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.”
“Our story is about a town, a small town and the people who live in the town,” says narrator Jughead Jones (Cole Sprouse). “Safe, decent, innocent. Get closer though and you start seeing the shadows underneath.” Jughead sits alone in Pop’s Chock’lit Shoppe, drinking coffee, writing a novel — “Riverdale’s very own ‘In Cold Blood’” — based on mysterious tragic events of the just-ending summer.
You will have guessed by now that this is not your grandmother’s “Archie,” but the comics have spanned several parallel universes. The characters have lived in prehistoric times and in the future; Archie has married both Betty and Veronica; been shot to death; and weathered a zombie apocalypse, in a 2013 series, “Afterlife with Archie,” written by Roberto Aguirre-Sacasa, who developed “Riverdale” and is also the chief creative officer of Archie Comics; this iteration could not be more official.
It presents as a kind of “Twin Peaks” meets “Dawson’s Creek,” the teen soap with which “Riverdale” producer Greg Berlanti — who also oversees the shows that make up the CW’s comics-sprung “Arrowverse” — got his start in television. Styled with referents to the 1950s and early ‘60s, it exists out of conventional time, evidently now (with nods to “Mad Men” and “True Detective,” Netflix and HBO) but also then.
So here is good-girl Betty Cooper (Lili Reinhart), whom we first meet in her underwear, putting up a pony tail. In the window across the way, Archie (KJ Apa) is shirtless, and ripped, having worked construction for his father (Luke Perry). Betty wonders whether she should tell Archie she likes him, while her mother (Mädchen Amick) is concerned that she maintains “a decent character” and keep clear of bad influences.
But now comes Veronica Lodge (Camila Mendes), with her mother, Riverdale native Hermoine (Marisol Nichols), refugees from New York City, where Mr. Lodge has turned out to be a Bernie Madoff. Veronica is all sophisticated sass (“I don’t follow the rules, I make them, and when necessary I break them”), but also the one who sees their high school world from the outside: “Can’t we just liberate ourselves from the tired dichotomy of jocks, artists -- can’t we, in this post-James Franco world, be all things at once?”
They are sophomores, of course, because teenagers in the first year of a high school series are always sophomores.
Though Archie has some heavy challenges — this is not the first high school show to get a dramatic hit off of statutory rape — he’s an object of interest who is not all that interesting, the sensitive version of a big lug. He’s good at football, plays the guitar and writes the sort of songs you would expect from a character who is supposed to be 15 or 16. His friends are all more colorful.
“Archie’s swell,” says Kevin Keller (Casey Cott), an out gay character who joined the comic series in 2010. “But like most millennial straight guys he needs to be told what he wants.”
It’s Betty and Veronica who form the dynamic core of the series (and Mendes and Reinhart the actors who most impress). You know their deal: the light and the dark, yin and yang, the girl next door and the girl on the hill. They are the active forces here, while Archie — for the moment at least — mostly frets and waits.
That it scarcely matters which winds up with him is baked into the story — as the world’s longest-lasting love triangle, it’s a question that resists resolution. What matters more is how Betty and Veronica, who will be rivalrous best friends to the end of time, get on from day to day and crisis to crisis. This is their love story.
Among the other characters, Cheryl Blossom (Madelaine Petsch) carries the mean-girl role; Reggie Mantle (Ross Butler), Archie’s traditional rival, barely appears in the four episodes available for review; jock Moose Mason (Cody Kearsley) is bi-curious; and egghead Dilton Doiley (Major Curda) is also “a hard-core survivalist.” Josie McCoy (Ashleigh Murray) and her musical crew are now “divas of color,” who call themselves Pussycats “because we have to claw our way into the same rooms that you can waltz into.” Her mother (Robin Givens) is the mayor. And white-haired Miss Grundy (Sarah Habel) has been transformed into a temptress in heart-shaped “Lolita” sunglasses .
If “Riverdale” can seem familiar to the point of cliché, it’s in part because the template — the “Andy Hardy” film series, basically, remade as a comic book — is highly powerful and adaptable. You could give all the these characters different names and set it in Anytown, and it would seem just as “Archie.” As predictable, or artificial, as the show can seem, when you take stock of it — even in its dark themes and situations — it is vital and inviting, fundamentally true to its characters and hard to put down.
When: 9 p.m. Thursday
Rating: TV-14-DLV (may be unsuitable for children under the age of 14 with advisories for suggestive dialogue, coarse language and violence)
Follow Robert Lloyd on Twitter @LATimesTVLloyd