Kudos to the makers of “Riverdale” for toying so insanely with the look and style of their series, an adaptation of the Archie comics. The new CW drama is a mad scientist’s concoction of out-of-whack visual and idiomatic references, from the 1950s of “Happy Days” to the 2000s of “Gossip Girl.” It’s as if the show’s production designer ate too much sugar at bedtime and fell into a ragingly disorderly dream. There are jokes about Betty Draper from “Mad Men,” a hip-hop go at “Sugar, Sugar,” and precocious teens batting around references to Toni Morrison, “Blue Jasmine,” and “Mildred Pierce” in between cheerleader tryouts.
The pure jumble of it all is impressive — a kind of willful inconsistency that kept me watching. Just as Lady Gaga’s drag can fascinate in its far-flung allusions to the likes of “Mad Max” and “The Flying Nun,” and just as postmodern architecture invites us to determine which past forms and flourishes are being quoted, “Riverdale” diverts with absurd juxtapositions that defy and confound expectation. You want to take in the unexpected iconography, from a “Twin Peaks” cadaver to a hipster hat, to try to fit it all together in your mind and locate it in time as you watch.
What about the rest of “Riverdale,” including more important elements such as the characters and the story lines? Alas, they range from the bland (everything about Archie) and the annoying (the sad stereotype that is gay best friend Kevin Keller) to the formulaic (Archie’s secret love affair with hot music teacher Ms. Grundy). Creator Roberto Aguirre-Sacasa wants to subvert the original comic strip, turn its innocence upside down to show “the shadows underneath,” as series narrator and resident hipster Jughead (Cole Sprouse) says in his voice-over. And it’s always a rich idea to look behind the American veneer. But the writing is flat, at times a pale imitation of “Gossip Girl,” and the teens are stuck between the stick-figure archetypes of the comic strip and the clichés of contemporary teen TV.
In the promotion for the premiere, Thursday at 9 p.m., The CW has been pushing the “Twin Peaks” vibe of “Riverdale.” And so the show opens with the death of teenager Jason Blossom somewhere down by the river on the Fourth of July. Jason wasn’t alone; he was with his twin sister, Cheryl (Madelaine Petsch), who, with her inflated lips, is the school’s backstabbing queen bee. Archie Andrews (KJ Apa) happened to be nearby when Jason met his fate, but he can’t come forward because he was there making illicit love with Grundy (played as the typical “sexy librarian” by Sarah Habel). Now, as the kids return to school in the fall, the mystery of what happened to Jason is rearing its head again.
The character of Archie has always been a cipher, and “Riverdale” doesn’t succeed in improving on that. He is a likable kid who, as Kevin notes, got hot over the summer, building six-pack abs while doing construction work and secretly fooling around with Grundy in her VW bug. Furthermore, he has gotten in touch with his emo side and decided that he’d rather write songs than play on the football team and work for his father, Fred (Luke Perry). Still, he’s thick as a brick, and the makeup department has burdened Apa with a too-fake red hairdo that never stops looking conspicuous. It may be an homage to the comic strip, but it’s too distracting, especially sitting above his too-dark eyebrows. The best thing about the hair? It gives Josie (Ashleigh Murray) an opportunity to refer to him as “Justin Gingerlake.”
Betty and Veronica are somewhat more interesting than Archie and the low-key Jughead, if still overly familiar types from other CW series. Betty (Lili Reinhart) is in love with Archie but too shy to say anything; she struggles to be confident, in the face of her brash, success-obsessed, Adderall-pushing mother, Alice (Mädchen Amick). As on so many other teen series, the parents have their own subplots, and we learn more about why Alice Cooper is so tense.
Veronica (Camila Mendes) is newly arrived, having grown up wealthy in New York. Her father pulled a Madoff, and now she and her mother are poor-ish and hiding out in Riverdale. She’s too blatantly a “Gossip Girl”-like creature, with lines such as “I’m ‘Breakfast at Tiffany’s,’ but this place is strictly ‘In Cold Blood.’ ” Now, though, she’s committed to changing her mean-girl ways and becoming a good person in her new hometown. She’s drawn to Archie, for reasons that, beyond the six-pack, are unfathomable, but she refuses to tread on new BFF Betty’s territory. Still, there is triangular tension afoot, even if, as only Archie knows, it’s actually quadrangular.
For some reason, Kevin isn’t obsessed with Archie, too, even though at one point he calls Archie “swell.” He’s busy having a secret assignation with the closeted Moose (Cody Kearsley), about whom he says, “His name may be Moose but I’d describe a certain appendage of his as horse-like.” It’s fun at times to make the comparisons with the original comic, to see just how far “Riverdale” strays. But that compare-and-contrast can take you only so far in the face of such derivative writing.
Starring: KJ Apa, Camila Mendes, Lili Reinhart, Cole Sprouse, Luke Perry, Mädchen Amick, Ashleigh Murray, Sarah Habel, Madelaine Petsch, Marisol Nichols
On The CW, Thursday at 9 p.m.Matthew Gilbert can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter @MatthewGilbert.