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Better Call Saul Season Three

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When rumours of a Breaking Bad spin-off series first surfaced it seemed an absurd concept. How could writer/director Vince Gilligan imbue occasional comic relief character, Saul Goodman (Bob Odenkirk) with the requisite gravitas to make an audience care and the potential for exciting narrative directions, particularly in the context of a show that is part prequel. The answer ended up being “really freaking well”.

Now in its third season, Better Call Saul continues its tradition of slow burn tension, human drama and occasional bouts of yelling at Chuck (Michael McKean), a character who inspires the kind of throbbing-veined hatred usually reserved for the baddies on Game of Thrones.

It’s difficult to discuss the new season without spoilers, but needless to say the respective fates of Jimmy/Saul (Bob Odenkirk), Mike (Jonathan Banks) and a certain eerily calm antagonist from Breaking Bad are are set to collide in ways that are both thrilling and unexpected.

The first two episodes “Mabel” and “Witness”, both directed by Vince Gilligan himself, sketch out a potentially dark and intriguing path for this season where kind-hearted Jimmy morphs into the glib, corrupt Saul.

One sequence in particular, where Mike attempts to find who has placed a tracking device on his car, is testament to Gilligan’s eye for visual storytelling and ratcheting up the tension. You’re basically watching Jonathan Banks dismantle a car, fiddle around with a petrol cap and then sit and wait by a window, yet it’s gripping in a way that’s hard to explain.

In fact the best way to experience the new season is with very little prior information. Better Call Saul remains one of the most unique and riveting programs on television so head over to Stan to catch up on any episodes you’ve missed and get ready for the black comedy, the pathos and yelling at Chuck.

Better Call Saul Season 3 starts streaming on Stan April 11 at 5pm.

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Under the Gun

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Under the Gun is a sobering documentary which uses the tragedy of the Sandy Hook shootings as the first step towards trying to understand America’s relationship with firearms and the much cited second amendment. You may have heard about this documentary late last year when a defamation lawsuit was drawn up by some of its subjects – all gun owners – who felt they had been misrepresented by director Stephanie Soechtig and edited to push an agenda. Indeed, accusations of editorial bias aside, the film does have an agenda: it doesn’t want to take your guns away, it wants you to be proactive in their control. As the parent of one of the victims of the Aurora shooting says pertinently towards the end, ‘I don’t want your prayers. I want your action.’

In order to get her message across, Soechtig takes time to interact not just with victims of gun crime, but also those who fight against gun control, seeing it as an affront to old fashioned American freedom. She gives voice to those people who do own guns, believe in the second amendment, but also want legislation to stop the wrong people having access to things such as assault rifles and body armour. The director also highlights the history of the NRA, showing them to not always have been the overly vocal opponents of gun safety.

If you have a strong dog in the fight of gun ownership – something which has reared its head again in Australian politics of late – then Under the Gun will either fall on deaf ears or be considered preaching to the converted. However, the variety of people Soechtig speaks to means she manages to chip away at the black and white arguments that have polarised gun debate for decades. In a way, the director has managed to find an overlap between the intimacy of Kim A. Snyder’s Newtown and the primal scream of Michael Moore’s Bowling for Columbine.

Both heartbreaking and infuriating, Under the Gun is a definite must see.

 

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Marvel’s Iron Fist

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Following in the footsteps of Daredevil, Jessica Jones, and Luke Cage (and presaging team-up series, The Defenders), the latest Marvel/Netflix series has a lot to live up to – and a lot of now-apparent baggage to shed. Sadly, Iron Fist does neither.

Which is not to say it’s a terrible time, but Iron Fist exhibits a lack of ambition and an inability to effectively define its own identity. It feels by the numbers in a way its predecessors, even when they were working to formula, didn’t. If Daredevil is the opener of the way, and Jessica Jones filtered that narrative model through the lens of a woman’s experience, while Luke Cage steeped it in African American culture and history, then this series does… well, nothing too interesting.

Which may in fact be the best argument for re-imagining Danny Rand as an Asian character, instead of the comics-canonical white guy trained in the mystic East. There’s engaging work to be done in viewing the hoary tropes of the ’70s born martial arts movie through the eyes of, say, a savvy second- or third- generation Asian American.

