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Fans of The CW's particular brand of content are no strangers to adaptations of comic book properties at this point. From iZombie to the entire Arrow-verse, the network has done some fairly bold and innovative things with classic print characters, but its latest venture is by far its most daring endeavor to date. Created by Roberto Aguirre-Sacasa, Riverdale is The CW's dark and twisted foray into the world of Archie, and while there are some good ideas to be found in this freshman series, the show just cannot rise above its significant identity issues to deliver a consistently engaging narrative.
Life in Riverdale used to be simple. It was a quaint little town, and a genuine slice of Americana replete with malt shops and drive-in movie theaters. However, that all changes one summer when Riverdale High School student Jason Blossom goes missing, and the entire town's pure façade starts to crack as everyone's inner demons begin to reveal themselves. This one incident sets a series of events in motion and draws Jason's classmates Archie Andrews (K.J. Apa), Betty Cooper (Lili Reinhart), Jughead Jones (Cole Sprouse), Veronica Lodge (Camila Mendes) into a dangerous web of salacious affairs, crime, and murder. Forget everything you think you know about this iconic town, because this isn't your grandfather's version of Archie.
Don't get me wrong; I'm not against change. Doing something different with the Archie universe isn't necessarily a bad thing, and there's ample precedent for it. After all, this is a comic book series that has turned Jughead into a zombie, made Archie the victim of an assassination, and forced its central ensemble to face off against The Predator. Seriously, all of that has happened in the Archie canon. The problem here is the fact that Riverdale doesn't do enough with these Archie characters to even justify the adaptation. I get what the series is trying to do; it's filtering these classic, wholesome archetypes through a Lynchian lens to highlight the absurdity of the nostalgic comic strip. However, the fact of the matter is that the Archie aspect of Riverdale often feels like a total afterthought that was shoehorned in without a discernible plan for how to capitalize on it. After watching Riverdale, I genuinely wouldn't be surprised to learn that someone at The CW heard a pitch for an original dark murder mystery series and said, "You know what this needs? Archie comics."
Beyond that, Riverdale cannot quite seem to figure out what it wants to be in the first place. Despite its dark premise and slightly off-kilter approach to the existing Archie mythos, the series is also a complete distillation of everything audiences have come to expect from a series on The CW. There are teenagers who look like they are in their mid-twenties, constant streams of excessive pop culture references, and some seriously hormone-fueled teen drama. The pilot episode alone features one of the most out-of-nowhere and random girl-on-girl kisses I that I have ever seen in a TV series. Riverdale tries to be The OC and Twin Peaks at the same time, and it can't seem to figure out how to reconcile those two ideas into something cohesive.
This problem is compounded further by some fairly muddled storytelling. The murder of Jason Blossom is a decent hook, but once Riverdale hits the ground running it tries to give too many storylines an equal amount of weight, and the low-stakes high school drama often takes up far too much of the series' focus. There are some strong ideas at work here, but Riverdale sometimes feels like it has far too many plates spinning at once to tell a unified, momentum-driven story.
It doesn't help that the series cast isn't terribly memorable or notable. K.J. Apa tries his best to make Archie Andrews likable, but the material that he's given does him few favors. This ultimately makes Archie come across as whiny and hard to like -- two things that never bode well for the main character on a series. Sadly, this issue pops up with striking regularity across most of the show's ensemble; despite the intention to add some increased layers of nuance to the Archie universe, Riverdale can't help but fall back on high school archetypes and stock characters that we've seen before in other teen dramas.
That said, Cole Sprouse deserves special credit, as Jughead Jones is unquestionably the most interesting character in the series. He's driven and intelligent in a way that the other characters simply are not, and his outsider status within the Riverdale community makes his perspective on the town the most engaging. The scenes and storylines centering on Jughead are the show's saving grace in many respects, but the classic Archie character is sorely underused and unwisely relegated to a side role most of the time.
Ultimately, Greg Berlanti and the rest of the creative team behind Riverdale deserve a certain amount of acknowledgment for what they tried to do with the Archie mythos. There are some good ideas to be found in Riverdale, and Cole Sprouse's take on Jughead is far more engaging than anything that I ever expected from the character. However, the overall series cannot figure out what it wants to be and that unwillingness to pick a lane becomes increasingly apparent. The CW has become the go-to place for awesome small screen comic book adaptations in recent years, but Riverdale sadly is not one of them.
Riverdale debuts on Thursday, January 26 at 9 p.m. EST on The CW. Take a look at our comprehensive midseason premiere guide for more information regarding all of the other highly anticipated small screen premieres slated for the coming weeks!
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