March 9, 2017

Riverdale: "Chapter Six: Faster, Pussycats! Kill! Kill!"

It took me half a dozen episodes to realize I was completely hooked on Riverdale. Apparently, that's how many episodes it took a lot of people, because this week the series was officially renewed for a second season.

Jughead and Betty
Jughead and Betty are on the case.
This mid-season addition to the CW's lineup could have gone either way. It's got a relatively unknown cast who are, in the words of a friend of mine "really attractive, even by CW standards." They are also more than their pretty faces. Early press claimed the Archie Comics adaptation would be a dark Twin Peaks for the younger set. So far, the only resemblance to the Lynch creation is Mädchen Amick, who plays Betty's mother, and was a waitress at the Double R Diner. No, if anything, Riverdale is reminiscent of a show that originally aired on the network's predecessor, UPN. In "Chapter Six: Faster, Pussycats! Kill! Kill!" we find Betty Cooper acting like Veronica - Veronica Mars, that is.

This comparison to the teen noir detective show Veronica Mars is apt because, like that series, Riverdale hinges on the murder of a high school student in a small town. (To be fair, so does Twin Peaks, but Riverdale lacks that show's absurdist elements.) The comics' Archie-Betty-Veronica love triangle rightfully gets put on the shelf in the series' first few episodes. Instead, the town and its teens are focused on solving the crime and regaining the innocence they lost. In "Faster, Pussycats," Betty (Lili Reinhart) is working for the Riverdale High School newspaper, and has begun to look for answers, not only to the question "Who Killed Jason Blossom?" but to the question of what happened to Betty's sister Polly. Polly had planned to run away with Jason on the day he was killed. In this episode, we learn that Polly is pregnant! I shouldn't have been surprised, but, like Betty, I was misdirected by Mr. and Mrs. Cooper's assurances that Polly was, well, crazy.  Betty tracks down her sister at a "home for troubled youth" and, following Polly's tip, finds a hidden getaway car. The pace of this part of the story is steady. The colors are muted. The sky is gray. There's fog in the air. Everything indicates mystery. A dark, rainy trip in the woods is enhanced by the minor chords of the Pussycats' variety show performance.

Betty has a partner in all this sleuthing. At the end of "Chapter Four: The Last Picture Show," when it was revealed that the show's narrator, Jughead Jones (Cole Sprouse), lives an essentially homeless life, I realized Archie's best pal was going to be the most interesting character in the series. His somewhat anti-canonical yet completely natural romance with Betty Cooper, sealed with a kiss in the sixth episode, also sealed his place as a lead. (And if the episode 7 promos are to be believed, his story is just beginning.) Though he began as a child actor, Sprouse's abilities shouldn't be underestimated. He fills the pauses as deftly as he delivers the lines.

Archie auditions for the variety show
Archie just wants to play his music, Dad.
Riverdale knows its audience and its network, employing well-worn teen drama tropes. As a high school student newspaper reporter, Betty sleuths out real life crime, reminiscent not only of Veronica Mars, but also of the early seasons of Smallville. Archie Andrews (K.J. Apa), on the other hand, is the typical angsty teenage boy who can't decide between writing guitar ballads and playing on the football team. Unfortunately, this trope is applied less convincingly, and all I can do is roll my eyes at the red-headed leading man. That said, Apa does have a lovely tenor voice. Earlier in the season, Archie's story was headed in a different direction. He was revealed to be intimately involved with his music teacher. At this point I must note that teacher/student relationships are real life crimes and tragedies that are too often, unfortunately, romanticized on the small screen. [See also: Dawson's Creek.]

Meanwhile, the teens' parents are dramatically interconnected. High school drama seems to have followed them into adulthood. Thus, we find Veronica Lodge (Camila Mendes) devastated at the prospect of her mother cheating on her father with Fred Andrews. As Alice Cooper, Mädchen Amick masterfully depicts the madness of a mother bent on justice, or maybe just revenge. Then there's another whole plot with Josie's demanding father and politically corrupt mother. So is one of these crazy parents to blame for Jason's death? Betty certainly thinks so, and confronts her father with that accusation. But is it all a red herring? In Veronica Mars, it turned out that a parent was the villain. In Riverdale, I'm not so sure. I suspect the music teacher may come back to town just when we've almost forgotten her. I don't know! And it's precisely because the show keeps me guessing that I keep coming back to watch what happens next. And now, I'll get to see what happens all the way through Season 2.

Riverdale airs Thursday nights at 9 PM on The CW.