Mysteries on the Small Screen: RIVERDALE

Title: Riverdale

Starring: K. J. Apa, Lili Reinhart, Camila Mendes, Cole Sprouse, Marisol Nichols, Madelaine Petsch, Ashleigh Murray, Mädchen Amick, Luke Perry

First Aired: 2016-

Where you can watch it: Netflix (the second season premieres next year on The CW)

Riverdale is all swirling mist, neon pulsing through the darkness of the night, and a dead body—not exactly what most of us associate with the cheerful, hamburger-munching, pep rally-attending kids of Archie Comics. This strangely compelling new story is based on key elements of the original characters’ personalities: Jughead is the observer on the side, Veronica a poor little rich girl, Betty an erstwhile do-gooder, and Archie the pivot point for a group of high school friends discovering lessons about life, love, and death.

The series revolves around the usual gang of suspects in iconic Riverdale, USA. These characters, created during WWII, have a reputation as silly pap. (Baby boomers will most certainly remember the Archies’ single, “Sugar, Sugar,” played throughout.) However, the setting and structure of the series is deliberately meant to both play with and gently mock nostalgia for Archies of yesteryear. The title card features a neon blue “RIVERDALE” emblazoned over a mysterious, misty forest background. In interviews, the creators admitted to drawing inspiration from Twin Peaks.

Indeed, the crime that sets everything into motion is reminiscent of the murder of Twin Peaks’ Laura Palmer: Jason Blossom, the scion of a maple syrup fortune and the twin of bombshell Cheryl Blossom, is found on the lakeshore, dead of a gunshot wound to the head. Each episode’s title matches that of a movie—mostly classic film noir—that hints at the episode’s plot while nodding to series narrator Jughead Jones.

In this Archie iteration, Jughead writes for The Blue and Gold, Riverdale High’s school newspaper, with classmate and fellow student journalist Betty Cooper. When he’s not working as a projectionist at the local drive-in, he spends endless hours at Pop’s Diner, but we don’t see him eating burgers. Instead, he’s busy documenting the town’s hysteria over Jason Blossom’s murder and tapping away on his laptop. His love of classic film provides a frame for the series to hang on, bringing him more fully into the center of the story—not the case for his character in the classic comics.

Other familiar characters recur:

  • Betty Cooper, the Very Good Girl of Riverdale, daughter of the town newspaper’s owners, played with nuance and gusto by Lili Reinhart. She’s busy repressing her feelings with mild self-harm while trying to figure out what happened to her older sister, Polly, after her parents sent her away. Betty’s mom, head reporter Alice, also features prominently. She’s seen cheering on the River Vixens squad, wearing muted pastels, and obeying (nearly) all the rules.
  • Veronica Lodge, the new girl, played by Camila Mendez. She sweeps into town as the femme fatale, all raven hair and dramatic cape, hiding secrets. She and her mother, Hermione (Marisol Nichols), have come back to Riverdale after father Hiram gets sent up the river for embezzlement. They might still have the Chanel, but their money starts to dwindle while Hiram’s in jail. Veronica is fond of chokers, faux collars, and other high-necked shirts that symbolize being strangled by circumstance. This Ronnie is a earnest girl, determined to be a friend to Betty and to fit in with her classmates and to do good (even if she occasionally trips up).
  • Jughead Jones, played by Cole Sprouse, the former child star of The Suite Life of Zack and Cody. His hair, dyed dark to blend in with the classic comics character, is often covered by a knit version of the classic whoopee cap that feels a little more Seattle than Riverdale. This Jughead is homeless due to a conflict with his father (played by Skeet Ulrich), a member of the South Side Serpent gang whose lawbreaking ways prove crucial to the plot.
  • Archie Andrews, played by K. J. Apa, a Kiwi, has a shifting red hair issue (he had to have his hair dyed for the series), but takes on the all-American role quite well, strumming his guitar and yearning for bigger things while running plays with his football teammates after school. The plaid shirts he’s fond of wearing mark him and his father (Luke Perry) as working-class men and serve as a reminder of the 90s and Twin Peaks.
  • Cheryl Blossom, the classic rich bitch, forever clad in blacks and scarlet, played by Madelaine Petsch. In dramatic lipstick and a signature spider brooch, she runs the River Vixens cheerleading squad and announces to all of Riverdale that she won’t rest until her brother’s murder is avenged. She sashays around in tiny leather skirts, purses her lips, and plots terrible things, a perfect foil for the other characters. Is she as savage as she makes herself out to be? Viewers will find themselves torn between believing in both Good Cheryl and Bad Cheryl.

The rest of the cast, both recurring and main characters, are as contemporary as the smartphones of BFF texters Archie and Betty. Town authority figures Principal Weatherbee, Mayor McCoy (the excellent Robin Givens), Pop Tate at the diner, and the band Josie and the Pussycats are all played by black actors; unlike the comics, which suffer from a lack of diversity, the series is nicely and realistically studded with characters of all different backgrounds, and the mix of veteran actors with newbies adds to the appeal.

With callbacks to the classic comics, references to modern film and television, and meta-textual narrative, Riverdale pays homage to classic murder mysteries and teen capers alike. The adult characters are just as tangled in the hijinks as their teenage counterparts, adding to the show’s multigenerational appeal. The details soon draw viewers in: Archie’s affair with hot young teacher Miss Grundy, Betty’s family drama, Veronica’s deep desire to be liked. It becomes apparent that the show is just as much about how the characters react to Jason Blossom’s murder as it is about finding his killer. While the internet has dubbed the “sexy Archie,” I say Riverdale is “compelling dramatic television.” And I think we’re both right!

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About the Author:

Erin Downey Howerton is a public librarian in Kansas. Follow her on Twitter at @hybridlib.

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