By now, even if you haven’t seen a single second of Riverdale, the CW series that’s technically based on the Archie comics, you’re probably well aware of it as a talking point or meme on social media. Such is the cycle now, as TV shows and movies often find their way into meme culture before they’ve even been given a proper release; we see you, The Young Pope. So, you’ve probably heard that Riverdale shares some DNA with Pretty Little Liars and Twin Peaks, and you’ve probably seen at least one image of a topless K.J. Apa, who plays the series’ famous redhead. Thankfully, the series premiere shows that Riverdale isn’t just an empty vessel for steamy GIFs and mediocre jokes about how hot people populate the CW. In fact, “Chapter One: The River’s Edge” sets up enough intrigue, in terms of both narrative and aesthetics, that all the other noise seems to fall away.
To be fair, Riverdale doesn’t exactly shy away from any of the comparisons that have been trotted out in advance of the series premiere. In the opening moments of “Chapter One: The River’s Edge,” we not only see a sign for the titular town that’s ripped straight from Twin Peaks—we also hear a voiceover talking about how this small town, despite the quaint feel, hides an awful lot of darkness. It’s a voiceover that would feel at home on either Pretty Little Liars or Bloodline, and it’s the premiere’s most worrying aspect. It’s not overused—the voiceover, which consists of Jughead (Cole Sprouse) reading paragraphs from a book he’s writing about Riverdale and whatever happened during this fateful summer, only bookends the episode—but it is overly familiar. “Small town hides many dark secrets” isn’t exactly a fresh way to approach a story, and Jughead’s voiceover does little to establish a unique voice for Riverdale.
Once we’re past that, though, “Chapter One: The River’s Edge” picks up momentum. The episode begins with a death, as Jason Blossom (Trevor Stines), one half of Riverdale’s infamous Blossom twins, drowns in the river, his body never found. What’s curious is that Riverdale doesn’t dive into the mystery of Jason’s death right away, only coming back to it at the end of the episode for a cliffhanger, as Jason is found with a bullet hole in his head.
Instead, “Chapter One: The River’s Edge” begins to fill in the details of what this version of Riverdale is and, yes, it’s populated by plenty of eye candy. The characters are familiar, even if they’re more aligned with the usual look of a CW cast. So, there’s Archie (K.J. Apa) and Betty (Lili Reinhart), the destined lovers who don’t know they’re meant to be. Archie is back in school after a summer working for his father’s construction company, which is a beautifully contrived—a compliment, I swear—way to explain how ripped he is, and Betty, while working on keeping her A+ student status, is also trying to find a way to tell Archie how she feels about him. There’s Veronica Lodge (Camila Mendes), Riverdale’s newest resident, along with her mother, Hermione (Marisol Nichols), an immediate magnet for attention since everybody knows her father is being tried for fraud and embezzlement. There’s also Josie and the Pussycats, Jughead, and Riverdale’s standout villain, Cheryl Blossom (Madelaine Petsch), a cruel, insecure cheerleader whose role as the Queen Bee of the school is more a self-appointed position than anything else. And we certainly can’t forget Ms. Grundy (Sarah Habel), the school music teacher who we learn had a brief fling with Archie during his Summer of Bicep Growth.
While I’d suggest that “Chapter One: The River’s Edge” suffers from a lack of stakes in the early going, as the murder that’s central to the story only plays a small role here, the episode does plenty to warrant further week-to-week viewing by establishing a compelling tone, while also doing the work of making sure these characters feel fleshed out. For every bit of gratuitousness meant to grace the pages of Tumblr on a Friday morning—GIFs of Betty and Veronica kissing, or Archie’s chiseled torso framed by his bedroom window, surely abound—”Chapter One: The River’s Edge” also crafts a moment of meaningful character insight. We come to understand Betty’s frustrations not only with Archie and his refusal of anything romantic between them, but also with her mother, whose overbearing and protective nature is always fuel for teenage rebellion. Veronica gets similar treatment, the potentially snooty, privileged character given some depth here as she struggles to redefine herself in a new town. Of course, she missteps immediately, turning a rather harmless game of Seven Minutes in Heaven with Archie into something much more. Veronica owns it, though—”We messed up,” she says to Archie—and that’s progress for someone like her.
In essence, “Chapter One: The River’s Edge” doesn’t exactly feel like a proper representation of what we’ll get from a full season of Riverdale, as the procedural elements, such as the revelation that Archie and Ms. Grundy heard a gunshot in the woods the morning after their tryst, barely make themselves known here. That said, the premiere does a great job crafting a world that feels alive and unique. From the neon glow of the diner, to the outsized but nuanced characters, “Chapter’s One: River’s Edge” is a promising start to the latest from The CW. More than anything else, it taps into that particular teenage point of view in which everything feels both overwhelming and incredibly important. Summer, the season that, as a teenager, seems so endlessly promising and yet frustratingly short, looms large here; a murder, an affair, and many adult decisions defining the time when everyone is supposed to be relaxed, happy, and looking forward to the future. “Chapter One: The River’s Edge” taps into those feelings of promise, anxiety and hopeful soul-searching, and that’s a solid foundation for Riverdale to build on.
Kyle Fowle is a TV critic whose work has appeared at The A.V. Club, Entertainment Weekly and Esquire. You can always find him tweeting about TV and pro wrestling @kylefowle.