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Is “Riverdale” Worth the Watch?

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If you’re expecting a bland, by-the-books re-creation of the storied “Archie” comic franchise with the release of The CW’s “Riverdale,” you’re going to be very much surprised at how show creator Roberto Aguirre-Sacasa (of “Glee” fame) has completely modernized the look, feeling and atmosphere of the old, time-worn comic (which dates all the way back to 1941). So is “Riverdale” worth the watch?

The show still has all the old characters who have instant name recognition – like Archie Andrews (played by K.J. Apa), Betty Cooper (played by Lili Reinhart) and Veronica Lodge (played by Camila Mendes). But somehow, they’re all different. Archie, for example, is not a redhead with a beat-up jalopy and hardly any money for a weekend date with a girl. He’s now a muscled kid with six-pack abs. People still occasionally refer to him as “Lil Archie,” as they do in the old comics, but he’s not the old Archie you might remember.

Remember Jughead (played by Cole Sprouse)? Now he’s an emo hipster. He’s a melancholy writer working on his next book that may or may not turn out the way he’s planned. Or how about Cheryl Blossom (played by Madelaine Petsch)? She’s now a wealthy queen bee and a troublemaker at the high school. Or how about Veronica? She’s now the daughter of a disgraced New York City businessman who’s new to Riverdale and presumably there to shake things up.

And something very strange has happened to the whole town of Riverdale. It was always an iconic small town with strong American values. But now everything seems a bit dark and twisted. There’s a murder mystery that people are trying to solve. The adults all seem somehow compromised or corrupt. And all the people in the town shown in the series seem to be united by dark, tragic secrets that everybody is afraid to mention.

And the characters themselves act, well, in ways that you really wouldn’t expect. They’re always dropping knowing pop culture references, or acting just a little too cool for school. For example, there’s a scene where two of the female characters want to impress the “queen bee” – the high school cheerleading captain Cheryl Blossom. So they pull off a lesbian kiss in front of her, much as we’ve seen celebrities do (Madonna and Britney!), purely for shock value. But that doesn’t shock Cheryl, who dismisses the whole act as a stunt that hasn’t been cool for a while.

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So, for viewers, this presents a very interesting conundrum: What exactly are we supposed to make of this series? If you were expecting “Riverdale” to be just a paint-by-numbers re-creation of the original comic, this is something very disappointing. It might not be worth the watch. It would be like revisiting the beloved Winnie the Pooh cartoon and finding out that the show featured a hipster bear who had a fondness for cannabis instead of honey. Like, that would be too weird for most people, and they wouldn’t watch.

But, think of this show from a millennial perspective. After all, this IS a teen drama/mystery. Young millennials grew up watching shows that pushed the boundaries of TV, and that’s exactly what “Riverdale” delivers. It’s meant to be a bit edgy.

Some reviewers have compared “Riverdale” to “Gossip Girl” and “Pretty Little Liars.” Others have called it a strange mash-up of “Dawson’s Creek” and “Twin Peaks.” Both analogies are not far off the mark. And that’s what makes the show so watchable.

Certainly, fans agree. Right now, “Riverdale” has a rating of 8/10.0 on IMDB and an 86% score on Rotten Tomatoes. Clearly, people who have watched the show (it premiered on January 26) love it.

And there are several good reasons why it’s so watchable…

The first is that “Riverdale” is just such riveting television. Consider the main plotline, which involves the mysterious and tragic death of Jason Blossom (the twin brother of queen bee Cheryl). That murder mystery establishes the pacing and narrative arc of the entire series. Instead of being a random series of events that happen each episode, as might be the case in many sitcoms, we’re instead treated to an expanding and almost impenetrable storyline.

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If the original comic was largely defined by the romantic dalliances linking Archie, Betty and Veronica, this new show is defined by the murder mystery. It takes a little while for the whole murder plot to get moving, but by the fourth episode, it’s clearly the major story.

And it’s combined in a way with a whole multigenerational conspiracy that makes it such compelling TV. In some ways, it’s these older adults who make the show so much fun. They are adults who are behaving badly. Either they are teachers engaging in inappropriate behavior with their students, or they are parents seemingly hiding a dark and tragic secret from their kids. This is hardly wholesome 1950s America.

Second, you’ll really grow to appreciate the characters and how they are delineated in the series. At first, of course, you’ll pine for the Archie Andrews and Betty Cooper of your memory, but you’ll soon realize that these characters are just way better. It does feel very “Gossip Girl” at times – like when Veronica and Ethel investigate a “shame book” that the high school’s football players are using to humiliate some of the girls at the school.

Third, you’ll love the whole “Twin Peaks” nature of this show. This really is the story of a small American town rotting from the inside. It’s dark, and it’s weird, and it keeps you wondering what’s really happening in this small town. It lends the show a very unique visual style that’s compelling. It’s so much darker than the comic, but it comes off as being very fresh and experimental.

It’s for good reason, then, that one prominent reviewer called this a “crazy… dare of a TV show.” That’s right – “Riverdale” basically dares you to watch it. It’s not trying to depict the wholesome America of the 1950s anymore. There’s lying, deception, murder, and even hints of scandalous sexual activity. It’s meant to be shocking and it’s meant to challenge your view of what TV can be. Coming from The CW, it’s probably a good hint of what’s coming next in the whole genre of teen drama and mystery. So, yes, “Riverdale” is definitely worth the watch.

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