With all due respect to the Eagles: On TV, high school is the real Hotel California. You can and probably did check out years ago, but television of every genre makes sure that you never escape it. The pressure cooker of nascent adulthood, structured days, uncertain futures, and wildly fluctuating hormones makes for a well of creativity with endless iterations — teenage superheroes, deadly secrets, pop music covers, introspective voiceover.
“Riverdale,” the CW’s new teen drama based on the Archie comics, is an eerie and offbeat take on the high school mythos — both addictive and confusing in equal parts. Its incredibly attractive leads, secret backstories, complex buried relationships, and unreliable, unethical adults are reminiscent of Freeform’s “Pretty Little Liars” and the CW’s “Gossip Girl.” But where those shows, and most teen shows, serve as titillating coming-of-age narratives, hovering between the wholesome bubble of innocence and the seductive call of the wider adult world, “Riverdale” is a much more stylized story, trying to create dynamism out of what is, to most viewers, one of the most frozen-in-time franchises in comics.
To be sure, the Archie comics franchise, which dates back to 1941, has changed dramatically in the last decade — with a new visual style, expanded “darker” stories, and a gay character in classmate Kevin Keller. (“Riverdale’s” showrunner, Roberto Aguirre-Sacasa, is Chief Creative Officer of Archie Comic Publications — a position he obtained, bizarrely, a decade after the company sent him a cease-and-desist order for a play he wrote that had Archie himself coming out of the closet.)
But for most of us, Archie is still the oval-eyed, round-eared, quaintly jolly ginger perennially torn between sweet-as-pie Betty and fierce, rich Veronica. Archie comics are so numerous and inconsistent that they are quintessentially cartoonish, in a way that is quite the opposite of Batman’s moody “The Dark Knight Returns” or Marvel’s politically cognizant X-Men; the butler is really named Smithers, the teacher is really named Mrs. Grundy, Josie and the Pussycats (!) are really fellow students, and the kids really do go out for milkshakes after school.
What’s fun about “Riverdale,” which casts itself as a moody teen drama in a remote, slightly spooky town, is how much the show commits both to the unchanging world of the comics — and to tweaking it constantly. (To underscore the point, both Luke Perry and Mädchen Amick play parents — in nods to two very different takes on high school.) Along with the stylized visuals of Veronica’s white headband, Betty’s constant ponytail, and Archie’s too-red hair is the characters’ near-consciousness that they are playing strangely archetypal roles in a pretty-as-a-picture world. Part of the surreality of the show is in the characters’ conversations — the 15- to 16-year-olds cram pop-culture references into their quippy patter with implausible skill. Kevin (Casey Cott) makes a crack about a “pre-accident Montgomery Clift” that must play well with the four or so classic-film nerds under the age of 18; in a later scene, both “In Cold Blood” and “Making a Murderer” are equivalently name-dropped.
And to deflate the notion of wholesome Americana as quickly as possible, the primary story driver of “Riverdale” is, quite incongruously, an incestuous murder mystery. The opening scenes are narrated by Jughead (Cole Sprouse), an emo hipster whose crown is in the form of a slouchy toque. He has a weakness for florid language, but in his defense, the story is pretty chilling; a senior at Riverdale was in a boat with his twin sister when it capsized. She survived, he didn’t; no one knows why. The direction gives loving attention to Cheryl Blossom (Madelaine Petsch)’s white gloves and red hair; to the twins’ matching outfits, as they creepily row their boat down the river. It’s unexpectedly captivating.
But aside from style, much of “Riverdale’s” success boils down to the nuts and bolts of character development. With time and attention, the dynamic between Betty (Lili Reinhart), Veronica (Camila Mendes), and Archie (K.J. Apa) becomes more than just a frozen love triangle; Betty and Veronica become plausible friends, each with a peculiar relationship with the unbelievably attractive Archie (whose interpersonal failings are plausibly made up for by his frequently displayed six-pack). In “Riverdale,” Betty is a “good girl” because her mother Alice Cooper (Mädchen Amick) is an abusively controlling bully, and rich-bitch Veronica is trying to redefine herself after hastily decamping from New York City, where her father just got sent to jail for embezzlement. Both have real chemistry with each other and with the object of their affections.
Archie, for his part, is a flatter character, possibly … because he’s just a tad dumber. His passion for music sends him headlong into an affair with his music teacher — a younger and much hotter Ms. Grundy (Sarah Habel) than you might be expecting — which is a major misstep, a major misstep, both for the characters and the show. For a show that experiments with tropes and styles, the student-teacher affair feels neither playful nor interrogated — a cold fish of a plotline.
Still, what’s fascinating about the show is how intimate it is with its own silliness. In the very first episode, Veronica and Betty confront with the queer subtext of their relationship by kissing in front of the cheerleading captain, none other than the bereaved Cheryl Blossom herself. The high school princess — who has “HBIC” printed on the back of her jersey — rolls her eyes dismissively. “Check your sell-by date, ladies. Faux-lesbian kissing hasn’t been taboo since 1994.”