Dark teen dramas are all the rage today, but almost none are as influential as The CW’s Riverdale, a series which mixes classic teen stories and tropes with muted color palettes, edgy storytelling and a somewhat nostalgic aesthetic. The series’ stories feature everything from drugs, gangs, and sex to murders, cults, and the (maybe) supernatural. It’s all generally topped off by a group of untrustworthy adults and parents who constantly let their kids down.
Riverdale’s impact on the pop culture zeitgeist is obvious, given that there are at least half a dozen recent moody teen dramas at any given time trying to copy its tone and success. From USA Network’s Dare Me and The CW’s Nancy Drew, to Netflix’s Daybreak and Chilling Adventures of Sabrina—itself another adaptation from the world of Archie Comics— the so-called Riverdale Effect is everywhere.
Except, weirdly enough, in the series’ first-ever direct spin-off.
In fact, Katy Keene is everything Riverdale isn’t. It’s light-hearted, charming and largely optimistic. It’s focused on friendships and fashion rather than street gangs, serial killers, or strange Dungeons and Dragons-esque games that brainwash entire towns. Here, no one’s trying to solve any murders, they’re trying to solve the problem of who they are instead. Not to mention, who they want to become.
The series feels like such a breath of fresh air precisely because it’s 180 degrees removed from its dark cousin. It may not be the anti-Riverdale, but it’s darn close. And the show is a joy to watch as a result, easily slotting itself into a teen drama space that’s basically been abandoned by shows chasing the current trend of dark and gritty. Warm and wholesome, this is escapist comfort food fun at its finest, as our gang of friends jump from fluffy plot development to fluffy plot development, with nary a murderer wearing antlers on his head in sight. Just lots of sparkly fashions—usually handmade by Katy (Lucy Hale) herself.
But Katy Keene isn’t exactly a serious drama either. Far from it, in fact. The series spins a cotton candy dream of life in New York City, where our leads all work romantic (if low income) jobs at charming bodegas, iconic fashion stores, and historic music shops as they chase their ambitions of fame and personal satisfaction, while meeting some cute boys along the way. The overpriced, overcrowded apartment they share is presented as more shabby-chic than uncomfortable, and despite the fact that most of them seem to struggle to make rent, they all still go out every night.
The show’s whimsical, starry-eyed feel stands in stark contrast its cousins Riverdale and Sabrina, which both revel in telling one dark and outrageous story after another. (Though at least Sabrina has the excuse of literally being about Hell itself.) In this show, the process of growing up is enough of an adventure. There’s no imminent threat of danger—even a subplot about Katy’s boyfriend being mugged on the street is largely played as an opportunity for character introspection rather than a safety concern—and though Riverdale transplant Josie McCoy (Ashleigh Murray) jokes about her hometown’s absurdly high murder rate, that’s as close as we get to anything like peril.
The core four group of friends at the series’ center are both diverse and instantly relatable. Katy hails from a working-class family on the Lower East Side and wants nothing more than to be a fashion designer, even though her coworkers at the famous Lacy’s department store all seem to have it out for her. Her longtime boyfriend K.O. Kelly (Zane Holtz) wants to be a boxer, and doesn’t really understand her dreams. Roommate Jorge Lopez (Jonny Beauchamp) longs to be a Broadway performer, even as he moonlights as a drag queen named Ginger at a local club. Newly arrived Josie wants to launch her music career—sans Pussycats, of course. And rich girl Pepper Smith (Julia Chan) wants to build a collaborative arts space, reminiscent of Andy Warhol’s Factory.
We watch as each of them struggle to balance dreams, friendship, and real-life responsibilities, often times while battling against various larger systemic problems that make them question if their dreams are really worth the sacrifice. Jorge is rejected from Broadway roles because he reads as too feminine during auditions. Katy is passed over for a promotion because she’s too good at the job she’s in. Josie discovers that being a popular musical act at Veronica’s teen speakeasy in Riverdale isn’t exactly the same as making it big in New York City. For all of Katy Keene’s dreamlike qualities though, it does depict with pinpoint accuracy that nebulous period of one’s 20s when you feel like you can have it all—but simultaneously have no idea what it is, precisely, that you want.
Star Lucy Hale should be familiar to many fans of this genre from her long-running stint on dark teen mystery Pretty Little Liars, but Katy Keene feels like a better fit for her personality and performance style than artsy pseudo-rebel Aria Montgomery ever did. Her voiceover narrations may occasionally remind you of a slightly less self-obsessed Carrie Bradshaw, and with more winsome charm. Ashleigh Murray’s Josie feels more at home in this gauzy version of NYC than she ever did in Riverdale, and it’s lovely to see her get a chance to become a true lead, rather than a third-tier character which her original series trotted out whenever they needed a musical number. And Jonny Beauchamp seems primed to break out big as the theatrical Jorge, who loves Broadway, big wigs, and even bigger dreams.
Katy Keene seems unlikely to top any Best Drama lists at the end of the year, but it doesn’t have to. The series represents a solid next step in the evolution of The CW’s Archie Comics-based television franchise. Its escapist adventure is the light to Riverdale’s dark, a high-end fairytale full of bright colors and a hopeful aesthetic that’s increasingly hard to find in our current television landscape. Katy’s world may be a fantasy, but it’s one few of us are going to mind spending time in every week.
Katy Keene premieres Thursday, February 6th on The CW.
Lacy Baugher is a digital producer by day, but a television enthusiast pretty much all the time. Her writing has been featured in Collider, IGN, Screenrant, The Baltimore Sun and others. Literally always looking for someone to yell about Doctor Who and/or CW superhero properties with, you can find her on Twitter @LacyMB.
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