There has been an emerging trend of rebooting or adapting old series or franchises into newer content for television lately – Prison Break, 24, Will and Grace, Lethal Weapon. However, networks are not limited to looking at TV and cinema screens for inspiration. The CW saw the 78-year-old popular comic franchise Archie Comics and used its characters as a base for its new show, Riverdale. Riverdale is not their first adaptation of comics; Arrow, The Flash, Smallville or iZombie have contributed to the recent success of the network. Debuting on January 26th, Riverdale sees Archie characters Archie Andrews (KJ Apa), Betty Cooper (Lili Reinhart), Veronica Lodge (Camila Mendes) and Jughead Jones (Cole Sprouse) working together to uncover the mystery surrounding the death of their classmate Jason Blossom.
What first strikes you when watching Riverdale is its atmosphere. Set in an idealised town, mixing our modern day world with mid-century elements, the show is like the daydream of millennials appealed by the charm of the 50s. The darkness of the lighting combined with the almost stereotypical neon lights gives this perfect American town the eeriness that its plot deserves. Each of the main characters is personified by their surroundings – the pastel house and clothing of Betty Cooper, the shy, A-student; the bright blue, gold and white jackets and luminous red hair of Archie Andrews, the determined jock; the reds and blacks of Cheryl Blossom giving her the gothic elements that characterises her excessive exaggerations and drama, making her seem like a character from Jane Eyre. This collection of colour palettes is precise and gives the show and its characters a visual appeal that will draw you in and fascinate you, regardless of your attachment to the plot.
The atmosphere of Riverdale is also greatly influenced by its eclectic soundtrack. Popular modern tracks serve to give us a sense of the time in which the show is set. So you will not be surprised to hear songs such as I Took a Pill in Ibiza or You Don’t Own Me, though what teenage fiction can be deemed worthy without its fair dose of older hits and youth anthems? Such songs include a cover of Bette Davis Eyes, and even a rather entertaining and quite fitting version of Kim Wilde’s Kids in America sung by Archie and Veronica themselves, KJ Apa and Camila Mendes. More dramatic and severe rock tracks, such as Imagine Dragons’ Believer punctuate the show to contribute to its overall uncanny mood.
The characters really make the show. A strong cast delivers a rather believable performance. The characters themselves are as strong as they are written by the writers. Some characters have more depth and development than others. The character of Jughead Jones changes from the almost ghostly, non-existing narrator to a character crucial to the story, and who almost dominates the end-of-season plot. Other characters, on the other hand, are lacking in depth and development. And this is particularly true of minority characters, which is one of the show’s greatest flaw. The only black characters with significant screen time are the young members of the band The Pussycats, a band of three black women singing about their struggles as black women. The majority of their plot involves their race, and their identity rarely deviates from their membership of the aforementioned band. Veronica Lodge, one of the leading characters, is Spanish speaking and portrayed by a Brazilian actress, however her subtle Latino roots are almost too subtle to notice, and are never discussed on screen. The only time her origins are used as part of the plot is when Veronica temporarily joins The Pussycats, a band who is restricted to non-Caucasians. And while this could have been used to allow Veronica to own her identity and make a statement, it was actually used as a payback for another character’s actions.
Another minority recurring character is Kevin Keller (Casey Cott), the gay son of Riverdale’s sheriff. Although his character is underused (especially considering the fact that he is meant to be part of the leading friend group), the LGBT plot-line is rather refreshing, as it differs from the typical coming-out story that almost always follows LGBT characters on TV. His sexuality is purely a fact, acknowledged by all and not causing any issue. If the writers in season two play their cards well, they can use this freedom to give Kevin Keller a role and a story that goes beyond ‘the gay best friend’. This, however, doesn’t undermine that fact that the show is severely in need of more diverse characters, especially if the show wishes to appeal to a young, diverse audience in need of representation.
The plot is adequate, albeit a few drastic revelations near the end. This season focuses on the death of Riverdale High-School student Jason Blossom. The first half of the show’s plot is gripping… the end of the season, however, drops a number of bombshells that are somehow quickly forgotten by the writers themselves. Hopefully season two will bring them back and give these elements the attention that they would require had they occurred in real life.
It is not the plot itself that is of particular interest in Riverdale, but mostly how the writers take the teenage fiction genre and reinvent it. Riverdale uses some of the tropes and iconic elements of the genre, but modifies them to bring in more realism and making it more relevant to today’s world. We still have the jocks, the nerds, the queen bees and their gangs of cheerleaders, and the varsity jackets, but unlike characters such as those found in The Breakfast Club or other classics, the lines between the different cliques are more ambiguous, less black and white. Archie should be the archetype of the buff, popular jock, yet, he shows his sensitive, feel-y and considerate side more than similar characters would. The leading friend group is made up of a jock, an artsy kid, a preppy A-student and an ex-popular girl. Their characters break the boundaries of their stereotypes, fight clichés and show us the true complexity of high-school students. Young people are not like the young people of John Hughes, and Riverdale understands this. It is delightful to see the leader of the cheerleading club quote Twelfth Night (literature enthusiasts will adore this show and its perpetual literary references) while the artsy outcast is more concerned with family issues (usually left to jocks) than bullying. Riverdale knows not to take the genre’s attributes too seriously. It sometimes feels as if it were openly mocking (while acknowledging the influence of) the movies and series that came before it.
Overall, Riverdale is a strikingly beautiful, enjoyable and innovative show, although its creators could make more of an effort to include a wider range of characters. This first season is a solid base for a reimagined universe. If done correctly, the following seasons could make it a strong, inventive and successful show. The show has been renewed, and with only thirteen episodes so far, it makes for a great day of binge watching.
Riverdale is currently streaming on Netflix.