The “Riverdale” empire expands further with its second spinoff, “Kate Keene” (Thursdays, CW), about three gals and a gay dude trying to make it big in New York City in their various careers that just happen to be perfect for dramatic TV portrayals. In the pilot episode, Michael Grassi’s series – based on a title character who debuted in Archie Comics in 1945 – does some good things and some bad things. Your verdict will come down to whether or not “Katy” is your thing.
Among the good: It drops the smoky cinematography that is a trademark of “Riverdale” – the “murder capital of the world,” notes Josie (Ashleigh Murray), who comes over from that soapy series. That tacky-moody look works OK on “Riverdale” and “Chilling Adventures of Sabrina” (and “Nancy Drew,” which isn’t part of the Archie-verse), but I don’t want any more of it. “Katy” lets the Big Apple be the Big Apple – no artificial embellishment needed.
Also of the good, the four roommates – Josie, Lucy Hale’s Katy, Julia Chan’s Pepper and Jonny Beauchamp’s Jorge/Ginger – live in a realistically cramped NYC apartment. The living room becomes Josie’s bedroom when the couch is pulled out into a bed. Their love of the city (and the Pollyanna portrayal of it so far) is idealistic, so the realism of the tight spaces keeps “Katy” from spinning off into pure fantasy land.
On the negative side, “Katy” serves up nothing we haven’t seen before – although I do appreciate how it combines four “following your dreams” narratives into one series. Katy is pursuing a fashion design career, and hits the stumbling block of a jealous boss (Katherine LaNasa’s Gloria) and backstabbing colleague (Helene Yorke’s Amanda).
Upbeat even among serious blows, Katy reminds me of Carrie from “The Carrie Diaries” even though their careers are different (Carrie could personalize the heck out of a handbag, though). Hale is cute enough to get me through this narrative, but man is it familiar.
Josie’s story is like “Instant Star” and “Kaya” and “Love Monkey” and so forth – she’s looking to make it big as a singer. It could be interesting if the writers modernize this story for the digital music age, but that’s always the rub with the Archie-verse: It’s set out of time and place. Alexander Cabot (Lucien Laviscount) pitches Josie to his dad’s company to try to relaunch “the record division” – presumably physical records.
We first meet Jorge/Ginger at a drag show and follow him through dance auditions that remind me of when Michelle tries out for a show in “Bunheads.” It’s a brutal industry, but Jorge doesn’t take no for an answer; he wants an explanation for his dismissal from the casting director, and that explanation is perfectly valid (if brutal): He doesn’t have the look they are searching for. Jorge – or Ginger? – tells off the director and promises his name will be in lights.
Diversity of gender identities is one area where the Archie-verse is ultra-modern, as Jorge/Ginger slots in alongside “Sabrina’s” transgender boy Theo. “Katy’s” writers likewise portray Jorge/Ginger in sober fashion – his gender identity is no big deal to the three girls, who offer him plenty of “You go, girls!”
But the writers do demonstrate some self-awareness of the confusing nature of PC culture, like when Pepper mulls the notion of Katy moving to Philly for the sake of her boyfriend, KO (Zane Holtz): “Would that be post-post-post-feminism?” (So far, Pepper is the mediator of the quartet’s living-room chats, her dreams deferred to future episodes.)
As for whether “Katy” is worth a second episode: To me, it’s not, but that’s only because I’m not the target audience. This will certainly slot in as another comic-book-based hit for the CW, and younger viewers who haven’t seen the “big city dreams” tropes before should dig it. Putting two leads – Katy and Josie – in the same series is a smart move, as neither actress has to shoulder the full weight. And besides, New York City will probably end up being the star of “Katy Keene.”