Instead we get Finn Jones (Game of Thrones) as Rand, long thought dead after being lost in a plane crash along with his parents in the Himalayas, returning to New York City 15 years after the fact. Where’s he been in the interim? Why, learning martial arts in the magical mountain retreat of K’un L’un – hence why he’s now presenting as a shoeless hippie wanderer, a look that doesn’t endear him to the current executives of his father’s former company when he fronts up and informs them that he’d like his billions back, please.

Perhaps the weirdest choice made in Iron Fist is to spend so much time focusing on the machinations and maneuvering involved in Danny wresting back control of his company from his former childhood friends, Ward (Tom Pelphrey) and Joy (Jessica Stroup) Meachum, who are acting as catspaws for their father, Harold (David Wenham, having fun), Rand Senior’s former business partner , who is currently pretending to be dead for nebulous reasons.  If nothing else, Batman Begins handled this entire plot much more quickly and adroitly.

Still we do get some martial arts action, largely from Danny’s reluctant ally, dojo-owner Colleen Wing (Jessica Henwick), who gets involved in illegal cage fighting in order to pay the bills. And Danny gets some moments to shine, too – his skirmish against a squad of hatchet-wielding Chinese toughs ticks the boxes nicely. But it’s all a bit underwhelming, lacking the audacity and brutality of Daredevil‘s fight choreography, and the casual superhuman power of Jessica Jones and Luke Cage. And, forgive us, but isn’t Iron Fist’s whole schtick supposed to be spectacular martial arts?

If anything is a dealbreaker, it’s the series’ failure to fulfill the inherent promise of its premise. We should be seeing some Yuen Woo-ping style wire-fu, some scenery shattering displays of mystic kung-fu power (which we do from time to time, to be fair, but it’s underwhelming), something that takes us above the street-level beat-ups we’ve seen so far and bridges the gap between Daredevil and, say, Doctor Strange. It’s all there in the premise.

But it’s not there in the show.

So far, at least. Netflix put out the first six episodes for review purposes, and it’s possible that Iron Fist picks up significantly in the back half, but it wants to ramp up to an extraordinary degree to make up for its plodding opening act. If there’s one thing Netflix needs to learn – and this goes beyond their Marvel properties to encompass pretty much all their original series – it’s that length is not its own virtue. We shouldn’t have to trudge through hours of makework storytelling to get to the climax. It is, at base, bad writing beholden to a pointless production mandate.

Based on what we’ve seen so far, Iron Fist is for completists only. It’s not a complete mess, but it’s a significant step down in quality.

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Riverdale Chapter 4: The Last Picture Show

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More Jughead = better Riverdale. It’s a simple formula largely based on this episode, which partly focuses on Cole Sprouse’s moody, beanie-clad outsider campaigning to save the Twilight Drive-In from impending destruction.

Of course, Juggie is an obsessive cinephile. It’s a perfect grace note for the character, denoted by a fairly basic Tarantino reference, but really driven home by our humble narrator referring to Betty Cooper as a “Hitchcock blonde”. As it transpires, Jughead has better reasons than cinematic taste to try and preserve the old drive-in cinema not only does he work there as a projectionist, he’s camping out there. Juggie’s home life is less than ideal; his mother and little sister are nowhere to be found, while his old man, F.P. Jones (Skeet Ulrich), is the leader of the South Side Serpents, a 1%er outfit of leather-clad ne’er-do-wells. Jug and his old man really only get one scene together, but it’s milked for pathos – especially since F.P. is partly responsible for the Drive-In being sold off to a developer, acting as a bagman in a bit of skullduggery involving Mayor McCoy (Robin Givens) and… the Lodges!

Remember the big bag of money Hermione Lodge was gifted with back in episode one? As it turns out, Hermione is acting as a catspaw for the imprisoned and as-yet-unseen Hiram Lodge, paying off McCoy and the Serpents in order for Lodge Industries purchase of the old drive-in to go smoothly. It’s a cool development, one that is hard to see coming but makes perfect sense in retrospect. Canonically, Mr. Lodge has always been the major financial player in town, and this lets him still fulfill that role while remaining offscreen.

