Broody teens, dark secrets, melodramatic school dances, supernaturally hot people breaking each other’s hearts for as far as the eye can see: This is the teen soap way. And no show on the air right now knows that better than The CW’s Riverdale.
The new teen drama — which you may have heard discussed in recent weeks as “that sexy Archie Comics show” — is a 2017 update of the Archie comic books that prizes nefarious murder mysteries and washboard abs over wholesome stories about football games and battles of the bands.
Archie Andrews, Betty Cooper, Veronica Lodge, and Jughead Jones are all present and accounted for, but Riverdale is a twisted tale of small-town deceit and sexual tension lurking around every corner — a far cry, in other words, from its source material’s Technicolor optimism.
The show — from Big Love’s Roberto Aguirre-Sacasa (who’s also written some Archie comics in recent years) and TV’s foremost DC Comics show producer Greg Berlanti — is definitely over the top. And it’s certainly a bit jarring in the way it presents its new take on Riverdale, which includes having a character gawk that “Archie got hot!” (especially since that statement is true). But it also skillfully embraces both the absurdity of its premise and the inherent drama of the soap opera genre, and the result is just self-aware enough to be truly juicy.
Riverdale knows exactly what it wants to be; why else would it cast Luke Perry as Archie’s dad? And what it wants to be is basically suburban Gossip Girl divided by Sweet Valley High raised to the power of Twin Peaks. It’s dark, it’s weird, and, most importantly, it’s entertaining as hell.
So how did Riverdale become the melodramatic treat of my post-adolescent dreams? Simple: It followed the teen soap genre’s five most basic rules.
Teen Soap Rule #1: Layer every interaction with sexy intrigue
Teen entertainment has changed quite a bit in the 75 years since Archie Comics’ grinning high school heroes debuted in the 1940s. Today’s fictional teens tend to be the kind of fast-living, gossip-trading, hard-drinking delinquents that after-school specials are made of.
Riverdale goes one step further than that — and, it must be said, follows in the footsteps of its only current rival in this genre, Freeform’s Pretty Little Liars — by opening with an honest-to-goodness murder.
As directed by Lee Toland Krieger (Age of Adaline), the pilot opens with a dreamy, disturbing, and even gorgeous sequence that ends in disaster. Cheryl Blossom (Madelaine Petsch) and her twin brother Jason (Trevor Stines) head out to the river for an early morning boat ride, but the next time we see Cheryl, she’s sobbing that her brother disappeared into the murky waters.
We don’t know how or why; it’s all part of the larger mystery. But by the end of the first episode, his bloated body has made its way back to shore ... with a bullet hole in his head.
With this kind of start, Riverdale makes it clear from the jump that it’s veering away from what fans of the original Archie comics might be expecting from an adaptation, and adding plenty of danger and darkness. Sure, Archie (K.J. Apa) still gets stuck in a love triangle with blond Betty (Lili Reinhart) and brunette Veronica (Camila Mendes) and hangs out with his best friend Jughead (Cole Sprouse). Riverdale High even plays host to Archie Comics characters Josie and the Pussycats, who perform at a pep rally with “Sugar, Sugar” (which, okay, was technically sung by Archie’s band “The Archies” on the 1960’s Archie TV show, but give Riverdale a break).
But Riverdale has a wicked streak. Secrets lurk in its shadows, and the Riverdale fog perpetually cloaks the school, the malt shoppe, and the football field in mist. Trust is a rare commodity, and when people aren’t eyeing each other as possible murder suspects, they’re trying to resist tearing off each other’s clothes.
It’s just too bad that the incredibly bland Archie is the center of it all — but that, too, comes straight from the teen soap playbook.
Teen Soap Rule #2: Pretend the star of the show is a mopey high school boy
There is a grand tradition of teen entertainment prominently featuring the kind of teen boys you might’ve once mooned over in homeroom, but who quickly reveal themselves to have maybe four original thoughts bouncing around behind their tousled hair and perpetually furrowed brows.
Riverdale’s Archie Andrews is a hybrid of Dawson Leery (he of Dawson’s Creek) and Zac Efron’s earnest basketball player in the High School Musical trilogy, with a dash of the inexplicable sexual magnetism Gossip Girl tried to bestow upon Nate Archibald. As played by Apa, Archie just wants to grab malts with his friends, play football, and have people taken him seriously as a musician. (Though Archie’s version of being a musician mostly amounts to him plucking away at an acoustic guitar and singing about his feelings, insufferable college dorm style.)
And as is tradition for both teen dramas and the comics that inspired this one, Archie is at the center of a constant love quadrangle — I’ll get to Riverdale’s surprise fourth party in a bit — despite rarely emoting above monotone confusion. There, we find one of the most important tenets of high school soaps.
