This review contains spoilers for Riverdale episodes 1 and 2.
Sure, Riverdale is a pastiche of a pastiche of a pastiche—but what isn’t, these days? We’ve seen countless variations of the teen angst TV show since the 1960s and Peyton Place; and no less a lauded director as David Lynch “cribbing” aspects of the series for his own Twin Peaks.
I’ll put it to you straight: Riverdale wears its intentions to be the CW’s answer to Twin Peaks on its sleeve.
These intentions are welded onto a 75-year-old comic book property which—outside of the last several years and a number of reboots/re-visions—has become synonymous with a sort of generic and “harmless” adolescent humor. Such attempts to make these types of older brands “relevant” can either work amazingly (Battlestar Galactica, Star Trek The Next Generation), be mediocre-but-money-making (the Scooby-Doo movies) or end up downright unwatchable (flicks like Bewitched, Dark Shadows, I Spy, The Avengers, unto infinity).
So which is it with Riverdale? I watched the first two episodes and here’s my assessment.
Episode one is called “The River’s Edge”—River’s Edge was a highly-influential 1986 movie starring a young Crispin Glover & Keanu Reeves that featured a murder covered up by a bunch of disaffected teens. Likewise in “The River’s Edge,” high-school jock Jason Blossom is missing and presumed the victim of foul play. With a large cast of pretty people who seem perfect but have demons swimming right under the surface of their lives, we have our murder mystery a la Twin Peaks—with red-headed Jason essentially Laura Palmer.
So where does Archie Andrews (K.J. Apa) fit into all this? Well, he—a sophomore—is having torrid CW-level sex with his adult teacher, Miss Grundy (Sarah Habel). Archie also plays around with the affections of “good girl” Betty (Lili Reinhart), making her a neurotic mess. When Lynch-level heroine Veronica (Camila Mendes, who is like the second coming of Mulholland Drive actress Laura Harring) comes in to town after the arrest of her Bernie Madoff-like father, Archie seems to have the hots for her as well.
As is the case with the comic books, I’m really trying to figure out how exactly Archie is considered a likable protagonist.
I mean, Apa does a fine job in the role but…Archie’s sort of like this blank slate the rest of his world revolves around. And as with the late-Nineties show Dawson’s Creek, it is the Pacey of the group—moody hoodie-wearing cynical Elliot Alderson-lite Jughead (played by Cole Sprouse)—who is by far more interesting and relatable.
In contrast to “buff” football player Archie, Jughead seems much more like the type of (anti)hero who becomes a breakout character in a series like this (I’m also thinking of Stiles in the Teen Wolf series).
And, setting aside for the moment rumors of the character’s asexuality, he’s pretty damn androgynous. I mean, even in a “teen idol” market that pumps out androgynous-looking male heartthrobs, Jughead seems unique.
But then again, many of the characters in Riverdale seem to be on various “spectrums” of sexuality and self-identity. As Veronica says at one point, “In this post-James Franco world, we can be everything at once.” The line perhaps refers to Franco’s own flexibility when referring to his sexuality; not needing to be labelled “gay,” “straight,” or even “bisexual” but, simply, “James Franco.”
And so we have the budding new relationship of Veronica and Betty—which, though I think it genuinely has aspects of affection beyond merely friendship (and I’m not even talking about the kissing scene at the cheerleader tryouts), is also something that doesn’t necessarily need a special definition. Ditto for Archie’s relationship with Betty, which may be “just friends” but also something more…and even some of the subtext of his scenes with Jughead in episode 2.
Likewise, the character of Moose is apparently bisexual, having an affair with Kevin Keller. Keller wants Moose to either come fully “out” as gay or go back to his heterosexual life; but it’s possible the latter just feels more comfortable being both.
(This is, by the way, why I don’t feel that Jughead needs to be officially defined as asexual on the show, as some fans have demanded. Does he really need the label to be spelled out? Or do we understand who he is by his actions? Similarly, do we need to define Betty and Veronica as being either “only friends” or something more? In an ever-changing world, do these things always stay the same? Do they always fit in these neat check-boxes?)
This atmosphere of liminality—of pushing past boundaries and definition—is David Lynch’s bread and butter. Lynch is everywhere in Riverdale—from the first scenes of Cheryl Blossom and her fire-engine red pumps (compare to Audrey Horne’s introduction in Twin Peaks), to the dynamic between Betty and Veronica (they could easily be the teen versions of the heroines of Mulholland Drive), to the weirdly similar “looks” of Archie and the dead Jason Blossom (the idea of sinister “doubles”).
And the Twin Peaks connection carries over all the way to the casting of Betty’s mom—Mädchen E. Amick, whose character Alice Cooper (!) seems so unhinged that she may be already in the running as a possible murderer of Jason Blossom.
By episode 2, “A Touch Of Evil” (also the name of a 1958 Orson Welles film noir), we are placed far more firmly into Twin Peaks territory. Jason’s body has been recovered (in the water, as with Laura Palmer), and shot in the forehead. Also like Palmer, his body has evidence that he might have been kidnapped and tortured before the murder.
At this point, the cracks have begun to show and widen all over the residents of the seemingly ideal town. And so let’s now tackle the big elephant in the room in terms of the show so far—Archie’s relationship with his teacher Miss Grundy.
This was the biggest turn-off for me in episode 1. He’s a teenager, she’s an adult in a position of authority. It’s called statutory rape. Certainly, the “boundary-spanning” aesthetic and ideology I’ve spoken about earlier could be applied here…but it gets really squicky really fast. The opening shots of their carnal encounters are presented as sexy—not as a situation of predation, which if the genders were reversed it would immediately appear to be.
But if there was any previous question of Grundy manipulating Archie, it becomes clear when she convinces him not to go to the authorities with possible evidence relating to Jason’s murder. To provide the evidence would be to incriminate Grundy in having an affair with her student. And it’s Jughead—the writer, the truth-teller—who finally gets through to Archie as to how screwed up that situation is. To me, Jughead’s confrontation with Archie eases my dis-ease with this plot line, and sends it to its honest conclusion; I’m glad I stuck through the second episode to see it through rather than overreacted and dumped the series.
By the end of episode 2, we’ve got a possible murderer (who of course is most likely a red-headed herring as well) and the series really kicks into high gear, leaving us with a cliffhanger.
To be honest, Riverdale—like most CW shows outside of Legends of Tomorrow and Whose Line Is It Anyway—is not the type of programming I usually turn to. It’s not really “made” for me—it’s made for teens and twenties. And yet, with all the allusions to the works that came before it, the stunt-casting (in addition to Amick there’s Luke Perry as Archie’s dad), and the Lynchian liminality…there’s enough here for me to work with.
So if you’re looking for a warm-up to the Twin Peaks revival later this year, you can give Riverdale a try.