Written by Shawn Bourdo
You might think that Twin Peaks starts in the Spring but the CW has sprung a test run on us with Riverdale. The first clue that this wasn’t going to be the Archie comics that I bought at the checkout line of the grocery store in digest format or the cartoons I watched as a kid was just the titles of the episodes. Named after cool but slightly subversive films was something I’d figure was hard to live up to but they have delivered in spirit if not content. Starting with The River’s Edge, we are introduced to a similar town and a dead body that’s much more of a nod to Twin Peaks. Episodes since then have included A Touch of Evil and the more recent Heart of Darkness. All of them hint at a darker place than the happy, bright colors of the previous incarnations of the Archies.
I mentioned the Twin Peaks influence because it wears that influence on a sleeve. No. That’s wrong. It smacks you in the head with a briefcase full of Twin Peaks references. It’s also full of beautiful, very beautiful teenagers and adults just like most CW shows. It’s got a touch of Beverly Hills 90210 and a fly out nod to Gossip Girl and sex. Sweet, sweet sexy people in their early 20s playing high school students that all want to sleep with each other. There’s some Madchen Amick (Shelly Johnson of Twin Peaks) as Betty’s mother just so there is no doubt.
The thing I like most about this show is how adaptable the Archie characters are to different genres. I’m reminded of how the Scooby-Doo characters can be tweaked for different ages or stories. The teen genre is rife with possibilities and this darker Gothic take really works in the current TV environment. I think there’s a bit of inequity in the first five episodes so far. The latest “Heart of Darkness” shows off the strengths of the female characters. The Cheryl, Betty, and Veronica characters dominate the interest here. They have the best teen angst and camp value. They are also horny and beautiful – so in short, every teen boy’s dream. The Jughead and Archie stories are much more comic relief and time wasters. It’s not called Archie like the comics. It’s Riverdale and the town is the most interesting character.
Over on FX, Wes Anderson apparently dipped into the superhero genre for Legion. Like Rushmore meets The Royal Tenenbaums with a fun little side of One Flew Over The Cuckoo’s Nest and there’s the X-Men in the background of everything that happens. From the very first shots there’s an informed way of filming that feels much more theatrical than usual TV fare. The title of these episodes aren’t movie titles – they are called “Chapters” just like a book. The only thing more perfect would have been to call them “issues”.
The most recent “Chapter 3” has solidified this as one of the smartest, darkest shows on television. There’s this brilliant set-up where we spend a couple episodes thinking that David, our hero, is the most crazy person. But then we start to doubt the Universe. What other show would have a cappuccino machine tell a very symbolic story that you end up thinking about through the rest of the episode. This show is a puzzle that’s unfolding still. I don’t know much about this mutant from the comics so I’m figuring it out just as other viewers new to his background.
The initial episode would have worked well as a standalone movie too. It is the way all great pilot episodes should work. It introduces us to the tone of the story, creates characters we are willing to follow, and asks just enough questions to pull us through the rest of the season. Melanie and Syd are intriguing characters but David is Legion and we are still piecing together his powers and history. The psychology angle is a perfect way to give him a plausible way to talk about memories and psyche. I’m sold on this one for the duration.
In the TV Universe you can’t ever let your guard down. In a time of year when many of the shows are still on hiatus and the idea of “sweeps” are a distant memory, little gems appear on the screen, influenced by much larger screens. These two shows owe a debt to the past and to stylish movie directors and both might leave their own mark on the landscape.