Riverdale Thursdays, 9 p.m., the CW. Premieres January 26.
The prevailing image of Archie Comics might still be impossibly wholesome teens getting into bland adventures, but in the past few years the comic-book publisher has been steadily reinventing its characters for a modern audience, to much acclaim from readers and critics. Now, that makeover is going mainstream in the new CW TV series Riverdale, which puts those familiar faces in the middle of a dark, sexy nighttime soap. All of the major Archie Comics characters are part of the cast: all-American teen Archie (K.J. Apa), his rival love interests Betty (Lili Reinhart) and Veronica (Camila Mendes) and his cheeseburger-obsessed best friend Jughead (Cole Sprouse). Secondary characters like Reggie, Moose, Kevin Keller, Cheryl Blossom and even Josie and the Pussycats take important supporting roles, and the show includes reinterpreted versions of Archie staples like Pop’s diner.
The first episode of Riverdale opens with the death of one of the town’s teenagers, and the mystery of who killed Jason Blossom fuels the series. With its gloomy visuals, buried secrets, young hotties and stylized dialogue, Riverdale fits somewhere around the intersection of Dawson’s Creek, Gossip Girl and Twin Peaks, and the show can’t quite pull off that balancing act while also sticking to some semblance of faithfulness to its source material. It’s hard to take characters with names like Dilton Doiley and Ethel Muggs seriously, never mind seeing them as genuinely sinister and/or seductive. The show’s best character work is in the pairing of Betty and Veronica, who have far more chemistry with each other than either does with Archie (it helps that they shamelessly make out in the first episode), with the potential to become the CW’s next Serena van der Woodsen and Blair Waldorf.
Archie himself is the least interesting character, and his brooding over his illicit affair with music teacher Miss Grundy (changed from the comics’ white-haired spinster into a sultry cougar) isn’t particularly convincing. Creator Roberto Aguirre-Sacasa, who’s also chief creative officer at Archie Comics and writer of several of its current comic books, loads the dialogue with hip-sounding pop-culture references and suggestive innuendoes, but it often comes off as forced. The young cast is eager and likable, and the producers fill the adult roles with actors whose presences recall the show’s influences: Beverly Hills, 90210’s Luke Perry, Twin Peaks’ Mädchen Amick and Scream’s Skeet Ulrich all play parents of Riverdale teens. Even quintessential teen queen Molly Ringwald is set to guest-star in later episodes.
But references are not enough to build a compelling narrative, and the show’s central mysteries become less intriguing over the course of the four episodes available for review. Seeing previously squeaky-clean comic-book characters in compromising situations is a bit thrilling at first, but those thrills quickly wear out.