Spoiler-Free Review: Archie Comics Adaptation "Riverdale" Is Twin Peaks Meets Dawson's Creek, In a Good Way
Nowadays, Greg Berlanti is known as a heavy hitter in comics adaptations, as he has his fingers in The Flash, Arrow, Supergirl, and Legends of Tomorrow. But back in the day, he was partially responsible for some of the best teen soaps of the late nineties and early aughts, including Dawson's Creek, Everwood, and the underrated Jack and Bobby. Now, with his "gritty" Archie Comics adaptation, he's combining those two talents, as Riverdale is a melodramatic teen soap a la Dawson's as well as a cheeky comics adaptation that doesn't take itself too seriously, similar to The Flash, with a campy murder mystery thrown in there.
The murder mystery places the focus outside of the requisite Archie/Betty/Veronica love triangle and squarely on the quiet small town where "nothing bad ever happens." If that sounds cheesy, that's because it is, and unabashedly so. The players include Archie, the football player who really wants to be a musician, Betty, the girl-next-door who's tired of being perfect all the time, Veronica, the worldly siren from the Big Bad Apple, the gay best friend who's hardly characterized outside of his sexuality, the Mean Girl psycho villain, an overbearing mother who feeds her daughter Adderall by the dozen, a cougar teacher, and a mysterious cyberpunk hacker-type who gives ominous voiceovers (and is hilariously played by Disney alum Cole Sprouse). The combination of the campy murder mystery and the stock characters give it a distinctly Twin Peaks-esque vibe (helped by the presence of Twin Peaks alum Madchen Amick), if you're into that sort of thing.
If you're not into camp, however, then the characters are unpleasantly one-note. Archie, in particular, is a generically handsome blank slate with little to no personality, joining the ranks of unremarkable white male protagonists who inexplicably get smart, nice, and beautiful girls to fall in love with them. And speaking of whom, Betty barely fares any better. While there are attempts to develop her as a character, she's ultimately just another "plucky" girl-next-door character whose love affair with Archie lacks chemistry but will still be shoved down our throats (the gay best friend helpfully declares that Archie and Betty are "endgame"). Think Felicity Smoak, minus the sense of humor.
However, there are a few saving graces that make this silly soap worth a shot. First, it's wildly entertaining and enjoyably twisty, which one would expect from a Berlanti effort. Second, it has a diverse cast that belies its mildly racist and sexist stock characterizations; Veronica and all of the Pussycats (yes, Josie and the Pussycats is making a comeback) are POC, and while the sole gay character is primarily understood through his sexuality so far, the show's self-aware joke, "is being the gay best friend still a thing?" demonstrates that the writers understand and will hopefully subvert this stereotype. And while it was socially acceptable for Dawson's Creek to show the two main female characters fight over a boy for the entirety of the show's run without developing a friendship, in 2016 Betty and Veronica manage to put their differences aside and form a friendship of their own.
Aside from its self-awareness, which helps to undercut the cheesiness considerably, the saving grace is Veronica herself. As of the pilot, she's the only character who is developed enough to transcend her "bad girl from New York" stereotype and feel like a real person. She's witty, sarcastic, and feisty without falling into that "pluckiness" trap, a characterization which is helped immensely by a wonderfully rounded performance from newcomer Camila Mendes. It remains to be seen whether Riverdale will be a legitimately good show or just a guilty pleasure, but if it steers into the skid and doubles down on the meta humor and interesting characterizations like Veronica's, it has the potential to be our next Berlanti-produced obsession.