Katy Keene Review: The Adorable, Ambitious Spinoff Riverdale Deserves

It's been nearly three years since we saw Jason Blossom's body first washed up in Sweetwater River, and Riverdale made a unique impact on the world of comic book-inspired television. The series introduced Archie Comics characters to a whole new audience and became a new touchstone for dark, campy, and incredibly binge-worthy dramas. While Riverdale has already inspired a loosely-connected sister series in Netflix's Chilling Adventures of Sabrina, fans have been curious to see the series get a proper spinoff. Katy Keene, which premieres on The CW in early February, not only manages to be a worthy spinoff, but it ends up occupying a different, accessible space in the teen drama world. If the first three episodes are any indication, Katy Keene is an earnest, sappy delight of a series, which feels like television escapism in all of the right ways.

The series premiere opens by introducing us to Katy Keene (Lucy Hale), a lifelong New Yorker and amateur fashion designer who dreams of selling her clothes at the iconic department store she works at. As we see more of Katy's world, we're introduced to her two best friends — Jorge Lopez (Jonny Beauchamp), a Broadway hopeful who moonlights as a drag queen named Ginger, and Pepper Smith (Julia Chan), a multi-hyphenate socialite who wants to create the modern-day version of Andy Warhol's Factory. They quickly meet and befriend Josie McCoy (Ashleigh Murray), who has relocated to New York to pursue her dreams of being a professional musician.

The concept of following your dreams in New York certainly isn't a new concept for TV, something that the execution of Katy Keene both embraces and subverts. The series often comes across as the love child of Gossip Girl, Smash, and Sex in the City, but with the earnestness and authenticity of modern-day millennials. The aspirations of the show's "core four" are instantly made relatable and intriguing, whether we're watching Katy frantically search for an item in Lacy's department store or Jorge deal with prejudice at a Broadway audition. Amidst the countless celebrity name-drops and sound-alike names for brands, the show finds a lot of drama out of the modern-day entertainment industry while still maintaining its characters' sense of agency. Feminism, code-switching, and self-worth are tackled quite often (sometimes within the span of a single scene), without ever venturing into "After School Special" territory. And, even on a network with multiple openly-queer superheroes and countless LGBTQ+ characters, the amount of queer content in the early episodes of Katy Keene is a pleasant surprise.

After Riverdale and Sabrina made a name for themselves by constantly outdoing ridiculous plot twists and mysteries, there's something refreshing about seeing the characters of Katy Keene just existing without an imminent threat of danger; the series even acknowledges this shift in tone in amusing ways, including Josie frequently mentioning that she's from "the murder capital of the world". That isn't to say that Katy Keene is completely grounded in reality, but it occupies a much more whimsical and comfortable territory than its predecessors. In a way, it's a bit of a blessing that Katy has a relatively-loose comic history in the seventy-five years since her debut, as it feels like there's an endless amount of storytelling possibilities. The several-year time jump between Katy and Riverdale's current events seems to help as well, as it brings an inherent maturity and freedom to its characters and their decisions. It's incredibly easy to see anyone from Riverdale crossing over to Katy Keene, and it would almost be illuminating to see one of Josie's former classmates in this setting.

In the hands of a different cast or creative team, Katy Keene could easily come across as too cutesy or pretentious, but the performances by its core cast help keep things extremely balanced. Hale is perfect as Katy, creating a character who is unapologetically sincere and optimistic, without ever risking becoming two-dimensional. It's clear that Hale, who is a veteran of teen dramas thanks to Pretty Little Liars and Life Sentence, knows how to play a young woman that you can't help but want to be best friends with. Murray's reprisal as Josie is an absolute highlight of the series as well, as she's able to be fully-realized and nuanced in a way that Riverdale's storytelling never quite allowed. Beauchamp and Chan quickly make Jorge and Pepper lovable and intriguing, with the latter stealing nearly every scene she's in. The show's romantic foils are sure to inspire plenty of swoons and online chatter, from Katy's well-meaning boxer boyfriend K.O. Kelly (Zane Holtz) and Josie's suave collaborator/love interest, Alexander Cabot (Lucien Laviscount). While the first three episodes leave some characters a little underdeveloped — namely Alexander's Cheryl Blossom-esque twin sister, Alexandra Cabot (Camille Hyde) — it's clear that there's room to grow.

On a technical and aesthetic level, Katy Keene shares a lot of the same attention to detail as early Riverdale episodes, albeit with a much different scale and setting. The cinematography is gorgeous from the pilot's very first frame, and clearly is a love letter to the picturesque parts of New York City. Given Katy's love for all things sartorial, the costumes and wardrobe on the series are consistently great and Instagram-worthy. And the use of music — both diegetic and not — gets better and more surprising as the episodes go along.

Katy Keene feels like the television equivalent of a well-made cupcake — it has an aesthetically-pleasing exterior, a sweet and satisfying center, and will leave you wanting to come back for more. This is definitely the spinoff that the Riverdale universe deserves, while also bringing a mix of whimsy, ambition, and self-awareness that was missing from The CW's current lineup. It would be easy to write off Katy Keene as "cheesy", but it manages to be that and so much more, and it will be interesting to see how it evolves from this strong start.

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Rating: 4 out of 5

Katy Keene premieres on Thursday, February 6th on The CW.