Riverdale is the new CW Twin Peaks lite teen mystery drama from Greg Berlanti, of the DC Berlantiverse, and Roberto Aguirre-Sacasa, writer for Glee, Big Love, Supergirl, Marvel Comics, and Chief Creative Officer of Archie Comics. The adult cast is stocked with veterans of teen and science fiction shows, such as Molly Ringwald, Skeet Ulrich, Luke Perry, Robin Givens, and Tom McBeath. One, Mädchen Amick, is an actual Twin Peaks cast member. So, the show starts with a great resume and critics have given the pilot great reviews. For myself, I’m a little burned out on high school dramas after five years of The Vampire Diaries and having been one of the few who stuck with Glee until the bitter, bitter end. I loved Twin Peaks way back when, though, and I do still love a good twisted, quirky, potential cult show in the making. So, what the heck, let’s give it a shot.
They start right off with their homage to Twin Peaks. This not a coincidence:
The settings for both shows are very similar, small towns in the Pacific Northwest where nature is still rugged and wild. The rivers rush, the mist creeps, the mountains loom, and the forests are dark and dense with towering, dripping evergreens. This is not a place where man has tamed nature. The outdoors is a character, and potentially a villain.
In fact, Jughead, our narrator, begins by telling us about the mysterious death of Jason Blossom, the Laura Palmer of Riverdale. Kudos to everyone involved for not making him a blonde female. The Blossom twins, Jason and his sister Cheryl, who are both redheads, drive out to Sweet Water River dressed in white and holding hands, to take an early morning boat ride on July 4th. Nothing unusual in that, right? Before they get in the boat, Cheryl asks Jason if he’s scared. Jason shakes his head no. They get into the boat, and Jason rows them out into the middle of the water, while Cheryl sits with her gloved hands primly in her lap. Moments later, a
gunshot fireworks thunder loud sound is heard.
Later that morning, Dilton Doiley, who was leading a bird watching expedition in full Boy Scout regalia, found Cheryl soaked and cowering on the side of the river. The police dragged the river, but his body was never found. Cheryl claimed that she’d dropped one of her gloves in the water. Jason had reached in to get it, but had panicked and fallen in when the boat tipped. He had drowned. The Blossoms buried an empty casket.
Fast forward to the beginning of the school year. Everyone is still talking about what happened to the Blossom twins, but other changes are happening, as well, because this is high school!
Hermione and Veronica Lodge arrive in town, fresh from NYC. Their husband and father, Hiram Lodge, has been involved in an embezzling scandal, so they’ve returned to Riverdale, Hermione’s hometown, for a fresh start. Veronica stands by her father, and is defensive with anyone who brings it up.
Betty is the fresh-faced, smart, but awkward, literal girl next door. She and her close gay friend Kevin watch Archie change his shirt through their bedroom windows and discover that working construction all summer has done wonders for Archie’s abs.
Though Betty has a crush on Archie, he’s firmly friend-zoned her. She’s trying to make a move as they’re eating at Pop’s, the local malt shoppe, when Veronica walks in and immediately draws Archie’s attention. Veronica shows an equal amount of interest in Archie and Betty.
Betty’s under pressure from her mom to be successful, unlike her older sister Polly, who was ruined in some way by that horrible Jason Blossom. Mom practically sounds like she’s out of a 19th century novel. At least she didn’t tell Betty to guard her virginity. Maybe that was implied in the “character” part of the speech. Alice Cooper pressures Betty to excel in all areas, including keeping up her grades, athletics, extracurriculars and maintaining a decent character. She’s refilled Betty’s Adderall prescription to help Betty stay focused and on track. (Betty keeps forgetting!) The modern moms of Riverdale believe in better living through chemicals. But only with a doctor’s prescription. It’s very important that you only get your chemical aids from the right kinds of people.
Archie’s father, Fred Andrews, owns and runs a local construction company. Archie worked for him over the summer, which is where he acquired the abs everyone is so excited about. Those muscles will come in handy on the football team. The other players, Reggie and Moose, want to know his workout secrets. Archie also had a brief summer affair with his young high school music teacher, Geraldine Grundy (major dramatic license taken here, compared to her comic version). He’s started writing songs, and is looking for someone to teach him songwriting. He approaches Josie, leader of the band Josie and the Pussycats, first. She seems to think his approach is a come on to either take over the band or get in her pants, and is dismissive of him. He moves on to Miss Grundy, who doesn’t want to have any close dealings with Archie that might end up looking suspicious. Miss Grundy doesn’t want to take the chance. Especially since they are hiding the fact that they were at the river together the morning of July 4th, and heard the loud noise that occurred near the time of Jason Blossom’s death, but didn’t come forward to the police. Archie eventually wears her down/blackmails her into agreeing to lessons three mornings a week before school. There definitely shouldn’t be any problem with those two being alone together in a small room three times a week. No similarities to the seven minutes in heaven game the teenagers play later.
Meanwhile, Archie makes the Varsity football team thanks to his abs, even though he’s young for it. It’s a bigger time commitment than he was expecting, so he has to figure out how to juggle working for his dad, football, music, and friends. A bit of lying happens, but he gets caught quickly. Fred and Archie have a serious talk about making good choices, growing up into a man, choices will affect the rest of your life, and the usual Very Important Words of Wisdom for Teens. By the end of the episode, Archie’s figured out a schedule that should allow him to juggle his commitments and interests. He’s happy, his dad’s happy, everyone’s happy. Chances are he didn’t irrevocably harm his future with a couple of minor decisions made when he was 15. No one died or got pregnant. At least not because of Archie. At least not in this episode.