The battle over the drive-in is also a strong thematic touchstone; it represents “Old Riverdale”, the innocent land of neon and classic cars, hot dogs and teen canoodling – how apt that it’s being destroyed by the “New Riverdale” of soap opera plot twists, corruption, and dirty dealing. Jughead, our POV man, wants to protect Old Riverdale; sadly, he can only bear witness to its passing, even as he himself is hurt by the machinations that grind it up.

We also get a better idea of the social dynamics underpinning Riverdale’s older generation. Hermione and Fred head to the drive-in together for its final screening (top marks for using Rebel Without A Cause) and it becomes clear that they used to have a thing going on back in the day before she ditched him for the wealthier Hiram. At another point, after Veronica sees her having an argument with F.P., Hermione explains that the two of them went to high school together Meanwhile, we learn that Fred once fired F.P. for theft. If anything, the middle-aged Riverdalers have more going on than their front-and-centre kids.

All this is background stuff, though, with the A-plot reserved for – and seemingly resolving – the increasingly icky relationship between Archie and Ms Grundy, as Girl Detective Betty Cooper learns that the music teacher is, in fact, using an assumed name (cue photo cameo from the real Grundy, the spitting image of her comic book counterpart). Grundy’s explanation for this is that she is fleeing an abusive relationship, but the show has put up too many red flags for that to fly, chief among them that she previously did an “independent study project” with the now deceased Jason Blossom.

Once all this is out in the open there’s nothing to do but put Grundy on a (literal) bus, but what’s really jarring is the fairly blase attitude everyone – including Fred, Archie’s dad – takes to the revelation that the music teacher has been in a sexual relationship with one of her students. There’s no way to read that as anything other than predatory, but only Betty’s mother, Alice, really getting bent out of shape over the situation and calling a spade a spade – and we’ve already been encouraged to view her as nuts, anyway (indeed, there’s a scene this ep where she suddenly appears outside a car window at the drive-in, flashlight in hand, that seemingly exists just to reinforce this). There’s actually a weird disconnect between the way characters react to the situation and the way the show represents it – consider the scene where Grundy – real name Jennifer Gibson if you’re keeping track – favouring a group of teen hunks with a lingering gaze; there’s a disturbing pattern being hinted at here, and we the viewers are far more squicked out than almost anyone on the show.

Still, “The Last Picture Show” is a pretty great episode, deepening our understanding of the town’s dynamics and laying foundations for further plots beyond the whole “who killed Jason Blossom?” hook. It’ll be interesting to see what kind of fallout results from the Archie/Grundy storyline – it’d be good to see ol’ Arch realise how badly he’s been used at least – but if not getting that is the price of moving forward narratively, fair enough. There’s plenty going on in the Town With Pep that’s more worthy of our attention.

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Riverdale Chapter 3: Body Double

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Our assertion last week that Riverdale won’t be messing with the core characteristics of its cast of characters may have been premature. While the Big Four may be inviolate, lesser members of the Archie Comics pantheon seem to much more malleable in this side-universe. To wit: Chuck Clayton (Jordan Calloway), for decades a sports-happy aspiring comic book artist, is now a slut-shaming alpha jock, while boy genius Dilton Doiley (Major Kurda) is a hardcore survivalist bent on welding his scout troop into a militia. That’s a bit different.

But we’re getting ahead of ourselves. Episode three kicks off with one of the fastest cliffhanger-reversals in history. When we last saw Cheryl Blossom (Madelaine Petsch) she was holding her wrists out for the handcuffs and declaring herself guilty. Pretty much immediately she’s clarifying the situation to Mr. Weatherbee (Peter James Bryant) and Sheriff Keller (Martin Cummins): she’s guilty of lying to the authorities, not offing her brother, Jason. Now, at last, we get the heavily telegraphed revelation that Jason wanted to run away from Riverdale forever, and Cheryl was helping him fake his own death in order to get out from under their parents (who we meet briefly this episode, and it’s kind of an anticlimax).

