May 12, 2017

TV Retrospective: "Riverdale" - Season 1

Scene from Riverdale
In 2017, the idea of a dark and gritty reboot, even at its most bleak, has become self-parody. There is a style that comes with making happy topics into landscapes of murder and woe. It would seem that Riverdale was going to fall under this trap, especially as its marketing tried to sell it as the teenager version of Twin Peaks. After all, Archie comics have long been considered a vanilla comic strip of a bygone era. Nothing as bad as a Frank Miller Batman comic could ever happen in Riverdale. As the first season of the new CW series comes to a close, it not only shows that Riverdale can be a tale full of suspense, but it can also be one of the few TV series to find weight within the dark and gritty reboot model. It doesn't revel in cliche downbeats, but instead finds a deeper heart to characters that everyone thought they knew, even if they never read a strip in their life. 
Even if you know the characters in passing, they are all here. Through a film noir gaze that's being written by Jughead (Cole Sprouse), the series begins by asking one question: Who committed the murder? It's a subject that's returned to several times throughout the season, but only serves as the entry point into the town's dark underbelly. Every family in the series has some sort of secret that makes them seedy. There's some with gang connections and control on industries. There are those with well-wishing but inevitably negligent fathers. Then there's Archie (K.J. Apa), who maybe is the most grounded of the group and has the simplest personal goal: to be a good songstress. Of course, his goal conflicts with his father's (Luke Perry) wish to run the construction company, and it inevitably gets him to drop out of football.
To a large extent, this is the high school soap opera material that the CW thrives on. There's no denying that there's constant heightened emotions and salacious cliffhangers. It seems like certain events happen just to fulfill the risque nature of a teen show. While it's material that Archie Comics probably covered over the decades, it's not likely that it was done in a way that not only seemed shocking, but made the franchise relevant to a new generation. This isn't your parents' Riverdale. It's the dark and somewhat nihilistic one of the modern era that is transfused with modern references and a classic sense of mystery.
This comes early on when local band Josie and the Pussycats perform an updated version of "Sugar Sugar." The lyrics are the same, but the orchestration is different. It's been updated with more horns and a hip hop beat. Along with the catchy, teen pop soundtrack, it assures itself that it's a lot of the familiar with a nice and fresh twist. The perspective has changed and the once petty Betty and Veronica stories now hold a deeper resonance into their personal family lives. Gone are the cliche broad strokes that everyone knows them for. Now they are like all teens: a bit promiscuous and vindictive. By the end, someone's house burns down after ties to crime make the family's reputation abhorrent.
The show is probably one of the few comic book series to update the page in a fascinating manner. Riverdale makes Archie and the gang interesting to a new generation. Their references and ideals are no different from the modern teenager. It's refreshing and gives the show some personality. On top of that and the noir atmosphere, there's a sense of community within the show. Everything may be updated, but little of it feels pandering or out of place. Even the narrator gimmick never outstays its welcome. It's a show ripe with personality, and the best part is that it's entertaining even at its most familiar. It innovates teen dramas with style, and comes out with an impressive first season of TV. Now the question is how long this will stay true, especially as the seemingly realistic story also has a creator who wants to have cameos from Sabrina the teenage witch.
Whatever the case may be, Riverdale is an impressive Freshman series, and one of the best so far in 2017. It may not do too much that's out of the ordinary from a tonal perspective, but who needs that when the characters are so rich? The show is a soap opera that manages to never be too trashy. Instead, it finds a way to explore life and its obsessions in a way accessible to teens while exposing them to greater style infusions such as noir and angst. Even the titles are highly enjoyable and make the episodes fun to dissect. One can only hope that a show that's seemingly simple can keep up its playful nature and produce something as worthwhile in the year to come.

Overall Rating: 3.5 out of 5

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