Teen Soap Rule #3: Counteract the main dude’s blandness with far more interesting side characters (i.e., women)
For every Archie, Dawson, Nate, and Brandon Walsh on a teen soap, there are at least two or three far more dynamic female characters ready to absorb the spotlight. Riverdale is especially primed for such a takeover, given that the Archie comics are home to one of pop culture’s longest-running love triangles ever — not to mention that so many teen books, TV shows, and movies have modeled their female characters after Archie’s “good girl versus bad girl” archetypes of Betty and Veronica.
At their most basic level, Betty and Veronica are supposed to be each other’s mirror images. Betty is blond and perky, as wholesome and pure as shortbread. Veronica is brunette and smirky, a sharp and tantalizing thorn on a rosebush.
Riverdale doesn’t stray too far from these descriptions, but one of the smartest things the show does is let Betty and Veronica meet more in the middle. Reinhart’s Betty is earnest but determined to get what’s hers. Mendes’s Veronica — who’s new in town on Riverdale, and therefore a little more vulnerable than she might’ve been if she began the show as Riverdale High’s queen bee — is aggressive but brittle, prizing her new friendship with Betty over her attraction to Archie.
And because they’re CW characters, both Betty and Veronica are constantly juggling their relationships with each other, Archie, and their fractured families. Their on-and-off rivalry could get old, but if Riverdale’s first episodes are any indication, Reinhart and Mendes are up for the challenge of breaking their characters’ stereotypes.
As for their elders? They’re a bit more cookie-cutter. But for this genre, that’s about par for the course.
Teen Soap Rule #4: Make sure the adults are just as hot and messed up as the teens
For some reason, teen dramas like to remind us of the people from whence the main characters came, even if they don’t have a whole lot to do with anything else on the show. Accordingly, the Riverdale parents — all buffed and polished to match their children’s beauty — have some vague plots of their own.
The worst of the scenes between Riverdale’s teens and adults are between Perry and and Apa as father and son, who squint as best they can but can’t find a spark in the storyline that is Archie trying to balance wanting to play the guitar and having to work for his dad’s construction business. The best are between Betty and her terrifying mother Alice, mostly because Alice is played by Mädchen Amick (Twin Peaks), who knows the value of a perfectly cocked eyebrow.
Meanwhile, the most cringe-inducing scenes belong squarely to Archie and his teacher Miss Grundy (Sarah Habel) — who, yes, is far sexier in The CW’s version of Riverdale than she ever was in the comics. And as you may have already guessed, she and Archie are hooking up.
The student-teacher liaison is one of teen drama’s worst tropes. It’s also an unfortunately persistent one, having appeared on shows from Dawson’s Creek to Pretty Little Liars and many in between. Rarely do student-teacher storylines address the fact that the relationships are illegal and emotionally scarring for the students involved; they’re just portrayed as sexy little secrets. As for Riverdale, well, without spoiling anything — and to the show’s credit — there are hints in a later episode that the show might realize that Archie and Miss Grundy’s secret hookups aren’t entirely scintillating, because they’re actual crimes.
But Riverdale still would’ve been better leaving this particular cliché behind and focusing on the teens themselves, because man, they are fun.
Which brings us to a final tenet of creating a solid teen soap.
Teen Soap Rule #5: If you can’t make your teens sound like actual teens, pack in the pop culture references
Unless we’re talking about Skins, the people writing teen dramas are never actual teens. So getting their characters to sound like the actual, for-real Youth can be tricky, to say the least.
In its first few episodes, Riverdale isn’t exactly a savant at cracking the code of today’s Snapchatting teens. (Teens still Snapchat, right?) But when the show steps away from Archie and Jughead’s mood swings, the dialogue crackles with biting wit that’s often rooted in pop culture references. Cheryl in particular blossoms as a villain to fear, in large part thanks to her caustic turns of phrase. At one point, Betty’s friend Kevin — once specifically labeled her “gay best friend,” to acknowledge the cliché while nodding to the comics’ 2010 introduction of Kevin Keller as its first openly gay character — reveals that Cheryl once called Betty “season five Betty Draper,” which is such a specifically mean reference that I gasped.
Or take Veronica’s grand Riverdale entrance, in which she walks into the malt shoppe in glorious slow motion, sweeps off her equally glorious black cloak, and declares to a gobsmacked Archie and Betty that the town is “so In Cold Blood” but she thinks of herself as more of a “Breakfast at Tiffany’s type.”
Is this even remotely how teens speak? Nah. But it does tell you exactly who Veronica is — and exactly the kind of show Riverdale wants to be. Its characters are smart and sometimes mean, hot and worldly, convinced they’re bigger and more important than their small town. Riverdale digs into these illusions of grandeur with such relish that even when the plot becomes hard to believe, it’s still impossible to resist.
Riverdale premieres January 26 at 9 pm EST on The CW.