There’s something arch about ‘Riverdale’

Lili Reinhart as Betty Cooper in "Riverdale."  Katie Yu, CW

If you look back at the 75-year history of comic-book teenager Archie Andrews and his pals in idyllic Riverdale, what stands out most is the malleability of the brand.

Superheroes have endured just as many makeovers, revisions and updates, but not as easily as the optimistic ginger. As high school archetypes go (or Archietypes, if you will, including the all-around good guy, the rich girl, the girl-next-door, the introvert, the bully, the jocks, the nerds), Archie and his gang function mainly as blank slates, ready to receive the news of the day and the style of the times.

Archie served adolescent readers of several generations by adapting to them, evolving from a letter-sweatered Andy Hardy rip-off to the groovy frontman of his own pop-rock band. Miniskirts, disco, black friends, gay friends, iPhones – at whatever point the winds of change start to blow, the Archie characters invariably bend to just the right degree. Lately, Archie’s corporate minders, especially chief creative officer Roberto Aguirre-Sacasa, have rejuvenated the characters by allowing artists and writers to imagine him in more provocative and complex scenarios, from serious crime to a zombie invasion.

That same impulse is behind CW’s engrossing and remarkably adept drama “Riverdale,” a twisted but often satisfying alternative spin on the Archieverse premiering Thursday night, developed by Aguirre-Sacasa with Greg Berlanti (who oversees CW’s “Arrow,” “The Flash” and “Supergirl,” among others) as one of the executive producers.

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It’s a highly watchable reinvention, but let me also issue a strong caution that “Riverdale’s” entertainment value comes at a steep price, cashing out Archie’s underlying innocence to depict the corrupted community he calls home (“Twin Peaks” comparisons abound), where the teenagers all speak in a bratty, “Heathers”-esque shorthand of snark and pop-culture references, even when greeted by the sobering news that one of their own has presumably drowned in the town’s namesake river.

More shockingly, “Riverdale” immediately offers up Archie’s virginity, revealing that the high school sophomore (played by K.J. Apa) is having sex with one of his teachers, Ms. Grundy (Sarah Habel), who is not anything like her geriatric comic-book counterpart.

Ms. Grundy offers a ride to shirtless, six-packed Archie after his shift at a summer construction job. Watching teacher and student go at it in the back seat of her vintage VW Beetle, one can only imagine the scolding already en route from the Parents Television Council, who this time will have a pretty valid objection.

After all, the target readers of Archie Comics have always been children and preteens; the brand served for decades as a reliably chaste glimpse of teenage life for readers who weren’t quite there yet, sharing the eternal milkshake at Pop’s Chock’lit Shoppe and waiting for “Sugar, Sugar” to come on the jukebox.

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And although our culture may be rife with “hot teacher” fantasies, our news feeds are full of stories of actual female teachers serving prison sentences for having sex with underage male students. Society has no problem discerning criminal behavior when male coaches and teachers coerce and sexually assault students, but it still struggles with a double standard when the adult is female and the teenage boy is regarded as a young stud. I’m sorry this has happened to Archie (and also sorry for his astonished single father, Fred, played by a teen heartthrob of yore, Luke Perry). When their secret is discovered several episodes down the road, Archie insists that what he and Ms. Grundy have is a special sort of love.

There’s no clear reason for “Riverdale” to have crossed this particular line at the outset, other than to flaunt a fact that’s already quite clear: This is not the Archie you grew up with. Nor is it an Archie you can share with your younger children.

So whose Archie is this? Perhaps he truly is today’s Archie, making one last cynical grab at relevance, with a group of familiar friends who’ve been similarly rewritten to accommodate cruelties and savviness of the internet age. Despite the lurid start, “Riverdale” is a treat for like-minded adult viewers who will recognize many references to the old comics and who will appreciate the show’s campy undercurrent. “Riverdale” is self-consciously strewn with the sass and momentum of vintage episodes of “Glee” and “Gilmore Girls,” which, when you think about it, also succeeded by occupying a zone that was neither teenage nor entirely grown up.

The happiness and sunshine captured in the Archies’ pop-song oeuvre in the late 1960s and early ’70s is absent here. The songs Archie noodles around with on his guitar are mostly sad. Amid “Riverdale’s” constant fog and mist, summer is wrapping up and a new school year is set to begin. Rumors abound about the disappearance of Jason Blossom (Trevor Stines), the twin brother of Cheryl Blossom (Madelaine Petsch), the meanest girl at Riverdale High School.

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Jason and Cheryl were last seen on a boat together on the river early on the Fourth of July. Some potential witnesses – including Archie, who was frolicking nearby with Ms. Grundy, and an officious nerd, Dilton Doiley (Major Curda), who was leading his Boy Scout troop on a birdwatching hike – heard and saw things that run counter to the account Cheryl gives the sheriff. Eventually (spoiler alert), Jason’s bloated body turns up late on a Friday night, just when Riverdale’s gay gadfly, Kevin Keller (Casey Cott), is about to trade sexual favors with a bi-curious football player named Moose (Cody Kearsley).

In the lead role of Archie, Apa struggles to demonstrate that Archie has more life than the newly discovered corpse. He’s useful mostly as eye candy, and that’s not entirely the actor’s fault – on the comic-book page and now in a live-action script, it was always difficult to get a fix on Archie’s popularity (he only ever seemed to have one flat, cheerful mood), which may explain why the comic book has had such bad luck with previous attempts to make a live-action TV show or movie.

Archie’s desirability, on the other hand, was never in dispute, which leads us to one of pop-culture’s longest tugs of war, between a newly arrived rich girl from New York, Veronica Lodge (Camila Mendes), and Archie’s fawning next-door neighbor Betty Cooper (Lili Reinhart).

Entire doctoral theses have been written about the Betty-Veronica divide, and it’s here that “Riverdale” really shines, thanks to Mendes’ and Reinhart’s on-point performances. They manage to embody Betty and Veronica’s essential traits but, even better, they bring forth the nuanced friendship and mutual respect between two very different girls. Realizing that they work better together than apart, Betty and Veronica are a formidable, forthright duo.

When, for example, a posse of football players posts online rumors about Riverdale girls, including Veronica and a classmate named Ethel Muggs (“Stranger Things’s” Shannon Purser), Betty channels her outrage into journalism, reviving the school paper to investigate claims of a slut-shaming “score book” with names and rankings. Veronica, meanwhile, announces that “Proof or no proof, book or no book, I am going scorched-earth on these privileged, despicable miscreants.”

Although many of the themes here are decidedly adult, “Riverdale” seldom passes up an opportunity to reflect on lost innocence. The show is narrated by the school’s poetically observant emo kid, Jughead (Cole Sprouse), who, in addition to noting the erosion of Riverdale’s moral center, longs to repair his fractured friendship with his childhood friend Archie. For all the jadedness and prurience on display, “Riverdale” is never more comfortable than when it has assembled its sentimental gang in the retro Chock’lit Shoppe diner, or at the town’s soon-to-close drive-in theater, or when everyone attends a school dance featuring live music from Josie and the Pussycats (who, in another nod to the Archieverse’s cultural diligence, are now an all-black trio).

So many of these character names and details both stir and challenge my protective notions of Archie’s former world, but the truth is, I left him back in the ’70s, where he was celebrating the U.S. bicentennial and occasionally attending Christian youth-group meetings. “Riverdale” can be terrific once you let go and let Archie grow up in his own way.

“Riverdale” (one hour) premieres Thursday at 9 p.m. ET on CW.