly capable performances that know how to straddle the line between comedy and drama just the right amount. They never take themselves too seriously and neither should you.

The cast really deserves great credit. They play their roles so earnestly, and with such wry humour. There really isn't a weak member among them, but in particular Camila Mendes and Cole Sprouse are revelations, while the host of familiar faces who play the various parents are a delight. As a longtime fan it is extremely good fun just to see the various ways in which characters have been re-imagined for the show, from Betty's repressed demons to Jughead's new edginess, Veronica's considerably more complex personality, and Cheryl Blossom's wickedly sinister new persona.

It also helps that the quality of production is so impressive. Visually Riverdale can be stunning to look at, with a heavily stylised design reminiscent of Twin Peaks or Pushing Daisies. The music is very well chosen, and the direction that brings everything together is pretty excellent. This is an extremely slick show.

The longer you watch, the more you begin to see just how clever the show really is. The writing is fully of witty references which often riff on the cast-members and source material in surprisingly fourth-wall-breaking ways. In one example, the actress who plays Barb on Stranger Things appears as Ethel Muggs, and someone eventually comments "#justiceforethel", in reference to the Barb hashtag that went viral. In another, characters played by former teen stars Luke Perry and Molly Ringwald attend a school dance and comment "Remember when this used to be our lives" in obvious reference to their own careers. Sometimes it can all be a little too smart for its own good (if I hear them reference another Netflix show I will cringe). Silly it may be, but its knowing brand of camp is also exceptionally addictive, and the constant twists make this great television for the age of binge-watching.

Despite fears that this would simply be the latest in a long line of trashy teen dramas, Riverdale consistently exceeds expectations. In fact, it gets considerably better as it goes on, as it becomes increasingly confident in its narrative style and unique voice.  Once you let yourself get caught up in the silliness, there's a lot to like about Riverdale, and that goes both for fans of the source material and newcomers alike.

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