In this television version of the Archie Comic, a teenager is murdered, Archie has a fling with his high school music teacher and Betty and Veronica share a steamy kiss meant to spice up their cheerleading routine for the unimpressed mean girl in charge. Welcome to "Riverdale," an edgy, entertaining adaptation of the famous comic book series.
Riverdale, a wholesome seeming town, is filled with "shadows and secrets," says Jughead Jones (Cole Sprouse), the resident narrator. A kind of Greek chorus, Jughead occasionally comments on the action within the context of writing a story about the show's central mystery, which is high school student Jason Blossom's death. Jason falls into the river while on a rowboat with his twin sister Cheryl (in a scene that has a creepy, incestuous feeling about it) and his disappearance is ruled an accidental drowning until his body washes up and an autopsy reveals something more sinister.
A mysterious death is not the most original way to launch a story but it injects some drama into the eternal question of the Archie universe: Will Archie choose Betty or Veronica? Despite Archie's secret hook-ups with the music teacher, the trio's complicated feelings for each other are still in play and the show elevates a potentially cliche teenage romance story by validating the characters' feelings in a genuine way. More importantly, it wastes no time dismantling what could have been a simplistic Betty/Veronica rivalry for Archie's affection in favor of a more layered, mature friendship. This is not to say that the love triangle tension is gone, it's not, but the characters are not entirely defined by it.
The characters are also played by a diverse group of actors that lend a contemporary feel to the archetypal small town. Camila Mendes' Veronica Lodge is Latina, Ashleigh Murray's Josie McCoy and all her "Pussycat" bandmates are African American and K.J. Apa, the actor who plays Archie, is from New Zealand. Following the comic's lead, Ken Keller (Casey Cott) is Betty and Veronica's gay best friend. His jokes -- in one scene he comments that a closeted jock called Moose who he is fooling around with has "a certain appendage that's more like a horse" -- suggest that the show isn't afraid to take a bawdy tone.
Self-discovery is a theme, as would be expected in a show about teenagers trying to figure out who they are and who they want to become. Betty (Lili Reinhart) is the perfect girl daring to assert her own needs and desires while Veronica, recently relocated from a life of privilege in New York City, is trying to reform her mean girl ways. Mendes and Reinhart have chemistry and Mendes delivers some funny lines with charm and great timing. In one, she calls red-haired Archie "teenage Outlander" and in another she urges him to move past the "tired dichotomy of jock, artist" in this "post-James Franco world."
"Riverdale" is at its best when it chooses to focus on the ups and downs of teen friendships and leaves the creepy small town secrets buried.
"Riverdale" is on Thursdays at 9 p.m. EDT on The CW.
-- Melissa Crawley is the author of "Mr. Sorkin Goes to Washington: Shaping the President on Television's 'The West Wing.'" She has a Ph.D. in media studies and is a member of the Television Critics Association. To comment on Stay Tuned, email her at firstname.lastname@example.org or follow her on Twitter at @MelissaCrawley.