It makes sense that just as the first season of The CW’s Riverdale is ending, the Twin Peaks revival is getting ready to debut on Showtime. There’s a weird sort of lineage linking the two, in both literal and conceptual terms. Riverdale could’ve easily been strictly a drama about attractive young adults taking off their shirts and having lots of emotions. Instead, we got a riveting, fast-paced murder mystery with complex characters both young and grown-up with some questions about the world our parents are leaving for us. And also attractive young adults taking off their shirts.
Expect spoilers for the entire season of Riverdale.
Twin Peaks, and so many of David Lynch’s stories, start with a bright, idyllic picture of Americana. Of the perfect, innocent world Archie comics established over seventy-five years ago. Archie comics present this innocent image of America in a better time, one that people would really like to believe existed. David Lynch joints like Twin Peaks and Blue Velvet take that idea and peel off the outer skin to reveal a rotten core hiding beneath the surface. We all want to believe in this nice image of the way things should be, and we struggle to maintain that image. If any of us acknowledge the rot underneath, it becomes real.
Good kids in a bad world
Riverdale takes a page straight out of the Twin Peaks playbook. At first, it comes across as a pretty simple, childish take on the original source material – something edgy for the sake of being edgy. Like that time they tried to make Looney Tunes hardcore, or Reaper from Overwatch literally anytime. But it doesn’t take long for characters to start developing the complex personalities that power the show. The seeds of Archie are still in place, but they grow differently in the modern, but somewhat isolated trappings of the small town obsessed with tradition and lineage.
Archie is still a good guy, but he makes made decisions that a teenage boy would make, and usually for the right reasons. Betty is still the girl next door, but the darkness of her parents has taken firm root in her. Veronica is the high-class girl from out-of-town, and she’s been one of the Mean Girls, but wants desperately to break away from the connections to her father, her wealth, and the things her family has given up to become powerful. Cheryl Blossom seems to resent her influence as often as she takes advantage of it.
This thread of rotten Americana flows throughout the series from beginning to end. The initial plot with Archie and the music teacher calling herself Ms. Grundy seems designed to shock, and was one of the less interesting aspects of the show. It was meant to send a message that Archie, while still a good boy, isn’t an innocent one. From there, though, we witness the barely-contained turmoil of the Cooper family, the tough times in the Andrews household, and the dark, twisted version of family inside the Blossom mansion. The Andrews family, it seems, is the only one not obsessed with that traditional American image.
Archie and his father Fred, played by Luke Perry, are the real world breaking into Riverdale; a divorced father with a struggling business trying to raise a son trying to manage his present, his future, and his hormones all at once. And failing, as most teenagers do. The real world seeps through in other ways, too. No one is fazed by the sheriff’s gay son. Many of the authority figures in the show are African-American. An episode about slut shaming reminds us that this is a modern show set in the modern era, while also developing Betty’s darkness and her relationship with Veronica.
Parents are literally the worst
While the children of Riverdale are trying to make their lives work, though, their parents – other than Fred, who really is just trying to be honest and survive – are scheming and manipulating. They’re making all that rot and darkness that the kids are having to accept, cope with, and integrate into their lives. Alice and Hal Cooper exert neurotic control over their daughters to maintain the image of a family and keep damaging secrets hidden. Veronica’s mother, Hermione, might be as dangerous as her currently incarcerated husband Hiram.
And then there are the Blossoms, a family made rich through their maple syrup business. The family lives in a huge, poorly-lit mansion that gives way for some of the weirder elements that feel like they link thematically back to Twin Peaks. A favorite shot of mine has Betty’s sister Polly exploring the house. Through a doorway, she witnesses Cheryl’s father Clifford Blossom standing before a wall of red-haired wigs he keeps for various occasions and moods. And then there are the scenes with Cheryl’s blind and ultra-perceptive grandmother, an under-used character who seems to hint at the show having a supernatural element.
The actors and actresses who play the parents of Riverdale also act as somewhat of a literal connection back to both the Americana ideal and to Twin Peaks. Betty’s mom, Alice Cooper, is played by Madchen Amick. Twin Peaks fans will remember her as Double R Diner waitress Shelly. Luke Perry, of course, played Dylan on Beverly Hills, 90210, one of the prototypical Teens Disrobing and Having Emotions shows. Archie’s mom is played by Molly Ringwald, a frequent member of John Hughes’ troupe of actors back in the 1980s. Those shows and movies all owe some debt to Archie for making that perfect bubblegum world, and pulling in actors from those is a nice nod back.
What makes this all work is how lean the show is. While so many CW shows, especially my beloved superhero shows like The Flash and Arrow, feel too long at 25-or-so episodes, Riverdale is a very manageable 13 episodes. The show hits the ground running and wastes little time, especially as the plot moves faster. Riverdale gets done in one episode what lots of other shows take three episodes to do. Every scene tells us something about the characters or the story.
We’re watching Archie try to navigate compromising himself for the sake of his future, or Veronica trying to make up for the sins of her father. A quick shot of Betty’s fingernails digging into her palms enough to draw blood tells us volumes in a very small space, as does a shot at the very end of her and her mother, Alice, looking in the mirror together. Actress Lili Reinhart isn’t Madchen Amick’s daughter, but in that scene, it’s hard to tell. Cole Sprouse has been acting since he was a kid, and he brings that to the part of Jughead. Jughead is often a goofy character in the comics, though that’s shifted in recent years. Here he’s trapped between his friends at Riverdale and his father’s roots in less savory parts of town, and his struggle as he’s pulled between the two is believable.
There are a few awkward moments, too. There are a couple-too-many musical numbers throughout the season. A brand partnership with a cosmetics company forces some really and truly gratuitous shots of make-up products. Jughead’s need to establish himself as a loner occasionally leads to some hackneyed dialogue about how alone he is, how he doesn’t fit in. It sounds more like he’s reading the bio for his character page on The CW’s website than actually expressing his feelings. But these moments are in the minority.
I went into Riverdale with almost no expectations. As far as I felt going in, it could’ve ended up being anything. And it might be my favorite television show from The CW’s lineup, and one of my favorite in a year of incredibly good television. I’ve jokingly called it “Twin Peaks, 90210” when describing it to friends. The mystery and weirdness of one and the drama of the other. I’m super okay with that description.
And now that Riverdale has incorporated that weirdness into Archie’s legacy, David Lynch is about to go back on the air and show us what he can do. What a great time to be a TV fan.
If you missed out on Riverdale‘s first season, you don’t have to wait long. It’ll be on Netflix in just two weeks.