Whether you've read an Archie comic or are a complete novice to Archie Andrews and his hapless shenanigans, Riverdale feels familiar. Maybe it's the suburban setting, a seemingly wholesome town where football players and pretty cheerleaders converge every Friday night for the big game. Or perhaps it's the teen angst, vexing and delectable. Or the characters themselves, recognizable in every teen archetype in modern pop culture. (Who is Dawson Leery if not a neurotic, blond Archie?) But it's that familiarity that gives this visually sumptuous murder mystery its depth.
When we first meet 16-year-old Archie Andrews (K.J. Apa), we see him through the eyes of his best friend, the literal girl next door, Betty Cooper (Lili Reinhart). He spent his summer getting hot; she spent her summer interning and mooning over him. It's all too familiar. But new year, new Betty — and she's determined to finally tell Archie how she feels. Fate, of course, has other plans.
The arrival of sultry and sophisticated Veronica Lodge (Camila Mendes) is a scene straight out of Can't Hardly Wait. Time stops as Veronica saunters into Pop's Chock'lit Shoppe for the very first time, stealing Archie's attention — and Betty's nerve — in the process.
But the Ronnie we meet isn't the Veronica of yesteryear. She's savvy and sincere. “I'm Breakfast at Tiffany's but this place is strictly In Cold Blood,” she tells Archie and Betty. (This is the kind of self-aware, wordy dialogue that most reminds me of executive producer Greg Berlanti's first show, Dawson's Creek.)
Any other year, Veronica's arrival in Riverdale would have been “trending No. 1” — as scene-stealer Kevin Keller (Casey Cott) puts it — but not this year. No, this is the year that Jason Blossom (Trevor Stines) disappears on the 4th of July. Early that morning, he and his twin sister, Cheryl (Madelaine Petsch, doing her best Regina George) took a pre-dawn boat ride. When their boat capsizes and Jason goes missing, Cheryl gamely plays the part of the “bereaved red widow.” Of course it doesn't take long for the so-called accident on Sweetwater River to begin to look like a homicide — and everyone starts looking a little suspect.
Including Archie, who we learn was hooking up with Miss Grundy (Sarah Habel), his hot music teacher, near the lake the morning of the accident. Archie heard a gunshot that morning, but he decided not to admit to what he'd seen. Revealing their dirty little secret and jeopardizing Miss Grundy's career was just too great of a risk. Still, it's clear the decision has been eating away at Archie's conscience.
To be fair, Archie has a lot of things eating away at him these days. The all-American teen simply has too much on his plate — a weekend job working construction for his dad, a coveted spot on the Varsity football team, and a mature side-chick who also happens to be his music teacher. That's a lot to juggle. It doesn't help that all Archie really wants to do is write and perform music.
He turns to Riverdale High's hottest band, Josie and the Pussycats, for some songwriting help, but his white male privilege is promptly checked by Pussycats frontwoman Josie McCoy (Ashleigh Murray), a rock star-in-the-making who's not going to let this “Justin Gingerlake” siphon her black girl magic.
Meanwhile, the only thing holding Betty together is her Adderall and the occasional pep talk from Veronica. Riverdale smartly subverts the Betty-versus-Veronica dynamic from the comics and instead makes them fast friends. Veronica's arrival in Riverdale changes Betty. She not only convinces Betty to ask Archie (whom she dubs “Teen Outlander”) to the Homecoming dance, but she also convinces her to try out for the Rivervixens cheerleading squad. According to Kevin, cheer captain Cheryl called Betty “too Season 5 Betty Draper” to join the squad last year. Ouch.
Of course one goes more smoothly than the other: Betty manages to ask Archie to Homecoming, but she also invites Veronica along for the date. And at cheer tryouts, Veronica stages a kiss with Betty to convince Cheryl to add the meek blonde to the squad, an act Cheryl immediately sees right through: “Faux lesbian kissing hasn’t been taboo since 1994.” Touché, @CherylBombshell. After an epic tongue-lashing from Veronica, however, Betty makes the squad. Commence the most adorable scene, as Betty dances around her room in her new cheerleading uniform. If only her manipulative, buzzkill of a mother didn't ruin the moment with her “The Blossoms can't be trusted!!!” diatribe.
At the dance, Betty finally works up the courage to tell Archie how she feels. She says she has this dream of them as a power couple. Archie, as clueless as ever, says he doesn't understand. All of the awkwardness is made even more awkward by a round of Seven Minutes in Heaven at Cheryl's invite-only afterparty. Cheryl forces Veronica to go into the closet with Archie, a scheme she knows will break Betty's heart, but the sad part is Archie and Ronnie — as he so affectionately calls her after 48 hours of knowing her — take the bait. After a hot 'n' steamy make-out in the closet, Archie and Veronica come crashing back to reality. Heartbroken, Betty leaves the party.
While Veronica finds comfort on the couch with her mother Hermione, Archie needs to find Betty. He wants to explain what happened. His first stop is Pop's, where he spots his former friend Jughead (Cole Sprouse), an outsider digging into the town's sordid side as source material for his true crime novel. Something clearly happened to pull Archie and Jughead apart, but there's no time to rehash old wounds; Archie has to find Betty. So that's why he ends up on her doorstep in the middle of the night.
This scene between Archie and Betty, so affecting in its simplicity, is why Riverdale works. For all of its intrigue and stylish, cotton-candy flourishes, this show is grounded in its characters. Watching Betty pour her heart out to Archie on the moonlit sidewalk is mesmerizing; watching him tell her that he was never good enough for her anyway is absolutely heart-wrenching.
Honestly, by the time Jason Blossom's bloated corpse washes ashore in the episode's closing seconds, it's hard to even care. I'm still mooning over Archie and Betty — how her pretty pink dress shines in the moonlight, and the way he wears his guilt like a delicate mask ready to break.