SDCC Review: Riverdale Soars, Propelled by Great Performances And Compelling Characters

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(Photo: The CW)

"Some people say it's retro; I say it's eternal and iconic."

That's Riverdale's Cheryl Blossom (Madelaine Petsch) talking about cheerleading, but it's hardly a stretch to say that it's also Archie Chief Creative Officer Roberto Aguirre-Sacasa's mission statement for the series, which had its world premiere over the weekend at Comic Con International: San Diego.

From executive producer Greg Berlanti, Riverdale has a tall order: take a talented cast, a storied mythology, and one of the hottest showrunners on TV (Berlanti, who oversees all four of The CW's DC superhero shows as well as Blindspot), and come up with a show that both subverts and satisfies audience expectations.

Did the production team behind the teen drama, set to debut on The CW at midseason, manage to stick the landing?

Oh, hell yes.

Mild spoilers ahead.

Riverdale builds on the success of Archie Comics's New Riverdale publishing initiative, but does so by building in a twist: there's a murder mystery to be solved, while some of the key relationships at the core of what makes Archie Comics familiar and comforting to generations of fans have been bent or broken.

Everyone involved with the production has made comparisons to Twin Peaks at one point or another, and those are fairly on-the-nose. Starting with the murdered teen whose death shatters the veneer of perfection in the titular small town, Riverdale even features Twin Peaks veteran Mädchen Amick as Alice Cooper -- no, not the mascara-wearing heavy metal star. She's the overbearing mother of Lili Reinhart's Betty.

The similarities are mostly in the high concept, though; while Twin Peaks obviously contributes to the series' DNA, but it's still recognizably Riverdale. The pre-release talk about the "facade of small-town life" and the ominous trailer both oversell a bit just how dramatic a departure this is, particularly from the New Riverdale books that have come out in the last year or so.

And that's a good thing. If it was Archie In Name Only, it would be harder to love. The way Riverdale juxtaposes and interweaves the traditional mythology of Archie's world with the strange new world the show is constructing is a big part of what makes it appealing -- and, honestly, it calls back to the first season of iZombie, a series that diverges pretty significantly from its source material but still manages to connect with the soul of the comics and appeal to both audiences who have and haven't read Chris Roberson and Mike Allred's late, lamented Vertigo title.

The performances in the series are just about uniformly excellent. What little we see of Cole Sprouse's Jughead is intriguing, and he's got a great screen presence. K.J. Apa's Archie is still a work in progress, but Reinhart's Betty is charming, funny, and heartbreaking. Camila Mendes plays a Veronica who is already in the running for best new TV character of 2017 with the kind of relish that can reshape a show. Amick and Reinhart have a great dynamic, and you can see the real love, resentment, and pain that runs through both of them whenever they share the screen. It's a remarkable chemistry.

If there's a duo better, it would have to be a toss-up between Reinhart and Mendes -- who perfect Betty and Veronica's uneasy but true-blue friendship almost immediately -- or Apa and Luke Perry, who plays Archie's father.

A divorcee who has a romantic history with Veronica's mom Hermione (an absolutely stunning Marisol Nichols, who doesn't yet have a lot to do but clearly has a lot going on), Fred Andrews genuinely wants the best for Archie -- and while this can sometimes be a source of strife between them, the father/son relationship here is akin to something you might see between Rory and Lorelai on Gilmore Girls. In one moment in the pilot, Perry spells out the nature of his relationship with his son, and in that moment you realize that you want to see how they got there and where they go next. In his second major comic book role (Perry also played Rick Jones in the 1996-1997 Incredible Hulk animated series), the veteran actor and '90s heartthrob has found what could very well turn out to be one of the defining performances of his career.

And it's nearly impossible to take your eyes off Madelaine Petsch, who plays Cheryl Blossom as a character who commands the screen whenever she's on it -- but that doesn't mean she's all she sells herself as. Cheryl is deeply insecure, and you can see the abject terror in her eyes when, during arguably the best scene of the pilot, one of the other Riverdale girls clearly has her number.

The pilot isn't without its minor hiccups: Sarah Habel is so charming as Geraldine Grundy that you can see why she would be a temptation for even a handsome and straight-laced young man like Archie, but whenever she and Apa share the screen there isn't a lot of chemistry. The fact that their relationship seems set up to be a fairly major subplot this season means that if that dynamic doesn't get more interesting, it could be a drag on the show.

Josie and the Pussycats didn't get a ton of screen time, either, but I'm skeptical. The fact that they've changed the characters' races and style of music isn't particularly important, but it does feel like by making Josie a stuck-up queen bee type who looks down on Archie, they've changed something fundamental about that character, and made her less appealing in the process. Of course, there could be more to her than meets the eye -- there is with just about everybody else, but we got fewer opportunities to get to know Josie than any other major character in the pilot, save Jughead, who as our narrator has a kind of cheat code for likability.

Probably the most vanilla character in the pilot is Kevin Keller. He's likable and funny, sure, but when he's pigeonholed as "the gay best friend," it's entirely fair. His personality doesn't extend far beyond that yet, and everything he does in the pilot has to do with either being gay (and fooling around with a longtime Archie character that might surprise you) or being Betty's best friend and support network. As Veronica dominates the screen and helps Betty find her voice, the latter feels increasingly unnecessary. Hopefully a story beat he's engaged in during the pilot's final moments will propel his character to something more as the series progresses.

As a pilot separate from the external baggage of audience expectations, though, Riverdale is nearly flawless. It sets the stage, gives you characters to care about and root for, and clearly spells out the challenge that's going to turn their world upside down in the course of the show's first season. The episode juggles a lot of subplots and even more characters effortlessly, cruising through town with the top down on a pace that never feels too breakneck even as there's a deceptively huge amount of data being dumped.

Investing so much into the mystery of Jason Blossom's death is likely to be the thing that's make-or-break for the show's first season. Now that it's been picked up and we aren't dealing simply with the pilot, it seems likely that -- like Twin Peaks, The Killing, or Veronica Mars -- the future of Riverdale may rest principally on the mystery's big payoff. There are, meanwhile, other mysteries waiting to be solved in the background -- either to tie into the murder or, just as likely to serve as springboards to future stories if the show gets another season.