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Riverdale: The CW pulp novelizes those old gee-whiz Archie comic books


Veronica and Betty make an Archie sandwich. CW photo

Premiering: Thursday, Jan. 26th at 8 p.m. (central) on The CW
Starring: KJ Apa, Lili Reinhart, Camila Mendes, Cole Sprouse, Madelaine Petsch, Luke Perry, Madchen Amick, Ashleigh Murray, Marisol Nichols, Casey Cott, Sarah Habel
Produced by: Greg Berlanti, Robert Aguirre-Sacasa, Sarah Schechter, Jon Goldwater

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Heisting storylines from both Twin Peaks and Dawson’s Creek, The CW’s Riverdale gives the venerable G-rated Archie Comics the extremest makeover since Joaquin Phoenix went this way and that.

Also included are the transforming of goofball Jughead Jones into a ruminating Holden Caulfield while no-nonsense schoolteacher Miss Grundy goes from middle aged, plain-faced and basically asexual to piping hot and very friendly with a gooey, reciprocal Archie Andrews.

And by the way, who killed Jason Blossom? It’s the overriding question, but by no means the only one, of the first four episodes made available for review. “The Town with Pep!” -- as the welcoming signs say -- is crawling with secret desires, betrayals and at least two out-and-out she-devils. But neither is named Betty or Veronica.

Riverdale is another comic book-inspired drama helmed by executive producer Greg Berlanti, who’s emerged as CW’s Aaron Spelling. He also supplies the network with Arrow, The Flash, DC’s Legends of Tomorrow and Supergirl, which moved over last fall after an ill-fitting first season on CBS.

Berlanti knows how to move things along and make characters pop. Riverdale can be overwrought at times and even too transparently politically correct at others. But it’s also crisply entertaining and particularly well-cast with respect to the pivotal roles of Betty Cooper (Lili Reinhart) and Veronica Lodge (Camila Mendes). Betty is instantly appealing as the thwarted would-be love of Archie’s life while Veronica sparks and sparkles as the newly returned “bad girl” who’s striving to reform but sometimes falls short.

Those of a certain age -- namely CW’s 18-to-34-year-old target audience -- might want to bookmark Wikipedia for some of Veronica’s early pronouncements. In the first episode, she make reference to Truman Capote, Breakfast at Tiffany’s, In Cold Blood and “the lost epilogue of Our Town.” This is all before she exchanges a prolonged “faux lesbian” kiss with Betty during tryouts for the Riverdale Vixens cheerleading squad. Wikipedia won’t be needed in this case, but some young libidos might suddenly be going from 0 to 100 mph.

Other characters chip in with way back referential material in Episode 2. Teen Kevin Keller (Casey Cott), re-written as the gay son of Riverdale’s police chief, proclaims himself “devastatingly handsome in that classic, pre-accident Montgomery Clift kind of way.”

Meanwhile, Veronica’s devious mom, Hermione (Marisol Nichols), who had grown accustomed to a luxury New York lifestyle before things went bad, takes a come-down waitress job at Pop’s Chock’Lit Shoppe. “I’m going through this Joan Crawford-Mildred Pierce thing. Is it working?” she asks her daughter. But hey kids, Donnie Darko later gets a mention. So please be patient.

The second episode includes the first football game of the season -- Archie’s the new quarterback -- but no football action on-screen. There is, however, a heavy rainstorm during which no one seems to get wet, most notably the cheerleaders. Whatever.

Archie is played by KJ Apa, who despite his hot-for-teacher moments lacks the edge or vitality of either Betty or Veronica. His father, Fred (former Beverly Hills, 90210 heartthrob Luke Perry), wants his only son to someday run the Andrews construction company while Archie yearns to be a singer-songwriter. But Fred is earnest and understanding, sometimes painfully so, compared to Betty’s mom, Alice (Twin Peaks alum Madchen Amick). She’s largely responsible for Betty’s so far unseen sister, Polly, being sent off to some sort of rehab clinic. Shrewish Alice likewise tries to control Betty’s every move, but the kid is finally starting to fight back.

Jughead (Cole Sprouse), also called “Jug” and “Juggie,” is an aspiring novelist who supplies the oft-pretentious opening and closing narration. He still wears the trademark hat, but has a difficult time with fun. By the end of Episode 4, though, Jughead’s angst gets a back story that makes the character instantly more appealing. Now if only they’d kill his off-camera readings.

Miss Grundy (Sarah Habel) looks young enough to be a senior at Riverdale High. But is she using the impressionable Archie, who has a fresh set of abs after pouring concrete over the summer? Their scenes together tend to be more creepy than affecting. Archie otherwise has the hots, musically at least, for Josie (Ashleigh Murray) and her Pussycats, a trio reminiscent of what’s going on in Fox’s new Star. This time around, Josie is black, proud and determined to keep him away from the group until things begin to change in Episode 3.

The third hour of Riverdale also has a “slut-shaming” sidetrack that brings both Veronica and Betty together to put a stop to it. Things get a little out of hand and preachy, though. All four episodes are spiked by the recurring schemings of the dead Jason’s twin sister, Cheryl (Madelaine Petsch), who in one of her milder moments verbally slaps Betty with a reference to her “crazy, tweaked-out sister.” Riverdale likewise fits that description. It’s not on drugs -- not so far anyway. But it turns the age-old Archie comic books into a latter day form of pulp fiction for today’s younger audiences.

Archie, Betty, Veronica and Jughead essentially are a remixed version of Dawson’s Creek’s Dawson, Joey, Jen and Pacey, with a Twin Peaks whodunit as a shroud . But their accelerated adulthoods -- as high school sophomores -- don’t seem all that accelerated anymore almost 20 years after Dawson’s Creek first dawned on the now defunct WB network.

Watch out for all those old movie and literary references, though. This time they’re easily unscrambled during commercial breaks. Viewers of Dawson’s Creek didn’t have that luxury in the early going. Wikipedia wasn’t launched until 2001 while Siri and Alexa were still far from having almost all the answers.

GRADE: B-minus

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