Moody, mordant and retro are all the rage in teen TV. Call it the ‘Riverdale’ effect

The CW's "Riverdale" has spawned a boomlet of teen dramas with retro styling, moody plots and mordant wit.
(Jack Rowand / The CW)

Networks are always looking to double down on what works. In the late 1990s and early 2000s, the CW, then known as the WB, was highly invested in teen soaps like “Dawson’s Creek,” “One Tree Hill” and “Felicity.” Later, it took a turn toward the paranormal with “The Vampire Diaries” and “The Secret Circle”; soon after, superhero shows from “Arrow” to “Supergirl” took over the network. Then, in 2017 the network found its latest golden goose, and an entry point into a TV trend that would reach beyond the CW itself: “Riverdale.”

Based on the Archie Comics characters, “Riverdale” brought a noir-lite, teen soap mystery to the CW. Alongside its “Twin Peaks” meets ”One Tree Hill” plot, the series delivered a distinctively nostalgic homage to the comic book’s origins, with 1940s and ‘50s accents like Pop’s diner, vintage cars and clothes paired with modern technology. To enhance the show’s strong style, each character is defined by a color palette as well. Popular “mean girl” Cheryl Blossom is recognized for her red hair, red lipstick and red outfits; girl-next-door Betty Cooper is associated with light pinks and pastels. Whether for thematic or aesthetic reasons, “Riverdale” became a hit and thus a launching pad for a gamut of shows that incorporated elements of its style and made them their own.

Archie Andrews, the redheaded comic-book character whose animated band “The Archies” had a bona fide hit with “Sugar Sugar” in 1969, comes to live-action television Thursday in the new CW series “Riverdale.”

'Chilling Adventures of Sabrina' on Netflix
Kiernan Shipka in Netflix’s “Chilling Adventures of Sabrina.”
(Diyah Pera / Netflix)

“Riverdale” creator Roberto Aguirre-Sacasa sees “Riverdale” as a part of the “continuum or history of teen shows,” one whose combination of adult influences and the wholesomeness of the Archie characters helped attract viewers. And, as is always the case in Hollywood, nothing beats good timing: “When the CW first existed there were shows like ‘Gossip Girl,’ ‘Dawson’s Creek’ and ‘One Tree Hill,’ and there had always been on the CW a strong teen drama,” Aguirre-Sacasa says. “But at the moment when ‘Riverdale’ came, I think the CW moved toward superhero shows, and there was a little bit of a gap there that ‘Riverdale’ benefited from.”


A year and a half after “Riverdale” premiered, Aguirre-Sacasa delved further into the Archie Comics universe, spearheading Netflix’s “Chilling Adventures of Sabrina,” the third season of which lands on the streaming service Friday. While the show is not a replica of “Riverdale,” it looked to elements of the series and took them one step further. Like “Riverdale,” “CAOS” is set in a small town — one called Greendale. (There have even been talks of a “Riverdale”/“CAOS” crossover, though one character named Ben Button has visited Greendale.) Just like “Riverdale,” there’s a darker element at play on “CAOS,” which the Netflix series takes to another level with a plot centered on supernatural elements, witches, spirits and magic. A retro tone runs throughout the show — in this case, a nod to the occult horror of the Hollywood Renaissance.

“Sabrina is an extension of [‘Riverdale’] because we take a coming-of-age teenage show and throw hard-core satanic 1960s and 1970s horror at it,” says Aguirre-Sacasa.

But the “Riverdale” ethos extends beyond Aguirre-Sacasa’s work. This fall, the CW premiered a modern — and more mature — take on “Nancy Drew,” with a supernatural twist. The amateur sleuth series is centered on ghosts and takes place in a small seaside town in Maine, but it has a look, feel and neo-noir element akin to “Riverdale’s” — plus a dark central mystery.

Two classic horror films, “Rosemary’s Baby” and “The Exorcist,” have been the go-to reference guide to describe the tonal feel of Netflix’s “Chilling Adventures of Sabrina.”

"Nancy Drew" draws on the palette of the 1920s and 1930s, emphasizing the original mysteries' Depression-era roots.
(Bettina Strauss / The CW)

For the team behind the series, “Nancy Drew” was meant to be a companion piece to “Riverdale,” albeit one that carefully distinguished itself from its predecessor. “We were highly discouraged from using certain colors, certain looks, the 1950s diner, the way Betty wears her ponytail,” says Melinda Hsu Taylor, executive producer and showrunner of “Nancy Drew.” “We intentionally carved out a different space for ourselves with a lot of thought to what they had already done to pave the way.”

Instead, “Nancy Drew” opts to live in the color palette of the 1920s and ‘30s, with some 1970s for good measure. “Both shows are darker versions of their roots’ [intellectual property], but ‘Nancy Drew’ has ghosts in it and really heavy supernatural threats, which ‘Riverdale’ does not,” says Noga Landau, executive producer and creator of “Nancy Drew.”

In broader terms, “Riverdale” appears to have spawned a raft of moody — but not necessarily straight-faced — spins on the venerable teen drama. HBO’s “Euphoria,” an often bleak look at navigating adolescence, is leavened by star Zendaya’s witty, winking narration, not to mention makeup and costumes as rebellious as its characters. Like “Riverdale,” Netflix’s short-lived “Daybreak,” a postapocalyptic comedy-horror series, was born of the comic-book world and used its distinct aesthetic — think “Mad Max” — to reframe tropes borrowed from high school films and TV shows of the ‘80s and ‘90s. And USA Network’s “Dare Me,” which mixes in the world of competitive cheerleading, suggests a grittier twist on “Friday Night Lights.”

Even the “Riverdale” universe is still expanding. In February, “Katy Keene,” a “Riverdale” spinoff/romantic musical set in New York City, will premiere on the CW. While the show is a far cry from the darkness of “Riverdale,” there will be similarities with “CAOS” and “Riverdale” in terms of the retro feel, but the tone will be lighter and more aspirational, says Aguirre-Sacasa.

Still, the “Riverdale” creator is reluctant to take credit for how he may have influenced other TV series.

“If there’s even a sense that ‘Riverdale’ has inspired some of these shows, it’s so humbling,” he says. “It feels like we’re a part of a proud tradition of teen dramas, and some have been more earnest, some have been more traditional and some have been more wistful, but it’s nice to be a part of that.”