In its pilot, ” The River’s Edge”, Riverdale wholeheartedly embraces the fact that it’s the part of the teen soap opera genre and kind of becomes the CW’s spiritual successor to the WB’s Dawson’s Creek. There are cheerleading/football tryouts, queen bees, teacher/student affairs, love triangles, school dances and of course, existential crises. But writer Roberto Aguirre-Sacasa, who penned the excellent Afterlife with Archie comic, adds an extra layer with what looks to be a season-long mystery plot centered around the death of Jason Blossom, who died while on a boat trip with his sister and “soulmate” Cheryl Blossom. Yes, the incest vibes from Aguirre-Sacasa’s Afterlife with Archie series are intact, and Cheryl makes an excellent manipulative villain, but with an otherworldly gaze and speaking voice from Madelaine Petsch.
Aguirre-Sacasa and director Lee Toland Frieger are totally cool with Riverdale being a stylized teen drama. That’s what Archie Comics have been for years, a closed off fictional universe where the choices of “cool teens” (As described by Jughead writer Ryan North.) have the most important bearing. It’s a world where a ginger teenager’s choice between two girls, or in this case, balancing school, writing his own angsty, yet pretty good music, playing varsity football, and working at his dad’s construction business is the center of the universe. Seemingly mundane things are so epic in this universe and adding a dead student and a literally steamy affair between Archie and his music teacher (The extremely de-aged.) Ms. Grundy adds a touch of darkness behind the bright high school tropes, the small town setting, and loads of comic book Easter Eggs. There are obvious ones like Jughead’s crown hat and also more erudite ones, like MLJ Comics, or the original name for Archie Comics, being the name of the comic book store in town.
The best character in Riverdale is easily the timely film reference dropping, impeccably dressed Veronica Lodge, played by Camila Mendes. Aguirre-Sacasa doesn’t set Betty (Lili Reinhart) and Veronica up as rivals just yet as Veronica doesn’t want to be a vengeful ice queen like she was in New York and become a better person. The scene at the cheerleading tryout (Really, who approved them being called the Rivervixens. That doesn’t sound like a real animal to me…) cements their bond as Veronica stands up for Betty to join the squad. After losing most of her wealth and privilege when her father Hiram is accused of some kind of big ticket white-collar crime, Veronica wants to stop being a mean girl and become a good person with her fresh start in Riverdale. But then Archie and Veronica get stuck in a room playing Seven Minutes in Heaven, have an obvious spark as they move closer to each other, start to talk fast, and then slow. And they smooch, and the friendship between Betty and Veronica is shattered although Veronica tries to mend it by immediately running to Betty’s house to talk her down.
Frieger uses spacing to create relationships (and chemistry) between characters. For example, there are lots of quick camera cuts when Veronica is confronting Cheryl about not picking Betty for the cheering squad. Cheryl is using to having her way in Riverdale, but hey, there’s a new queen in town. He uses a touch of slow-mo early on in the episode when it seems like Archie and Betty are on a date, but then Veronica walks in with her mom, Hermione Lodge, and he forgets Betty even exists. Kudos to veteran TV sound editor Mike Marchain for making us feel like Veronica is the only person in the room, and she is in Archie’s eyes. Frieger also enjoys cutting to Cheryl Blossom in the background of drama heavy showing that she is puppet master behind the scenes of Riverdale High even though as far as being Jason’s murderer, she’s a fairly literal red herring.
Even though Molly Ringwald’s Mrs. Andrews character is light episodes away, Riverdale doesn’t fall into some teen movie/show’s traps and has some compelling adult characters to round out the cast of attractive twenty-somethings. Luke Perry as Fred Andrews is a dependable and pragmatic and is totally cool with his son choosing music over football and working for him. He gives great advice about to Archie about being “confident” in his interests and has a friendly vibe with Hermione Lodge even though he doesn’t trust her. Marisol Nichols as Hermione is a bit uppity, but I couldn’t hate her after she took Veronica to Pop’s early on in the pilot. But winning the award for the creepiest character in Riverdale is Betty’s mom, Alice Cooper. This is probably because she was waitress Shelly Johnson on Twin Peaks, and Mrs. Cooper is paranoid about everything ever since Betty’s older sister Polly ran away from home. She flinches every time she sees red hair because Polly used to date Jason Blossom and isn’t a fan of Basically, every time she catches a whiff of teen sexuality (Which is the entire pilot to be honest.), Alice clutches her pearls a bit more.
At the end of the pilot, I realized that I was little underwhelmed by KJ Apa’s performance as Archie Andrews. He definitely has leading man looks, but is a bit douchey and seems overwhelmed by everything around him. Reinhart and Mendes more than make up for his shortcomings by giving Betty and Veronica tons of personality, and Aguirre-Sacasa enjoys messing with that love triangle by having him take them both to the dance while making his feeling about Betty just platonic for now. For now, he is an almost empty protagonist vessel, but his passion about pursuing music and secret affair with Ms. Grundy show that not-so-little Archie has potential as a lead.
Even though most of “The River’s Edge’s” running time is concerned with the life and romantic foibles of Archie Andrews, Roberto Aguirre-Sacasa fills the margins of the episode with some great Archie characters. Even though he occasionally falls into the “gay best friend” cliche (And Cheryl Blossom calls him out on this.), Kevin Keller brings some much needed humor to Riverdale and also is someone that Betty can bounce her feelings off platonically. Reggie Mantle is a total bro, but Josie and the Pussycats are fabulous as ever, and in one monologue delivered by Ashleigh Murry, they make a case for having their own spinoff far away from this small town drama. I was a little disappointed by Cole Sprouse’s Jughead, who narrates the episode and is an introverted blogger with a strained relationship with Archie. Hopefully, he becomes as endearing as the Jughead written by Chip Zdarsky and Ryan North soon.
“The River’s Edge” is a little dark, very soapy, and Roberto Aguirre-Sacasa hits the target as far as the character of Betty and Veronica are concerned. Riverdale could definitely be your new TV guilty pleasure with a strong mystery hook, tons of angsty teen romances, and some pretty musical montages. (There should be a Tegan and Sara song every episode because honestly Betty and Veronica should ditch Archie and date each other.)
Episode Rating: 8.0