The main thrust of this episode is the aftermath of Veronica’s (Camila Mendes) date with Chuck, who takes to social media to put it about that he gave her a “sticky maple” (apparently that’s a Riverdale thing, with the exact details left to the imagination). Ronnie is livid, but it’s social justice minded Betty (Lili Reinhart), currently in the middle of reviving the Riverdale High school newspaper, The Blue & Gold, who spearheads the counterattack, uncovering a culture of misogyny in the football team and bringing together a number of victims – including Big Ethel, played by none other than Shannon “Barb from Stranger Things” Purser. Revenge being needed, a honeypot is set, with Betty as the bait.

Meanwhile, Jughead’s (Cole Sprouse) investigation of Jason’s death continues, with Betty now promising him column inches in the paper a la Truman Capote’s In Cold Blood. Juggie takes a run at a witness that we haven’t spent much time with – Dilton, the smartest kid in town, who was nearby with his scout troop when Jason disappeared. After zeroing in on a weak link in Dilton’s khaki-clad foĺlowers, Jug learns that it was Dilton who was responsible for the gunshot everyone heard on the 4th of July – he was drilling his charges for the coming apocalypse because in this version of crazy-smart Dilton Doiley, the emphasis is on crazy. In return for Jughead not telling the cops about his penchant for firearms, Dilton drops a clue on him that the audience already knows – Ms. Grundy’s car was at the river that day, presumably along with Ms Grundy (Sarah Habel) herself. This will in all likelihood swing the focus of the investigation onto her next episode (a promise made, as it turns out, in this ep’s kicker).

Kind of lost in the mix this episode is ol’ Arch (KJ Apa), who manages to parlay Cheryl’s interest in him into an in with Josie and the Pussycats in order to further his music. Plus he manages to convince his dad that music to him is as important as football and deserves equal paternal support, which is all well and good, but pretty vanilla in an episode where Betty is donning a stripper wig and almost drowning a handcuffed Chuck in a hot tub.

And therein lies the problem with Archie as a character, at least in Riverdale; for all that he’s hunked out and had an affair with a teacher, he’s still a good kid trying to do the right thing, and the show is struggling to both dramatise that in a meaningful way and to make it stand out amongst all the other salacious action going on – and this is certainly the most salacious episode so far. The focus on Archie’s music is also sitting awkwardly; the creative process is always difficult to depict in a way that doesn’t come across as mawkish, and the series is definitely failing here. The show’s title certainly implies an ensemble piece, but surely the flagship character shouldn’t be this uninteresting? Give the Andrews kid some agency, for crying out loud.

There’s still plenty to enjoy here, not the least of which is some Melrose Place style histrionics among the parental set – Betty’s eminently bitter mum and the grieving Mrs Blossom damn near have a catfight, for crying out loud, and you get the feeling that some serious sins-of-the-father stuff will come to light before the series is done. There are also plenty of dangling threads left to ruminate on, in addition to the ongoing plot; Betty called Chuck “Jason” when she was torturing him, then claimed to not remember – does mental illness run in the Cooper family? Are we gonna meet the mysterious broken bird, Polly, soon? Still, this feels like a minor but measurable step down from what has gone before.

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Newton’s Law: Episode 2

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Newton’s Law is back after an average Episode 1, in which we met the delightful Josephine Newton (Claudia Karvan) as she resumes her high-flying position as a barrister at Knox Chambers. She proved herself more than capable last week after connecting the clues to crack a controversial case, but will her friends prove themselves to be more interesting this time around?

We open this week with Josephine’s estranged environmental-activist husband Callum (Brett Tucker) taking their daughter Lydia (Ella Newton) along to a rally to save a forest, where Lydia – whom it must be remembered is only fifteen – tries to seduce the bulldozer-driver and ends up destroying a politician’s expensive car. Since Josephine is unable to defend her as her mother, the duty falls to Helena (Georgia Naidu) in her newly-opened solicitor’s office in the car park, in the hopes that she can prep Lewis (Toby Schmitz) to take the case.

