Riverdale Season 1

Teen Peaks! This is a strangely absorbing series even if it often strays into very familiar territory. The drive takes the first season through a series of curveballs and false starts while refining characters in a believable way contradictions and all. You’re never quite sure of the intent. There are times when it skews so close to cliché that you wonder if its all an elaborate spoof. Other times the turn of the plot results in something dramatic, exciting or delightfully barmy! Plus it has an all night diner- who doesn't love an all night diner! One thing is certain- it will keep you watching.

It is interesting the way so many dramas like to peel back a seemingly serene community to show a sinister underbelly and Riverdale certainly manages to achieve that. The titular location is, we’re shown in one of the first scenes, “a town with pep” and also a town seemingly time locked. While supposedly present day the show’s nomenclature, cultural make up, traditions and locations are located partly in a timeless Fifties idyll with a dash of Eighties nostalgia thrown in (Molly Ringwald’s even in it!). It makes for a tense setting especially as early episodes often cut away to bleak landscapes. As the pace quickens there’s no time for that in later episodes.

The disappearance and subsequent murder of high school favourite Jason Blossom is, Riverdale’s Laura Palmer scenario. Though he is already deceased when the series starts and has no dialogue his recurring appearance in flashbacks and images means his absence is a permanent presence that affects each of the principal characters in some way. That Jason comes from the area’s richest and most influential family adds to the drama. At first each of the main characters seem drawn from a standard pool of stereotypes, something obvious enough for them to even reference it themselves. Yet as matters unfurl- and they do so with speed- additional layers are unpeeled resulting in the sort of decisions that some observers might find confusing. Yet people can often be contrary in real life so why do fictional characters have to be bound by `continuity`?

Of course part of the reason why they fill the expected roles is that they are based on characters from the old comic Archie. Founded as far back as 1938 these character names and basic backgrounds date back decades though have been partially updated even if you’ve never seen contemporary teenagers use less tech than this lot do. The Archie stories  evolved through multiple iterations including the involvement of superheroes and a spell battling zombies and even inspired a pop group (The Archies of `Sugar Sugar` fame).  They have already spun off into other tv series notably Josie and the Pussycats (also a great film.) and Sabrina the Teenage Witch
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Riverdale however steers clear of any fantasy, horror or sci-fi trappings setting its tone firmly in a heightened reality created by neo noir stylings. Jason’s demise and the story behind it is like a virus that slowly infects almost everyone; digging up secrets by the score. Plots lead off plots as the police investigation is left in the background. The scenario brings to the surface all sorts of bubbling issues between characters whether acrimonious or amorous and the pacy plotting means nothing is allowed to sit untroubled for too long. It also exposes the history of the place and its rotten core.

The series seems to find a way to balance the origins of the franchise with the modern day while doing its best- and largely succeeding- to become a programme untethered by any particular time however much certain decades seem to prevail. Even the most contemporary actions- such as when photos posted on Twitter cause a stir- could easily have been done in the old days by the staple of 80s high school dramas- putting lots of photocopied posters up.

It’s certainly a series with parental issues with all of the adults being somewhere between cagey and unhinged. I do feel the writers occasionally use this as a means to bludgeon the teenagers a little too much but it does add a coating of melodrama. Madchen Amick especially, a Twin Peaks alumni of course, seems quite bananas at times! As for the Blossoms, well their life in a large house brings to mind a bitter Addams Family. Fathers are generally seen in a more sympathetic light- hen pecked, doing their best, struggling to cope and acting to protect their kids even if its outside the law.
What is rewarding though is that the parents’ stories are explored and even if you can’t agree with their behaviour you can see why they are as they are. In fact they are so colourful that some of the kids seem a little bland by comparison. In particular I don’t get Archie at all; initially presented as the all American high school good guy he seems to be slotted into various relationships and plots at will without much direction. 

All of the cast are great and largely due to the material some of them get the opportunity to really go for it. Lili Reinhart is tremendous as Betty Cooper whose preppy enthusiasm is tempered both by a sense of fair play and a dark streak (though I feel the latter aspect surfaces too early in the narrative). She and Camila Mendes’s new girl in town Veronica Lodge are undoubtedly the stars as their burgeoning friendship and investigative e prowess lead to many a good scene. Veronica’s arc is the most satisfying as she adjusts to her reduced status having clearly been something of a cruel Queen Bee back in New York and the performance is always spot on. Madelaine Petsch gets the most dramatic arc and pulls off some pretty bizarre behaviour as grieving and slightly unhinged Cheryl who is Jason’s twin.

Both Madchen Amick and Nathalie Boltt are tremendous as bitter matriachs plus there’s more understated but no less effective turns from Luke Perry as Archie’s Dad and Cole Sporuse as narrator, amateur sleuth and hilariously monickered Jughead Jones. (his unseen sister is called Jellybean!). I just can’t get used to that name especially when in more romantic scenes Betty whom he ends up dating calls him “Juggy”.

The season’s conclusion is as odd as its opening; with the killer already revealed in part 12 you wonder what is left to do but it turns out rather a lot of tying up is needed, rather too much in fact resulting in very abrupt cuts and short scenes. There’s also some setting up for season 2 the final scene of which, while dramatic and definitely sure to bring viewers back, feels too random a shock. We are told though its “anything but random”

Whether subsequent seasons (the second is already being shown) can sustain the mystery and intrigue without turning into a soap opera is debateable but these 13 episodes are packed with twists and turns and highly watchable sequences.

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