It’s no secret I love me some teen drama, particularly the polished, stylized kind with a dark twist thrown in for good measure. On the surface, it didn’t seem that a show based on the Archie comics I used to read as a kid would fit the bill, but leave it to a creator whose experience ranges from teen show staples like Glee and Supergirl to full-blown horror flicks like Carrie or The Town That Dreaded Sundown to combine the small-town teenage life and mystery elements into a hit crime drama set in the town of Riverdale.
Aside from the actual character names and physical traits, the show doesn’t seem to have much in common with the comics it’s based on, and I count that among the positives – God knows we’ve been getting way too many of those in this ‘golden age of television’, and another faithful adaptation would only result in dull storylines targeted towards a strictly tween audience. Perhaps that would have been the case, had it not been for other shining examples of comic book adaptations, like the brilliant noir take on Jessica Jones, but especially Riverdale’s teen show predecessors in recent years: from Gossip Girl to Pretty Little Liars, few shows have kept it PG and squeaky-clean and catering to their intended audience. Instead, we get racy sex, murder and betrayal, much like their adult-oriented counterparts, and the result is highly watchable by much older audiences.
The show makes a pretty big statement right from the pilot episode: the overarching theme that spans the entire first season isn’t the rivarly between Betty and Veronica or Jughead’s quirky personality, but a big whodunnit mystery that’s all about murder, greed and family secrets.
Life in picturesque Riverdale is not what you’d expect: despite the characters’ clean-cut looks – from Betty’s signature high ponytail to Betty’s dark beauty and from Archie’s boy-next-door persona to Jughead’s beanie – the show is as far removed from the usual highschool drama as you can get: bullying results in fist-fights, seduction scenes are taken up a notch to include some light BDSM, teen pregnancies are swept under the rug, gay teens go cruising in the woods for random hook-ups; we get gangs and drugs and manipulation, murder, arson and suicide attempts, and all of this somehow manages to come in a pretty package, heavily stylized after the titular comic characters.
Is it corny? Yes, but delightedly so. And while it is far from ‘high drama’, it’s damn entertaining to watch. With the second season already underway, we’ve traded up in the mystery angle, from a single murder victim to several attempted murders and a sinister unknown suspect who apparently runs rampant in the small town.
Naturally, the show isn’t without flaws. Riverdale is not only over the top, but also a classic case of style over substance, where whatever realism could be achieved is often sacrificed in favor of beautiful shots and cliche dialogue. This, however, could be as much as deliberate choice, to anchor the show to its comic book origins, as much as it could be attributed to sloppy writing.
Personally, this doesn’t even register on my enjoyment of the show. I’m more annoyed by Veronica’s eyebrows, for instance, than I am about the entire Blossom family, who couldn’t possibly be more cartoonish if they tried. Nor do the gangbangers-with-a-heart-of-gold appear out of place in a show that, despite the dark elements, is still decidedly teen-oriented. After all, isn’t Cheryl basically a very creepy version of Blair Waldorf? Isn’t the whole Archie/Veronica/Betty/Jughead situation incredibly similar to Dylan/Brandon/Kelly/Brenda, if 90210 was less after-school-special and more soap-opera in tone?
At the end of the day, Riverdale isn’t a cinematic masterpiece, nor is it supposed to be one: it’s well-produced, the characters are likable, the plot keeps things interesting, and it makes for a fun watching experience – and that’s really all I can ask for.