Here is where we finally get to know more about Helena and Johnny (Sean Keenan) and what they’re capable of: Johnny proves himself to be more than just the good-hearted car thief as he spars with feisty insurance investigator Skye Stewart (Miranda Tapsell) to discover how much of the crime is really Lydia’s fault, and after the two uncover the unlawful construction on the rally site, Helena is able to show off her solicitor’s skills by not only preparing a great case for Lewis, but muscling up to the politician’s insurer and closing the case herself. It’s wonderful to see last episode’s two lame ducks grow more into swans, and it will be interesting to see where Johnny and Skye’s interesting rapport leads in future episodes.

Running alongside this storyline and keeping in line with the show’s “case of the week” style structure is Josephine’s own case, as she and Lewis are brought in to defend a young transgender girl, Sam, whose Malaysian parents are fighting to halt her first stage hormone treatment.

Josephine’s hands-on, heartfelt approach to her job is in sharp contrast to Lewis, who is not yet selling the sarcastic and narcissistic big shot, instead coming off as unfortunately one-dimensional and arrogant. Even a misguided subplot that saw him having “a history” with the case’s presiding judge failed to make him spontaneous or sexy, only goofy. With hints to a possible romance blossoming between Josephine and Lewis, we can only hope he becomes more likable.

A feat that is highly unlikely for daughter Lydia… At only fifteen, she sneaks wine from her mum, skips school and tries to hook up with nineteen year olds; there is no trace of ‘oh, to be young’, and she has literally no reason to disrespect her mother, coming off as bratty and entitled.

Episode 2 is a massive step up from episode 1: not only do we get to know more about Josephine’s friends, for better or worse, but we get to see her in her element, defending a deserving young woman. And with interesting relationships on the horizon, episode 3 should surely step it up again, if you’re still invested enough to continue watching…

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Imposters

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The risk of Imposters being relegated to the TV-trash basket was high. Heartbreak, revenge, a good-looking chick, pathetic guys who trail after her – the humdrum formula is definitely there. But despite being predicated on almost every imaginable trope in television history, Imposters – at least the first three eps – is a fun disruption of what you’d expect it to be.

Con artist Maddie – also known as Ava, Alice and Saffron (Inbar Lavi) is as beautiful and alluring as she is dangerous. Maddie is a manipulative seductress who charms people into marrying her before making off with their cash (and just enough dirt to blackmail them into shutting up about it). But she runs into trouble when her latest assignment threatens to be derailed after she meets Patrick (Stephen Bishop), a potential – real – love interest.

Further complicating Maddie’s life’s work are three former targets – Ezra (Rob Heaps), Richard (Parker Young) and Jules (Marianne Rendón) – who soon realise they have each been scammed by the same woman and team up to track her down. What they don’t realise is that they must face their own truths and find new versions of themselves along the way in exacting their revenge.

Imposters works for one reason: it’s so typically (laughably) soapy, that it becomes kind of an endearing parody. Whether or not this was a deliberate choice is unclear, but whether it was or wasn’t, it’s funny because the premise, the acting, the writing, the direction, is all a bit silly.

For example, the show’s opening gambit takes place right after gorgeous, French-accented Ava (Maddie, Alice, Saffron et al) cleans out her nice Jewish husband, Ezra, and Ezra tries to kill himself by hanging himself with an extension cord after watching a ‘how-to’ tutorial on YouTube. Now, this would usually be viewed as quite a dark happenstance, right? But Imposters somehow finds the humour in it. And that’s really the caveat of the show – it forces its audience to take part in a bit of schadenfreude.

Imposters walks that fine line between mid-arvo soap opera and lovable dark comedy. It’s no Bojack Horseman, but ultimately it does manage to do ‘cheesy’ in a passably clever way.

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Trumped: Inside the Greatest Political Upset of All Time

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Cut together from hundreds of hours of footage recorded for the election campaign television series, The Circus, Trumped is a frontline view of the rise of – and it still feels weird to say this – President Donald J. Trump. Beginning with his declaration of candidacy, tracing the war of attrition that was the Republican Primary, onto his scandal-ridden campaign and finally, the immediate aftermath of his election.

Trumped is a pretty meat-and-potatoes kind of documentary. Sticking mostly to a straight forward chronology, it details the big moments in the campaign in a relatively straight forward manner. There’s no bold thesis statement, no talking heads extemporising on What All This Means – the facts are the narrative.

