The CW’s new high school drama Riverdale should be sponsored by Red Bull, because chugging a six-pack may be the only way to keep up with it.
That’s not a complaint. Riverdale, which premieres Thursday at 9 p.m. ET, absolutely keeps the conversation lively.
The series is set in the bucolic town of Riverdale, just like the venerable Archie Comics on which it is nominally based. But where the comic books started as a playful chronicle of soda-shop teen life, Riverdale quickly takes a sharp turn to the dark side.
Before the title can flash on the screen, it’s clear this show has about as much connection to the old Archie Comics as the iPhone 7 has to a wire stretched between two tin cans.
Instead of being a haven for golly-gee Americana, this Riverdale turns out to be a cauldron of jealousy, backstabbing and deception.
So it’s no surprise that also describes Riverdale High School, where the town’s next generation is being shaped and much of the show transpires.
The first episode kicks off with a mysterious disappearance we know was really a murder. So it’s got that Twin Peaks/The Killing/Broadchurch element, which is soon compounded by unsettling high school drama, corrupt politics, shady corporate dealing, false identities and, well, you get the idea.
Call it high-octane soap.
Good thing they all have Instagram or even the characters wouldn’t be able to keep up.
Most of the comics cast is here at least in name, including Archie (K.J. Apa), Betty (Lili Reinhart), Veronica (Camila Mendes), Jughead (Cole Sprouse) and others. The school’s resident band is Josie (Ashleigh Murray) and the Pussycats. They still gather at Pop’s Chock’Lit Shop, just like in the 1950s.
After that, most of what you knew about the old gang is as dated as a 1957 Chevy Bel Air.
Archie, an aspiring singer-songwriter, is having a dangerous affair. Betty, who is hopelessly in love with Archie even though he only considers her a good friend, runs the muckraking school newspaper.
Veronica is still rich and spoiled, but now she’s the new kid in town, exiled here because of a family scandal. Jughead is the narrator who seems to know almost everything, sort of a resident blogger in the spirit of Jenna from Awkward.
And you would never ever recognize Miss Grundy (Sarah Habel), whose character seems to have been flown in from Pluto.
Riverdale also plunges into issues that weren’t even acknowledged in the early days of the comic, from sexual identity to gender harassment to parental estrangement.
Parents, not a big factor in the comics, become more prominent here. While some are well-intended like Archie’s father Fred (Luke Perry), others like Betty’s mother Alice (Madchen Alick) have moments when they’re almost cartoonishly psycho.
In other words, parents are portrayed as teenagers see them, which on balance probably helps the show even if it’s not always flattering.
One of the major characters, Cheryl Blossom (Madelaine Petsch), was a latecomer to the comic book series, not arriving until 1982. In her entrance here, she and her brother Jason could have stepped out of The Vampire Diaries.
The first episode quickly lays several solid stories on us and in subsequent episodes they keep expanding and bending back around on themselves like pretzels.
In fact, the stories mutate so fast that at times Riverdale almost borders on soap parody. It’s as dense a show as you’ll find anywhere on television, and at some point time may render it impossible for the complexities to keep multiplying.
Up front, though, the writers keep the strands distinct enough that viewers can absorb them.
They also very wisely give every character some good and some bad. Almost no one is just the lovestruck romantic, the nerd, the princess, the self-absorbed jock or the mean girl.
So when critical junctures pop up, which is about every five seconds, we often aren’t sure which way a given character will go – or why.
It’s a little disorienting. It’s good television.
Full of fast-paced banter and pop culture lines, Riverdale starts this road trip as a fine ride.