Riverdale Series Premiere Recap: "The River's Edge"

Photo: Courtesy of The CW.
For many, high school is a time when you can’t help but wear your heart on your sleeve. You’re trying on different identities to see which one fits and figuring out what the first step of your rest of your life will be. Life can feel both endless with possibilities and claustrophobic since even minor tragedies carry the extra weight that comes with adolescence. Riverdale, CW’s bold reimagining of the long running Archie comics, brings all the contradictory, lurid aspects of adolescence to the surface with a dark edge.

Riverdale doesn’t resemble the Archie comics either in their overly saccharine beginnings or current genre heavy revamp. Instead Riverdale uses the foundation of these comics — Josie and the Pussycats and the central love triangle with Archie at the center are here — but injects the series with a heavy dose of angst and brooding.

The show makes its preoccupation with ripping off the wholesome veneer of small town life apparent from the jump. Part of this is thanks to Jughead’s (Cole Sprouse) emotional voice over. But mostly the central mystery that reveals itself in the first few minutes does the job.

The premiere begins on a placid 4th of July. The Blossom twins — Cheryl (Madelaine Petsch) and Jason (Trevor Stines) — go for a picturesque boat ride. Next time Cheryl is seen she’s a rattled mess with tear streaked mascara and Jason is nowhere to be found. With his body unrecovered and no other witnesses, Cheryl’s story that Jason accidentally drowned is never questioned. When everyone returns to school from the summer Jason’s death still casts a long shadow over their lives.

This is especially true for Archie Andrews (K.J. Apa) who struggles between dedicating his free time to his love of music or the life he thinks his dad wants for him which involves football and working at the family construction business. As usual with CW’s shows everyone on Riverdale is way more good looking than you remember people being in high school. But Archie’s newfound hotness thanks to construction work and puberty is pretty much a plot point. He’s hilariously called everything from “teen Outlander” to “Justin Gingerlake” just in case you forget he got really hot since his freshman year. One person who definitely noticed Archie’s good looks? Ms. Grundy (Sarah Habel) who rolls up to Archie in her car during the summer wearing Lolita sunglasses and a lustful gaze.

Riverdale isn’t subtle about what happened between these two. They’re seen having sex in Ms. Grundy’s car quickly after her introduction. On another show if the genders were reversed this affair would hopefully play out more accurately to how predatory and unnerving it is. The power dynamic and age difference between them makes their relationship amount to sexual assault even if the writers are playing it off as a teenage fantasy come to life. Ms. Grundy wants nothing to do with Archie now but that’s kind of difficult considering she’s the music teacher.

After owning up to his dad, Fred (Luke Perry), about wanting to be a musician Archie confronts Ms. Grundy head-on about tutoring him. She’s the only one he can turn to since the town isn’t exactly full of Julliard-trained musicians like her. Their summer tryst isn’t the only secret between them. While Jason was supposedly drowning, Archie and Ms. Grundy were also by the river. But they heard a gunshot which casts doubt on Cheryl’s story. Telling the police is not an option since it would pretty much land Ms. Grundy in jail. Of course, Ms. Grundy isn’t the only one with a complicated relationship with Archie.

In this incarnation, Betty is a near-perfect overachiever. She’s anxious and overworked thanks to her Adderall pushing mother, Alice (Mädchen Amick). To make matters worse, her sister Polly had a torrid relationship with Jason that set off a nervous breakdown landing her in a group home. Betty is best friends with Archie but has been harboring a crush on him. Just when she’s about to reveal her feelings to him at Pop’s Chock’lit Shoppe in walks the new kid in town, Veronica Lodge (Camila Mendes). Veronica is a rich, hyper-confident New Yorker eager to reinvent herself from the ice princess people believe her to be. I would want to reinvent myself too if my father was going to prison for fraud and my family’s dirty laundry became the latest tabloid gossip. When Veronica interrupts Betty’s overture to Archie to introduce herself she gets the best line of the night, “Are you familiar with the works of Truman Capote? I’m Breakfast at Tiffany’s but this place is strictly In Cold Blood.” A girl who references Truman Capote, dresses fabulously, and isn’t afraid to call out mean girls like Cheryl? Veronica is a dame after my own heart.

But let’s talk about how these kids speak. Riverdale obviously took some classes from the Joss Whedon School of Clever Teen Dialogue. That would be fine if all the actors could pull it off. Riverdale isn’t afraid to wear its inspirations on its sleeve just as much as its characters do with their emotions. It mixes the moodiness of Twin Peaks, the witty one liners of Buffy the Vampire Slayer, interest in high school social strata a la Heathers, and the juicy watchability of early Gossip Girl. More than anything, Riverdale is aiming to fill the role of the next great teen soap opera. The casting of the adults including Luke Perry of Beverly Hills 90210 and Mädchen Amick of Twin Peaks fame shows how self-aware this show is of its pop culture lineage. Sure, it doesn’t always work. Despite the heavy subject matter the narrative isn’t as emotionally resonant as it should be. But, it’s more diverse than expected (in mostly supporting roles like black actress Ashleigh Murray as the ambitious lead of Josie and the Pussycats) and compulsively watchable. One of the best things about the premiere is the unexpected direction it takes the dynamic between Betty and Veronica. Even though they both have the hots for Archie they actually become genuine friends.

When they try out for the school’s cheerleading squad Veronica defends Betty from Cheryl’s wrath.“Eventually, there will be a reckoning […] You wanted fire? Sorry, Cheryl Bombshell. My speciality is ice,” Veronica says. Veronica even encourages Betty to tell Archie her true feelings at a school dance. Unfortunately, his awkward response reveals that these two aren’t headed for romantic bliss anytime soon. To make matters worse, Cheryl pressures Archie and Veronica into going through the age old tradition of 7 minutes in heaven. When they finish making out in the closet they come to find Betty left the party. Later, when Archie finds Betty he doesn’t say what she’s hoping for. “Of course I love you, Betty,” Archie says before revealing he feels she’s too perfect and that he’ll never be good enough for her. Ouch.

Soon everyone has much more to worry about than heartbreak. Jason’s body washes to shore with a gunshot wound in his head making Cheryl’s grieving sister act come into question. Here, Riverdale nails what all darkly pleasurable high school stories are really about: nothing is ever as it seems.

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