The Archie comics are as American as cherry pie, girls named Elly-May and high school pep rallies.
They are painted in primary colours and have superficially bland storylines about teenage love and high school campus shenanigans. This is America at its most deeply fantasist; all-smiling, all-dimpled and too good to be true.
Translated to television, Riverdale (Netflix, on demand) is that world but reflected in a mirror, darkly. This is the all-American world of Archie and high school pals, but turned into a sort of post-Buffy teen horror lite, with the framework of Twin Peaks dropped around it to give it an anchor in relatable pop culture.
Previous iterations of the Archie comics on television have mostly been cartoons because, to be fair, that’s probably all the weight the material had. Think back to The Archie Show and Josie and the Pussycats.
Riverdale is far more ambitious. The jury is still out on whether it works. On viewing the first episodes, it does, but only just. A second season has been ordered which should to give it time to find its feet.
The original Archie was something of a sanitised stepchild of the nothing-is-as-it-seems soap opera Peyton Place, with Archie, Betty and Veronica standing in for Peyton Place’s star-crossed teens Rodney, Alison and Betty.
In terms of subcutaneous melodrama, Riverdale’s writer Roberto Aguirre-Sacasa (of Glee fame) wastes no time letting blood, both of the metaphorical sort and the more literal kind.
The immediate cultural comparison is Twin Peaks, though Buffy the Vampire Slayer might be closer to the mark. When placed alongside those greats Riverdale does come up a bit short. Joss Whedon’s Buffyverse was confident and beautifully self-aware – a sort of joke with a serious riff that both charmed and stunned.
Riverdale, in contrast, takes itself too seriously. In knowingly aping Twin Peaks, it comes a decade or two too late, the recent exhumation of Twin Peaks notwithstanding. This kind of anti-Archie angst, underlined with black lipstick and sullen sideways glances, seems awfully 1990s at times.
The series opens predictably with a murder mystery, the special ingredient of choice for all TV makers these days. (“No, wait, it’s Knots Landing meets 90210 but … wait for it … it opens with a murder!”)
To ice this particularly uncomfortable cake, there’s Luke Perry, the former 90210 high school heartthrob, still playing two decades younger, this time as Archie’s dad.
In the role of Archie is Kiwi actor K.J. Apa, which cues the entry of the two girls vying for his attention: nicer than nicey nice Betty (Lili Reinhart) and the town’s new mean girl Veronica (Camila Mendes). On the sidelines all those familiar names: Jughead (Cole Sprouse), Ethel Muggs (Shannon Purser) and even Josie (Ashleigh Murray) of Josie and the Pussycats fame.
In the last of those the show’s salvation might be found. The neat riffs into the expanded universe of the Archie comics (Josie and the Pussycats in Outer Space, anyone?) should mix the recipe nicely.