That’s both a strength and a weakness. Yes, the audience is left to parse the action of the narrative for themselves, but the events depicted are largely isolated from the cultural and social context they occurred in. The role of the alt-right is ignored, for example, as are Trump’s connections with Russia and the potential conflicts of interest inherent in his business holdings. Trumped is more interested in the day-to-day horsetrading of the campaign trail, and we spend a lot of time with fixers, pundits and political operators, pontificating on the micro-level about this day’s events, that day’s scandals – we don’t really get an overarching view or, indeed a viewpoint.

Indeed, Trumped really just tells us things we already know – that nobody thought he could possibly win, that the white working class turned out in droves, that he was seemingly immune to scandal, that his election was – and is – wildly controversial. It feels somewhat unnecessary at this close a remove, seeing as how we just lived through all this stuff, but there is a kind of car-crash fascination in watching the events unfold now with the benefit of foreknowledge. Ultimately, it’s useful without being mandatory viewing.

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Riverdale Chapter 2: A Touch of Evil

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For a comic franchise that started out lily white back in the day, in recent years the Archie books have embraced diversity with gusto, and the new series has taken it even further. Mr Weatherbee (Peter James Bryant), Pop Tate (Alvin Sanders) and all of the Pussycats are African American now, while Reggie Mantle (Ross Butler) is Asian. Most prominently, however, we have at least two LGBTQI characters: fan favourite Kevin Keller (Casey Cott), who is openly gay, and Moose Mason (Cody Kearsley) – and it’s these two who provided last episode’s cliffhanger, stumbling across the corpse of Jason Blossom while canoodling at the river, and revealing that Blossom had been shot, not drowned.

After the plot-heavy pilot episode, “A Touch of Evil” eases off the gas a bit, dealing mainly with the fallout of the body’s discovery. First and foremost, we have Archie (KJ Apa) wrestling with whether or not to tell the authorities that he and Ms Grundy (Sarah Habel) heard a gunshot on the day Jason disappeared, spilling the beans about their illicit affair. Parallel to that, we get Cheryl Blossom (Madelaine Petsch) playing queen bee, determined that a pep rally go on in the face of the recent tragedy.

The lighter plot machinations allow more time to flesh out some of the relationship dynamics. Betty (Lili Reinhart) and Veronica (Camila Mendes) break up and make up over – who else? – Archie, in the end vowing to never let a boy come between them again (yeah, right). Perhaps more importantly, Archie and Jughead (Cole Sprouse) mend some bridges, and thank god for that – perhaps the most jarring element so far has been the idea that these two seven decade BFFs are on the outs.

Jughead is, of course, our narrator, giving voice to melodramatic voice overs that don’t really add much plotwise but do add a little noir je ne sais quoi. The obvious comparison is Joseph Gordon-Levitt in Brick, with Juggie playing high school detective. Admittedly, at the moment there’s not much detecting going on, but he does see Archie with Grundy, and pushes America’s favourite redhead to do the right thing. He also drops the bombshell that Jason died a week after he disappeared, but the whys and wherefores of that revelation have to wait for next week.

The central mystery aside, we learn a few more bits and pieces along the way, some of which suggest deeper mysteries. Hermione Lodge (Marisol Nichols) is now working as a waitress at Pop Tate’s Chock’lit Shoppe – what happened to the bagful of money from last episode? If that’s not in play and finances are tight, how is Veronica getting cupcakes flown in from New York (her apology gifts to Betty are lavish AF)? There’s also a strong suggestion that Polly, Betty’s as-yet-unseen sister, has been institutionalised for her mental issues, leaving Betty’s mother, Alice (Madchen Amick) bitter, mistrustful – and possibly vengeful?

It’s becoming clear that Jason intended to fake his own death – at one point Cheryl tearfully wails that “…he was supposed to come back!” and she is notably unsurprised to be arrested by Sheriff Keller (Kevin’s dad, apparently) in this episode’s cliffhanger. The question is now raised: what – or who – drove him to that, and what is Cheryl’s involvement?

