Riverdale Season 1 Review (Spoiler-free)

  • Series Title: Riverdale
  • Season: Season 1
  • Episodes: 13
  • Discs: 3
  • Network: CW
  • Cast: KJ Apa, Lili Reinhart, Camila Mendes, Cole Sprouse, Madelaine Petsch, Ashleigh Murray, Marisol Nichols, Luke Perry
  • Format: Color, Widescreen, NTSC, R1

The CW’s Riverdale is much, much better than I expected, and, in a sense even better than it has any right to be. The show is like Twin Peaks meets the Archie comic books characters meets a typical CW teen/twenty-something soap opera, with a little bit of the original Scooby Doo Mysteries from Saturday mornings, and just a dash of film noir. The series spends it’s first few episodes introducing the characters and their world, but quickly becomes focused on one question and plot point: Who killed Jason Blossom?

When watching a long-form mystery – there are two tests: how does it work on first viewing? And does it still work upon re-watching? Riverdale passes both tests. When watching this show last year week to week, each episode brought new secrets, new revelations, new information, as slowly week-by-week the kids from Riverdale: Archie, Betty, Veronica, and Jughead not only formed their own relationships – but uncovered the mystery and found out the murderer in episode 11 and 12. Upon re-watching the series, knowing who the murderer was – the series was still very watchable, even more so. Knowing “whodunit” did not, as it often does, especially in long-form mysteries, make this show boring, or make the viewer (well this viewer) want to bang their head against a table or yell at the characters in frustration. So it’s a good mystery. There a few scenes, here and there, in the entire first ten episodes, that have a stronger meaning once you know the murderer’s identity, but the entire series also holds up incredibly well. Riverdale has the same staying power for it’s first season as a neo-noir like L.A. Confidential, or a classic one like Double Indemnity.

Each episode of the series has opening and closing narration by Jughead, who is writing a manuscript about Jason’s death (in episode 1, everyone in town thinks he accidentally drowned – this changes when two gay teenagers go to the river for a tryst and instead find Jason’s body). This adds to the film-noir feel, and acts as a reflection on the events of the series, much like the narration in many classic films noir, especially those directed by Billy Wilder.

The series also has, as a CW show, that excellently done, teenagers learning how to grow up and dealing with conflicts with parents. However, in Riverdale, pretty much every parent is nuts – and hiding a lot of secrets. And what I picked-up on a second watch was that these parents are still holding on to feelings from high school: old crushes, resentments, rivalry, anger, jealousy. In a sense, these bonkers parents never grew-up, and Archie and his friends are considerably more mature than their parents. Which isn’t to say these kids are perfect. The series opens with Archie having a Summer fling with his music teacher – something he tries to continue into the school year, but it of course falls apart – and unprofessional teacher leaves after episode 4. Later in the series, Betty convinces Archie to have a birthday party for Jughead because he doesn’t care about his birthday and never even had a party. Cheryl, back to feuding with the others, crashes the party and turns it into a kegger. When you compare the behavior of the “kids” with the parents – a central question emerges: Will these young characters repeat the mistakes of their parents? Will they be ruled by the same prejudices, the same hatreds, the same jealousies, and the same assumptions? Or will our characters be better? And in season one, for the most part they seem to be better.

The cinematography in this series is incredible. The series starts in Summer, the Fourth of July, with everything lit in a warm, golden glow. It proceeds through Fall – with mist and haze, then in to Winter. Perhaps accidentally, perhaps not, but the changing of seasons perfectly reflects the series’ slide into darkness as more and more secrets come to light. The use of red to indicate the influence of the rich Blossom family is striking throughout the series. The snow adds to the feeling of scenes, as does the mist and rain. This is one of the few television series I’ve ever seen in my life that looks like it actually takes place in the Upper Midwest (even in a fictional town), rather than on Hollywood backlots. And the cinematography is movie-worthy. This show CW can hold up to show just what they are capable of, because it shines.

Finally, the DVD box set includes deleted scenes for most episodes. Some of these deleted scenes are simply extra bits, probably cut for time. But there are a series of scenes between Veronica and her mother, Hermione, that changes their relationship – and not for the better. And there’s a scene between Jughead and his father, JP, that is just fantastic. That scene also sheds light on a seemingly bad decision Jughead makes in the final episode (he’s between a rock and a hard place – so his decision also makes sense for the character, if not being the best thing he could do). Between the scenes with Hermoine and the scene with Jughead – it seems to be setting-up season 2, something I am eager to see.

The question of who killed Jason is revealed in episode 12. But where in most series, the following episode (and last of the season) would merely be a chance for the characters to catch their breath, the screenwriters to wrap-up loose ends, and the series to be reset for the next season – Riverdale takes a darker path. Episode 13 sees fallout of the revelation of the murderer that feels real, but scary. It also sees major changes for the characters, especially for Jughead. There are events in the last episode of the season that will no doubt lead directly to Season 2, and I’m not just talking about the shocking twist at the end of the episode.

I highly, highly recommend watching Riverdale. It wasn’t just hype that made this show one of the most talked about series introduced last year. If some of the teen-aged hijinks at the start of the season bother you, stick with it. I initially wondered why Archie was introduced in such an essentially negative way – but having re-watched the entire thing, I realized it was actually a method to introduce a character that on paper could be considered perfect: captain of the football team, musician, popular, ladies man, but also friends with the “unpopular” kids at school – gods, Archie Andrews could have been the most boring “Marty Sue” character on TV. So, starting with showing him having a fault? That makes the character more interesting. It also serves plot purposes, and shows his honesty beyond his issues with women (Archie manages to have a relationship with every girl at his school anyway). Oh and Betchel Test? This show smashes it wide open. Does it count as “talking about a man” if the guy in question is dead and the women are trying to solve his murder? Riverdale is a must-watch, and I give it 5 out of 5 stars. Again, highly, highly recommended.

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