Riverdale has been described as Twin Peaks meets The O.C. It's a visually sumptuous murder mystery coated with quippy, self-aware pop culture references and delectable teen angst. But at its core, the CW's stylized, subversive take on the wholesome characters immortalized in the Archie comics is a love story. No, not between Archie and Betty. Or Archie and Veronica. Or even Jughead and hamburgers. It's a love story between Betty and Veronica — and their unapologetically female, and unusually tender, friendship.
Make no mistake: Archie may be hot now, but it's Betty Cooper and Veronica Lodge who run this show, literally and figuratively.
Riverdale, which premieres January 26, succeeds because it's unafraid to challenge the Betty-versus-Veronica dynamic that's arguably made Archie a pop culture mainstay since its creation in the early '40s. (Ask yourself: Would Dawson Leery, Joey Potter, and Jen Lindley even exist without Archie, Betty, and Veronica?) For decades, girls around the world have categorized themselves into one of two camps: Team Betty or Team Veronica. Usually determined by hair color — though, there are always outliers (this writer included) — a Betty is smart and sweet, while a Veronica is a sophisticated vixen. And any individual characteristics are eventually overshadowed by their ongoing rivalry for the affection of Archie, the girl-crazy, all-American heartbreaker.
But Riverdale, from former Dawson's Creek showrunner Greg Berlanti and Archie writer Roberto Aguirre-Sacasa, quickly establishes Betty and Veronica's friendship as the beating heart of the series. From the very first episode, we meet two capable young women who are far more complex than their two-dimensional counterparts. (Though, prolific comics writer Mark Waid's current run on Archie comes close.) Betty (Lili Reinhart, the show's deeply affecting standout), the Girl Next Door, is mooning over Archie while combatting her own anxiety and depression with pills. Meanwhile, Veronica (Camila Mendes) is adjusting to her new life in the sleepy, saccharine town of Riverdale, or as she puts it, “I'm Breakfast at Tiffany's but this place is strictly In Cold Blood.” They both could use a friend, someone who can finally see them as they see themselves.
While much of the show's first four episodes — given to press for review — focus on Betty and Veronica's growing (platonic) friendship, they're not the only women who stand out. Madelaine Petsch's manic-pixie-bombshell, Cheryl Blossom (doing her best Regina George), is a worthy adversary, and frenemy, to Betty and Veronica. Not to mention, Petsch easily walks away with the show's best one-liners. (Although, Betty's gay best friend Kevin Keller, played by Casey Cott, could easily go toe-to-toe with Riverdale's angry Queen Bee.) Ashleigh Murray's ambitious frontwoman Josie McCoy is an outspoken feminist whose sharp tongue and commanding stage presence make her and the Pussycats ones to watch. Even Shannon Purser's Ethel Muggs, though in the periphery, teams up with Betty and Veronica in Episode 3 to take on a group of slut-shaming football players. (Barb lives! And she's dismantling patriarchy at Riverdale High!)
As for the lovable, clumsy Archie (K.J. Apa), he's still a fuckboy, but he doesn't quite know it. Apa is so charismatic as Archie — or, as Josie calls him, Justin Gingerlake — that it's hard to be mad at him for being so clueless. He's juggling schoolwork, Varsity football, an after-school job at the family construction business, an affair with his music teacher Miss Grundy (Sarah Habel), and a deep, dark secret that's eating at his conscience. And then there's the fact that the burgeoning singer-songwriter has dreams of being a musician. No wonder “Teen Outlander” doesn't have time for a relationship right now.
Perhaps Riverdale's only fault in these first four episodes is its decision to sideline Jughead (Cole Sprouse), the sarcastic recluse who's estranged from his best friend Archie — and the rest of the town. Jughead is the show's weary narrator, an outsider who spends most of his time writing a true crime novel at Pop's Diner. For some, this depiction might seem a bit out-of-character for Archie's easygoing best friend, but Sprouse delivers cynicism with aplomb. The former Suite Life of Zack and Cody star doesn't have a whole lot to do at first, but hopefully his pointed interactions with Archie, and his sleuthing with Betty, grow as the show's mysteries deepen. Thankfully, there's a scene in Episode 4 that finally gives Sprouse a meaty story line of his own to chew on.
With so much going on in the lives of Betty, Veronica, Archie, and Jughead, it's easy to forget that this is a teen soap whodunit descended from Pretty Little Liars. But the mysterious death of Riverdale golden boy Jason Blossom isn't nearly as compelling as Betty's dependency on Adderall, or her homecoming dance heartbreak, or Cheryl's destructive loneliness, or Jughead and Archie's painful history, or Veronica's push and pull between who she was and the fresh start she so desperately craves.
It's those stories, so tenderly told by the writers, that are going to make viewers come back for more of what Riverdale has to offer.