With all due respect to the Eagles: On TV, high school is the real Hotel California. You can and probably did check out years ago, but television of every genre makes sure that you never escape it. The pressure cooker of nascent adulthood, structured days, uncertain futures, and wildly fluctuating hormones makes for a well of creativity with endless iterations — teenage superheroes, deadly secrets, pop music covers, introspective voiceover.
“Riverdale,” the CW’s new teen drama based on the Archie comics, is an eerie and offbeat take on the high school mythos — both addictive and confusing in equal parts. Its incredibly attractive leads, secret backstories, complex buried relationships, and unreliable, unethical adults are reminiscent of Freeform’s “Pretty Little Liars” and the CW’s “Gossip Girl.” But where those shows, and most teen shows, serve as titillating coming-of-age narratives, hovering between the wholesome bubble of innocence and the seductive call of the wider adult world, “Riverdale” is a much more stylized story, trying to create dynamism out of what is, to most viewers, one of the most frozen-in-time franchises in comics.
To be sure, the Archie comics franchise, which dates back to 1941, has changed dramatically in the last decade — with a new visual style, expanded “darker” stories, and a gay character in classmate Kevin Keller. (“Riverdale’s” showrunner, Roberto Aguirre-Sacasa, is Chief Creative Officer of Archie Comic Publications — a position he obtained, bizarrely, a decade after the company sent him a cease-and-desist order for a play he wrote that had Archie himself coming out of the closet.)
But for most of us, Archie is still the oval-eyed, round-eared, quaintly jolly ginger perennially torn between sweet-as-pie Betty and fierce, rich Veronica. Archie comics are so numerous and inconsistent that they are quintessentially cartoonish, in a way that is quite the opposite of Batman’s moody “The Dark Knight Returns” or Marvel’s politically cognizant X-Men; the butler is really named Smithers, the teacher is really named Mrs. Grundy, Josie and the Pussycats (!) are really fellow students, and the kids really do go out for milkshakes after school.
What’s fun about “Riverdale,” which casts itself as a moody teen drama in a remote, slightly spooky town, is how much the show commits both to the unchanging world of the comics — and to tweaking it constantly. (To underscore the point, both Luke Perry and Mädchen Amick play parents — in nods to two very different takes on high school.) Along with the stylized visuals of Veronica’s white headband, Betty’s constant ponytail, and Archie’s too-red hair is the characters’ near-consciousness that they are playing strangely archetypal roles in a pretty-as-a-picture world. Part of the surreality of the show is in the characters’ conversations —