A Town With Pep: Riverdale Recap — Pilot

There’s been a terrible accident in the town of Riverdale. The twins Cheryl and Jason Blossom were out for a leisurely boat ride on the Fourth of July, when suddenly the boat capsized and Jason was lost to the river.

So begins the pilot of Riverdale, the CW’s adaptation of the Archie comics. As our faithful narrator, Jughead Jones, informs the audience, there’s more to Jason’s death than a simple boating mishap.

The pilot of any show is a juggling act. It has to hook the viewer immediately while also giving them enough of a reason to keep watching. It has to establish relationships while leaving room for them to grow and change. The plot has to be clear, but not so clear that the viewer thinks they’ve seen this sort of show before. However, it also can’t be so obtuse that the viewer doesn’t know what they’re watching, or why they’re bothering. Adaptations are even trickier. They have to balance pleasing hardcore fans without losing the casual viewer who tuned in without much, or any, prior knowledge.

As an adaptation, Riverdale is a departure from any of the CW’s “Arrowverse” shows. There’s no Reverse Flash, no Deathstroke looming over the entire season. It doesn’t derive its story from any one arc from the comics. Instead, it’s more in the vein of FX’s Legion, using the source material — characters, setting, history — to tell its own story, one of murder and over-the-top coming of age drama. Think Twin Peaks mixed with DeGrassi. (Another parallel could be drawn between Riverdale and Preacher, although the first season of Preacher is an abject lesson in what happens when a show deviates too far from its source material in trying to please both devoted fans and newcomers.)

Riverdale’s pilot succeeds for the most part with its juggling attempts. We’re introduced to three of the main characters, Archie, Veronica and Betty in short order. We learn that Veronica is the new, formerly-rich girl in town, Betty is the perfect girl next door in love with Archie, and Archie wants to be a musician (he also now has abs).

Of course, there is more to these characters than the first few minutes reveal. The showrunners do an admirable job of giving depth to what could easily be flat, by-the-numbers characters. Betty is coming into her rebellious phase, asserting her independence from her parents — especially her mother, who is the worst version of every high school gossip monger mom — and learning what it means to be her own person. She spends much of the series being a better reporter and investigator than her parents, who own the Riverdale register. The pilot is where we see her rebellion begin, thanks perhaps to her friendship with Veronica.

Veronica, meanwhile, presents her own complexities. Rather than finding her own identity, she’s trying to create a new one. Her parent’s financial ruin has seemingly woken her up to the “ice queen” she used to be, and she sincerely wants to change her ways. It would have been easy to just portray Veronica as fully transformed from the start, with a little explanation of how horrible she used to be, but that would have been a disservice to her character. Incremental change is difficult enough. Becoming a whole other, better, person is not an overnight process. Small facets of who we used to be will always try to seep in, to bring us back to our old selves. The new Veronica wouldn’t have kissed Archie when Cheryl forced them into the closet during the dance’s after party. But, as she says to Betty afterwards, the old Veronica won out.

Veronica is wrong on one point, though. During another round of apologizing to Betty, Veronica says the kiss wasn’t Archie’s fault, but hers alone. Which is bullshit. Archie was not tied down, helpless against Veronica’s advances. He kissed her just as much as she kissed him — he hurt Betty just as much as Veronica did.

In fact, of all the main characters, Archie’s the one most devoid of any complexity. His most defining characteristic is that he’s a bad friend. He hurts Betty, either inadvertently by lying to her (also, how does Betty not see Archie’s five-second, forlorn look at Ms. Grundy during her Define The Relationship talk at the dance), or directly by, again, kissing Veronica. He lies to Jughead at the start of the summer and, as we later learn, just flat out ignores him after, despite their years of friendship, if not brotherhood. It should be said that Archie is not alone in this. One of the overarching themes of Riverdale is that EVERYONE is a terrible friend to Jughead.

The Jughead/Archie relationship is one of the rare faltering points of the pilot. We’re unclear of their relationship, and it’s unclear if the showrunners are relying on the audience’s prior knowledge that the two are, or at least were, best friends. This aside, relationships are one of the strongest points of the pilot, and of the show overall — their fragility, flexibility, strength or room to grow. And all of these relationships will be tested over the course of the season, as the town reels from the revelation that Jason Blossom didn’t die in from drowning, but from a bullet to the head. Yet the question that comes from this discovery, the question that will test the relationships isn’t whodunit? It’s, what’s next?

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Jordan White

Writer/Editor for hire. Previously: Senior Editor at the Players’ Tribune. Bylines: VICE Sports, Uproxx, ESPN.