'Riverdale' combines a number of influences to become its own, unique animal

Photo: Katie Yu/The CW © 2016 The CW Network. All Rights Reserved.
Starring in Riverdale are (from left) KJ Apa as Archie, Camila Mendes as Veronica, Cole Sprouse as Jughead and Lili Reinhart as Betty.

By Andrew A. Smith

Tribune Content Agency

The much-ballyhooed Riverdale has arrived – the premiere was Jan. 26 – and delivered what was expected. But it threw in a lot of the unexpected, too.

Everything the show’s creators promised in interviews and descriptions of the show was right there on the screen. Riverdale wears its DNA on its sleeve.

The David Lynch connection: The producers said Twin Peaks was an inspiration, and “Teenager’s mysterious death cracks open small town’s secrets” could be a description of both shows. The current show’s opening credits shows a “Welcome to Riverdale” sign, which feels like a wink at the earlier show, which included a “Twin Peaks, population 51,201” sign in the opening credits. Actress Mädchen Amick, the waitress at the Double R Diner in Twin Peaks, has a prominent role in Riverdale.

The Planet CW connection: Everyone’s beautiful. All the women have the same impossibly perfect hair. Conflicted teens gaze into the middle distance. Yep, this is Planet CW. And there’s more: Archie’s illicit affair with a teacher recalls Pretty Little Liars. Veronica’s slo-mo arrival mirrors Jen Lindley’s debut on Dawson’s Creek. Mean girl Cheryl Blossom (Madelaine Petsch) would be at home on Gossip Girls.

The Keanu Reeves connection: Teens and a dead body? That hearkens back to The River’s Edge, and Riverdale doesn’t try to deny the inspiration: The first episode is titled “The River’s Edge.”

The comics connection: Certainly the bulk of the show comes right out of Archie Comics. Most of the gang (with a few major exceptions, like Chuck Clayton and Midge Klump) have appeared already or are on the way. While Pop’s Choklit Shoppe seems to be based on The Brew on Pretty Little Liars or the Double R Diner on Twin Peaks, that’s getting it backwards – Pop’s has been the central gathering place for teens in Riverdale since 1944! And the famous romantic triangle of Archie, Betty and Veronica makes an appearance (although not in the way we expect). Riverdale’s welcome sign reads “The town with PEP” – a reference to Archie’s first appearance in Pep Comics #22, in 1941.

Yes, there was actually a comic book called Pep in the long-ago time. Deal with it.

Anyway, the show doesn’t limit itself to being a clone of other shows, a comics homage or even an amalgam of influences. The first episode takes those bits and pieces and creates its own animal. The influences are there, but the use isn’t always the same. To wit:

Bad Geometry: We normally think of the Archie Romantic Triangle as “Betty and Veronica both love Archie, and Archie can’t decide between them.” That’s not the case in Riverdale. Nor is it the current situation in Archie Comics, where Archie and Betty were once a couple and have broken up, and Archie is now dating Veronica, and Betty is dating a new character, but both members of the original couple are having second thoughts.

 
Photo: Diyah Pera/The CW © 2016 The CW Network. All Rights Reserved.

Archie (KJ Apa, left) takes Betty (Lili Reinhart) and Veronica (not pictured) to the dance, but it’s not a mistake this time.

No, what’s on Riverdale is more like the early days of Archie Comics, where Betty pined for Archie, Archie only had eyes for Veronica, and the latter was too self-absorbed to care what anyone else wanted. That’s not exactly the case this time – instead, Betty (Lili Reinhart) wants Archie (KJ Apa), and Veronica (Camila Mendes) is helping her land her man. (Although Veronica is also interested. “I’ve tried every flavor of boy but orange.”)

But it’s not working out very well. Possibly because, as Archie tells Betty, “You are so perfect. I've never been good enough for you. I'll never be good enough for you.” Or maybe it’s because as he tells Veronica, “We’re best friends. … I have never felt whatever it is I'm supposed to feel with Betty.” Or possibly because it’s looking like Betty and Veronica will be such good friends that fighting over a boy is out of the question. But most likely it’s because Archie is really pining for Miss Grundy (Sarah Habel), the hot music teacher, with whom he had a short-lived affair. That adds a fourth side to our triangle, which is now a Romantic Quadrangle. Speaking of which:

She’s Been Working Out: Geraldine Grundy a hottie? Yes, that’s her name in the comics, too, which was almost certainly selected back in the day to make her sound like the cranky old fuddy-duddy she was. But the Geraldine on  Riverdale is twentysomething and “unusually attractive,” to use Tony Stark’s words about Spider-Man’s Aunt May in Captain America: Civil War – another comics geriatric de-aged for the screen.

Is Archie swiping from Marvel? Naw. More likely, it’s a narrative decision to make Grundy more interesting and less clichéd. After all, the “old maid” stereotype is misogynist, insulting and meaningless to today’s younger audiences. Goodbye and good riddance.

The Double Date Conundrum: One of the standing bits in Archie Comics in times past was for our favorite ginger to accidentally make dates with both Betty and Veronica – and instead of doing the grown-up thing and breaking the date with one of them, he tries to entertain them both without them becoming aware of each other. Slapstick antics ensue. And, naturally, this idiotic gambit always fails, usually leaving Archie with two black eyes (one from each girl).

In Riverdale, Archie does indeed make a date with both Betty and Veronica for the “Back-to-School semiformal dance.” But in this case, it’s the girls’ idea – neither wants to hurt the other – and it’s a “we’re all just friends” exercise. The arrangement was hinted at earlier when Veronica tells Cheryl, “Betty and I come as a matching set. You want one, you take us both.” This is probably not what she meant, but I doubt Archie is complaining.

No Miss for Moose: The absence of Midge – Big Moose’s longtime girlfriend – becomes explained in the first episode, where we find out that the football team’s big hitter Marmaduke “Moose” Mason (Cody Kearsley) is in the closet. Well, sorta, as he and openly gay Kevin Keller (Casey Cott) seem to find each other. Welcome to the 21st century.

Make Room for Daddy: Unlike the comics, where the adults used to be one-note comic foils (or just there to set up the story), the Riverdale parents are important elements in the teens’ lives. More importantly, they have independent stories of their own. For example, it turns out that both Archie’s father Fred (Luke Perry) and Betty’s mother Alice (Mädchen Amick) knew Lodge matriarch Hermione (Marisol Nichols) in high school – and it didn’t end well. When Archie’s mom Mary (Molly Ringwald) makes her entrance, we’ll undoubtedly learn more.

 
Photo: Katie Yu/The CW © 2016 The CW Network. All Rights Reserved.

Hermione Lodge (Marisol Nichols, left) and daughter Veronica (Camila Mendes) have returned to Riverdale under a cloud of suspicion after the arrest of family patriarch Hiram Lodge (not pictured) in New York.

Riverdale isn’t perfect. One problem is the constant flow of pop culture references that seem too old for the cast (Truman Capote, Mad Men, Blue Jasmine) or will send older viewers scurrying to Google (Ansel Elgort). Jughead narrates, but is apparently reading from his novel, which means what he’s saying is unreliable.

But the first episode was good enough to get an 88 percent from critics on Rotten Tomatoes, and an 84 percent from viewers. There clearly has been a lot of thought put into show to make the old Archie tropes work for today’s audiences. Whatever its provenance, it may walk into the dance with comics readers on one arm, and CW viewers on the other.

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