Cheryl Blossom is turning into a fascinating character, with Madelaine Petsch’s brittle performance letting us see how broken the head cheerleader is under her ice-queen demeanor. You just know there’s going to be some horrible Blossom family history unearthed in the course of the season, some terrible House of Usher stuff, and there are moments when you can see her just screaming on the inside. While almost every other character is more likable – even Reggie, who Archie punches on with this ep in defence of Jughead – Cheryl is easily the most interesting we’ve been introduced to thus far.

Fans of the comics get some iconic treats this ep. Josie (Ashleigh Murray) and the Pussycats cut loose at the pep rally, performing – what else? “Sugar, Sugar”, and we finally see Archie, Jughead, Betty and Veronica sharing a booth and a couple of milkshakes at Pop Tate’s. It’s the balance between loving nostalgia and lurid, hairpin-turn soap opera histrionics that is making Riverdale enjoyable so far, and hopefully they can keep it up.

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Riverdale Chapter One: The River’s Edge

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If your only experience with Archie and the Riverdale gang was the occasional Double Digest thrown your way as a kid  to keep you occupied on a long car trip, this updated take from the CW (Netflix in our neck of the woods) might come as something of a shock. If nothing else, there’s a lot more sex and murder. There’s one openly gay character, one closet case, and one ambiguous sapphic moment. And while Archie (Kiwi actor KJ Apa) isn’t fucking Mr Weatherbee, to paraphrase Kevin Smith’s Chasing Amy, he is dealing with the aftermath of a summer fling with Miss Grundy (Sarah Habel), the comics’ steely spinster having been re-imagined as someone considerably younger and more attractive.

This isn’t a “dark and gritty” reboot, though – that would be a lazy label to apply. Series writer (and Archie Comics Chief Creative Officer) Roberto Aguirre-Sacasa and producer Greg Berlanti (who honchos the CW DC supers shows) have really taken the bull by the horns here, reconfiguring the wholesome, episodic and largely continuity-free teen comics into something that a) might reflect or at least engage with some of the concerns of Young People Today* and b) has enough narrative meat and emotional punch to at least get us through a season or two.

So welcome to Riverdale, a town reeling from the tragic and purportedly accidental death of rich kid, Jason Blossom. His sister, Cheryl (Madelaine Petsch) has no qualms about milking his death for social advantage. Meanwhile, good girl Betty Cooper (Lili Reinhart) nurses a crush on her BFF, Archie – something she has in common with new girl, the wealthy Veronica Lodge (Camila Mendes), who is struggling to cope with a downturn in lifestyle after her father was arrested for embezzlement.

In the background lurk a number of mysteries: Archie’s parents (Luke Perry and Molly Ringwald, and if that isn’t bravura casting, then what is?) are separated; Veronica’s mother, Hermione (Marisol Nichols) receives a bag full of cash courtesy of her husband, for reasons yet to be divulged; Usual BFFs Archie and Jughead (Cole Sprouse) are on the outs; and, perhaps most importantly, Betty’s mother (Twin Peaks alum Madchen Amick, and we’ll get to that in a second) harbours a deep grudge against the Blossom family because of the way Jason treated Betty’s sister while thy were dating.

Whew. That’s a lot of plates to keep spinning, but this is a soap opera after all, no matter how glossy it looks. Twin Peaks was a soap opera too, and Riverdale has drawn a number of comparisons, some earned, some trifling – we do get a body in the water before the episode draws to a close, after all. In truth, though, Riverdale is drawing on a number of textual inspirations – that episode title is no mistake, and future eps are named “A Touch of Evil”, “Body Double”, and “The Last Picture Show” – make of that what you will.

For all that “darkness” though, there’s plenty of light here, too. Archie is Archie – a good kid struggling with the usual raft of problems and trying to do right by everyone, including himself. The Betty/Veronica friendship makes sense, as does the B/V/A love triangle – in fact, this might be the most sympathetic representation of Veronica Lodge in the history of the character, in that regard. The characters we’re supposed to like are likable, and that counts for a lot. If Riverdale manages to not descend into completely overwrought melodrama – always a risk with these kind of things – it looks like it’ll be a nice place to visit for a few seasons.

We definitely need more Jughead, though.

*Sex, I’m given to understand.

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