“Riverdale’s” (9 p.m. Eastern, Thursdays, The CW) broad strokes will be familiar to anyone who’s seen a high school drama TV series or movie before, but it has a few elements that might make it worth keeping it on your DVR schedule awhile. It’s loosely based on the current, mature run of the “Archie” comic book (and indeed, the show is helmed by the comic’s Roberto Aguirre-Sacasa), it looks visually different from any other current show, and it features a murder mystery.
“Riverdale” isn’t your grandparents’ “Archie,” or your parents’ “Archie,” and it’s not precisely the modern comic-book “Archie” either. That critically acclaimed “Volume 2” started in 2015 (in the wake of the end of “Volume 1,” which dated back to 1941), but as far as I can tell, it doesn’t include a murder mystery, which bookends and permeates the pilot episode. Jason Blossom, the twin brother of Cheryl (Madelaine Petsch), dies when he falls off a rowboat and drowns – or so claims Cheryl. But at episode’s end, Kevin (Casey Cott) and Moose (Cody Kearsley) find Jason’s corpse, which has finally washed ashore, and it has a bullet wound.
This would be a fairly straightforward case of “Oh, so the sister killed him,” except Cheryl has no motive, and we know it can’t be that simple anyway. The plot will no doubt thicken.
“Riverdale” is filmed in Vancouver, which always looks good on TV, but it’s spruced up by stylized production design. It’s unquestionably set in present day – references to Twitter and other modern pop culture and tech convince us of this, as does cheer captain Cheryl’s point that lesbian kisses haven’t been taboo since 1994.
On the other hand, it features a Sixties-style diner and Archie (K.J. Apa) and the other guys tend to wear letterman’s jackets as often as the female leads wear cheer outfits – plus, Archie plays football. Adding to the enjoyably exaggerated color palette are the three main girls: Red-haired Cheryl, blonde-haired Betty (Lili Reinhart) and dark-haired Veronica (Camila Mendes).
Almost everyone is a stereotype so far, but they are likable stereotypes with some zest, especially Mendes, who shines as the confident Veronica and is most likely to be a breakout star. The Archie-Betty-Veronica love triangle is unavoidably familiar, but at least there’s some sense to it: Archie loves Betty, but only as a best friend; and while Veronica digs Archie, she doesn’t want to hurt Betty, her first and best bud in this small town she has moved to from New York.
The character who most struck me as “been there, done that” is Kevin, Betty’s gay best friend who is a dead ringer for the guy in the same role in “The Carrie Diaries.” Jughead (Cole Sprouse) is narrating the events for the audience as he researches and writes a book about the Blossom murder. Josie (Ashleigh Murray) and the Pussycats, the school’s most popular band, are also around. While the young cast is largely unknown, the adult cast is laden with familiar faces, including Luke Perry (“Beverly Hills, 90210”) as Archie’s dad, Marisol Nichols (“Vegas Vacation,” “24” Day 6) as Veronica’s mom and Madchen Amick (“Twin Peaks,” “Gilmore Girls”) as Betty’s mom.
I suppose Archie – who at one point almost has a “Varsity Blues” “I don’t want your life” scene with his dad — is the main character, but after one episode, I’m not sure who to latch on to as the point-of-view character.
“Riverdale’s” pilot gets by more on a promise of what the show could be, rather than anything specific. On the surface, there isn’t much to the mystery so far. I like that the stylization isn’t taking it into winking or comedic territory; it’s playing it straight, but with some verve, sort of like “Gotham” does. It might do well to play the visuals and performances even bigger, but it should downplay the character and plot stereotypes, lest it get too much into “Gossip Girl” territory.
I recently rewatched a couple of old WB/CW murder mysteries – “Glory Days,” which was ill-conceived as an anthology, and “Hidden Palms,” which featured a solid serial mystery but had to rush to its ending. Those both had promise, but didn’t totally click. With the “Archie” franchise as a solid foundation, “Riverdale” looks like it’ll have more staying power, and it might be able to find a sweet spot where it freshens up this familiar genre.