Riverdale is nothing like those comics you read as a kid

Riverdale Photo::Diyah Pera

Those of us beyond a certain age have most likely heard of Archie comics or at least one of the many offshoots of the Sunday comic-strips such as Jughead, Betty And Veronica or Josie And The Pussycats.

In recent years, the titular American red-headed high-schooler has gone through quite the dramatic rebooting, getting a modern artstyle and a more serialised, adult-oriented storytelling approach that has seen Archie in various zany situations, not the least of which include going up against a Predator (yes, those Predators) and hanging out with Marvel’s murderous anti-hero The Punisher, while also pushing the envelope with other controversial social messages about homosexuality or even gun control.

Riverdale, Netflix’s attempt at re-imagining the long-standing comic series, continues this trend of a more “adult” Archie, giving us an edgy, neon-noir teenage drama-thriller about a small-town murder-mystery, layered over a more traditional high-school story of self-discovery, love triangles and bullying.

It’s certainly not the most novel idea for a series, especially since Netflix’s last high-school drama series — 13 Reasons Why — largely operated under a very similar premise of high-school life with a spattering of death and darkness.

However, Riverdale‘s lighter tone and its cast of likeable, well-written characters help to keep its main plot moving forward for the most part, with a convoluted web of relationships and revelations that continue to deepen the overarching mystery in a genuinely unexpected way. While much of the typical high-school humdrum can get tired after a while, Riverdale‘s gripping mystery and complex characters manage to make it worth watching nonetheless.

Though centred mostly on the mysterious disappearance of teenager Jason Blossom (Trevor Stines), much of Riverdale really is about the various characters themselves and their respective struggles. There’s a lot going on in the story, with every character’s subplot eventually tying back to the main mystery at varying degrees of significance and impact. Archie (K.J. Apa) is a mild-mannered high-schooler who aspires to be a songwriter, despite the wishes of his well-meaning but conservative-minded father (Luke Perry). He is also involved in a forbidden relationship with his music instructor Ms Grundy (Sarah Habel), which causes friction with his childhood friend and neighbour Betty Cooper (Lili Reinhart), who happens to be head-over-heels in love with him. Their relationship is made even more complicated with the arrival of Veronica Lodge (Camila Mendes), a sophisticated city-girl who moved to Riverdale with her mother following the arrest of her father in New York.

Meanwhile, Veronica, being the new girl in school, clashes with resident “Queen Bee” and cheer-captain Cheryl Blossom (Madelaine Petsch), the spoiled brat of a wealthy family and twin sister to the disappeared Jason. That’s not even mentioning the past relationship between Archie’s father and Veronica’s mother, who were high-school sweethearts in Riverdale in their youth. And that’s just the first episode.

Initially, most of the characters in Riverdale may invoke common archetypes of the high-school genre, though each quickly reveals a hidden depth or flaw that makes them more than their initial impressions suggest. Betty, for instance, outwardly looks like the typical blonde, wholesome love-interest, the “ultimate girl-next-door”. Not long into the show, we learn that she is actually an Adderall-prescribed overachiever with a hidden dark side regarding a possible family-inherited mental illness.

Veronica, the typical confident city-girl, is a self-reformed bully who wishes only to atone for the sins of her father, doling out equal measures of kindness and attitude. That these flaws play naturally into the main plot makes the pacing of the show more cohesive, like every little detail is working to further the mystery instead of just plodding through unnecessary exposition.

To be frank, it would have been so simple for Riverdale to get lost amid its own tangled web of subplots, which extends beyond the circle of teenagers to include their parents as well, who each have their own equally complex web of relationships and stories. As such, the producers of the series probably deserve a little praise for keeping everything coherent, all the while gradually escalating the scale and stakes of the plot behind Jason Blossom’s ordeal to include a drug-dealing biker-gang and a family-feud of Romeo and Juliet-esque proportions.

Whether or not you’re a fan of (or even know of) the Archie comics, Riverdale is a worthy drama-mystery series that will most likely produce quality water-cooler talk for you and your friends with its constant stream of revelations and plot twists, as well as its colourful cast of characters and clever script.

There are times when the show feels like it is bogged down under the weight of its many subplots and the ending does leave more questions than it answers (almost shamelessly setting the show up for its second season), though I’d be lying if I said I didn’t enjoy the ride.

Riverdale Starring K.J. Apa, Lili Reinhart, Camila Mendes Created by Roberto Aguirre-Sacasa