Betty and Veronica get to know each other while they tour the school and introduce Veronica to the rest of the
cast students. Veronica is a sharp judge of character who comes from a much more sophisticated, much more vicious social circle than Riverdale could ever hope to be. She decides to take Betty under her wing, since she was burned by her friends in NY when her dad’s scandal broke. Betty seems like the kind of honest, loyal person who won’t let her down. In return, Veronica brings Betty along with her when she joins the cheerleading squad. They both stand up to Cheryl Blossom, queen bee in mourning with a personal dislike of Betty.
Cheryl won’t let it end there, of course. Betty, Veronica, and Archie end up going to the fall dance together. Betty confesses her feelings to Archie, but he doesn’t return them. Cheryl watches from a distance, and tells her minions to make sure the threesome are at her after party. At the party, she maneuvers them into the game of seven minutes in heaven, then makes sure that Veronica and Archie end up in the closet together. Betty escapes from the party while her dates are in the closet, giving Cheryl exactly what she wanted. Veronica and Archie give in to temptation and make out, but Veronica seems to regret jeopardizing her friendship with Betty afterwards. She sends Archie to talk to Betty.
Archie tells Betty that she’s too good for him, which has got to be one of the most obnoxious, infuriating excuses for why one person doesn’t want to date another, ever. Nobody wants to be put up on a pedestal where they are viewed as some perfect ideal, and not allowed to be a real person with flaws, needs, and problems of their own. It means that Archie, who she thought was her best friend, doesn’t even really see her. Sadly, I’ve seen this exact excuse and situation in real life, too. I wish it were just a trope. I can only hope that she doesn’t spend the rest of the series pining for him and following him around like an attention-seeking puppy. He already has two other love interests. If Archie and Betty are end game, let him woo her back. There are a lot of other cute kids of all genders and types running around the school for Betty to choose from. (Yeah, I know, she’s going to pine. It was a nice fantasy for a moment.)
Archie runs into Jughead at Pop’s while he’s looking for Betty. They seem to have been close friends, maybe more, who had a falling out. They have a bit of an existential crisis over Jason Blossom, how he’ll be remembered, and what that means for their own lives. Jughead gets in a resentful comment or two that makes it sound like Archie left him behind in some way, or maybe refused to come out of the closet. Then he tells Archie to go talk to Betty, that talking helps, and would have helped with Jughead.
Jughead is an introverted, intense novelist/writer, not the type who’d typically be best friends with a popular member of the football team. He has an air of sadness and mystery around him. He’s the narrator for the episode, but is only onscreen for the one brief scene. It makes him that much more compelling, someone with secrets that you want to know more about.
Veronica’s mother, Hermione, ended up broke when she left NY. She asks Fred for a job at his company, hoping he’ll give her a break because they dated before she left town. He married her rich rival instead, but that marriage has also broken up. He tells Hermione he can’t hire her because his clients wouldn’t approve of the wife of an embezzler working with the money. Later, Veronica discovers that her husband, Hiram, has arranged for a duffel bag of cash to be delivered to their apartment.
But we need to go back to the outdoors before we end the episode. Kevin is hooking up with Moose, a closeted gay football player. They’re going to skinny dip before the main event. Kevin heads down to the water’s edge, dark and forboding in the middle of the night, lit only by their car headlights. He stumbles, and finds the body of Jason Blossom washed up on the shore, muddy, bloated, and with a bullet through his forehead.
Jughead tells us that soon an autopsy will be done, arrests will begin, and the small town will have to face its secrets.
There was a lot to like in this pilot, including the cast. I love the look and the atmosphere. I’m not a huge fan of getting bogged down in teen romance and petty rivalries, so I hope the show focusses as much on the adults as on the teens in that respect. The pilot dragged for me when it got to the point of following Archie and his three love interests around through trysts and heartbreak. The party scene in particular didn’t add much that couldn’t have been done in a more interesting way. We already knew Cheryl is conniving and Archie and Veronica are attracted to each other and would act on it eventually.
But most of the characters are interesting and have the potential to be complex, with complex relationships connecting them. There’s the promise of Molly Ringwald and Skeet Ulrich showing up in a few episodes. Lots to analyze and meta about.
And there’s the central mystery to solve. What were Jason and Cheryl up to? Suicide pact? Did Cheryl chicken out? Or did Jason fall overboard with the gun, and she couldn’t bring herself to drown instead? Or was it a murder/suicide pact? Did she shoot him with her white gloves on, but didn’t go through with killing herself? Or did she just murder him? Was he hit by a sniper from a distance? Hired assasin or someone he knew? But she asked him if he was afraid, which suggests they were planning something. They were dressed in inappropriate, white clothing, perfect for a funeral tableau of two innocents taken too soon.
I didn’t talk about Cheryl Blossom much. She’s brittle. It’s no mistake that her name sounds like cherry blossom. Beautiful, fragile, easily destroyed, mourning a lost loved one. But Cheryl is hiding things as well. Some or all of that fragility is a front. She’s manipulative, perceptive, dramatic, intelligent and ruthless. She may also be mentally ill. She may have been in an incestuous relationship with her brother. There may have been abuse involved, in either direction. We don’t know much about the Blossom family yet. They are part of the mystery to be unraveled.