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The ‘Riverdale’-ification of the CW

Between new series ‘Batwoman’ and ‘Nancy Drew’—and next year’s ‘Katy Keene’—the network has committed to making nostalgia staples that are a little bit grimmer and a whole lot sexier

CW/Ringer illustration

Every fall is a chance for a network to redefine itself—or, as the case may be, cry for help. This year, however, the CW has an unusually ripe opportunity to set the tone for the days ahead. In the news, the network has found itself squarely in the middle of the high-level corporate politics that govern so much of what we watch and where. As HBO Max, the new streaming service from parent company WarnerMedia, looms, the CW declined to renew its mutually beneficial contract with Netflix in which seasons of its shows came to the service, and often found an expanded audience, on an accelerated timeline. Awkwardly, the news comes as the two brands have grown more interconnected and less distinct; Netflix currently airs both The Chilling Adventures of Sabrina and You, two high-profile outposts of the producing empire Greg Berlanti started at the CW. Sabrina even takes place in the same universe as teen sensation Riverdale, which will continue to stream on Netflix. The abrogated deal will largely affect new series, which in turn puts a greater pressure on premieres than even the usual stress of launching a TV show. After their initial run on broadcast, where will these series go, and what kind of audience will they reach there?

More noticeable to the average viewer is turnover on the CW itself. 2019 has been a milestone year for series finales, with two of the biggest being the CW’s pair of award-winning, critically acclaimed dramedies: Jane the Virgin, the warm and fuzzy telenovela homage about a tight-knit Miami family, and Crazy Ex-Girlfriend, the Technicolor musical that set obsession, dysfunction, and, eventually, recovery to song. The conclusion of two long-running series—Jane and Crazy Ex ran for five and four seasons, respectively—leaves a logistical gap in the CW’s schedule for executives to fill with new hours of programming. It also poses a more existential question: Without two series that formed an influential, if lesser-watched, cornerstone of the CW’s image, how would the network choose to present itself going forward?

Surveying some of the CW’s latest offerings, the answer appears to be by leaning into what already works. At the moment, the network’s two biggest tentpoles are related but separate branches of Berlanti’s fiefdom, currently the largest on TV at 18 series across a slew of providers. There’s the Arrowverse, the slate of straightforward superhero stories that answer Marvel’s eventized blockbusters with competent, comforting procedurals. And then there’s the Riverdale school of shows, which encompasses both Archie Comics source material and an outrageous, Ryan Murphy–indebted sensibility. This Sunday’s marquee debut, Ruby Rose’s Batwoman, is a largely faithful extension of the former.

But next week’s Nancy Drew, as well as the pending arrival of the first proper Riverdale spinoff in next spring’s Katy Keene, suggests the CW is no longer content to let Netflix reap most of Hot Archie’s many rewards. Katy Keene will follow Riverdale’s Josie (Ashleigh Murray)—as in Josie and the Pussycats—to New York, where she’ll pursue her dreams alongside her fashion designer roommate. (Katy herself is played by Pretty Little Liars Lucy Hale, making the show a sort of teen soap supergroup.) The CW is already working to expand Riverdale’s footprint beyond its narrative universe. Between Batwoman and Nancy Drew, the network is committed to making nostalgia staples a little bit grimmer and a whole lot sexier—a younger network’s version of CBS continuing to crank out new multicam sitcoms. Because in the face of growing uncertainty, why not stick with what works?

We’re well past the point of Batman saturation, making some of the attempts to stretch out DC’s biggest name a punch line before they’ve even had a chance to prove themselves. We’re entering month three of Joker hype, backlash, and defense, even though Todd Phillips’s unlikely Oscar contender doesn’t debut till Friday; earlier this summer, Epix’s Pennyworth applied the time-tested Make It Hot approach to … Bruce Wayne’s devoted butler. (This after Gotham spent half a decade tracing the adventures of young Wayne and before Edward Cullen himself dons the Batsuit.) Thankfully, Batwoman is nowhere near such a reach. Rose, having built her action credentials through projects like the John Wick franchise, plays Kate Kane, a cousin of Bruce Wayne who takes up his mantle after a mysterious three-year hiatus. (Hilariously, no one in Gotham seems to have guessed that the simultaneous disappearance of the Caped Crusader and the city’s most famous billionaire playboy might be linked.) Like other Arrrowverse entries, Batwoman leans more into the procedural, ensemble-based aspects of comic books’ appeal instead of their epic scope.

But this is still the CW, and Batwoman also carries some of the network’s signature goofy charm. Kate’s backstory is laid out via slo-mo, sepia-toned flashback, per the Exposition of Past Trauma Handbook followed by television shows everywhere. Kate’s, however, involves an illicit lesbian affair at military school, a reflection of both Rose’s publicly stated queer identity and the CW’s Gen Z–marketed commitment to sexual fluidity. Kate’s father runs a private security firm that’s taken to policing Gotham in Batman’s absence; over on Riverdale, Veronica’s dad Hiram once tried to build a for-profit prison, making the carceral state as much of a Big Bad as the Clown Prince of Crime. And Batwoman’s answer to Alfred is Luke Fox (Camrus Johnson), the young aide who’s been maintaining the Batcave until the boss comes home. (Canonically, he’s the son of Morgan Freeman’s character in The Dark Knight. Fingers crossed for a late-season cameo.)

If Batwoman largely hews to the Arrowverse template with accents of edge, Nancy Drew reads like a much more overt attempt to capitalize on Riverdale’s success—and turn it into a model for making other famously wholesome properties more teen-TV friendly. Another red-haired avatar of retro, and therefore timeless, Americana, Nancy Drew is actually a far easier fit for the grit-and-gloom treatment than Archie Andrews. Solving crimes is sort of Nancy’s whole thing, whereas a murder covering up a heroin ring was a jarring break from the wholesome high schooler as we knew him. Consequently, this new Nancy Drew lacks some of Riverdale’s self-conscious extravagance, and embraces another (erstwhile) CW property that’s recently come back into the spotlight: Veronica Mars.

Like fourth-season Veronica, this Nancy (Kennedy McMann) is out of high school and haunted by loss, stuck in a seaside town marked by income inequality and repression. It’s hinted that the Nancy Drew we know and love, who solved minor mysteries by lunch break, existed in the past, before Nancy graduated and lost her mom to cancer; now, she’s waitressing at a local diner and trying to move on with her life, at least until a new dead body turns up. Still, Nancy Drew isn’t quite the jaded neo-noir Veronica Mars is; produced by Gossip Girl’s Josh Schwartz and Stephanie Savage, it’s also got plenty of suds—extramarital affairs, heartthrobs with a secret, the works. And like Riverdale, Nancy Drew works overtime to give its quaint setting a dark underbelly. Organized crime is a factor, as is a potential supernatural element. This might prove to be Riverdale’s most enduring survival tip: Why have one source of genre thrills when you could blend several?

Larded with voice-overs and Ariana Grande syncs, neither Batwoman nor Nancy Drew makes for especially novel storytelling. They are, however, smart choices for deepening the CW’s reputation as a magnet for savvy teens and the 20-somethings they grow into. They’re a demographic raised on IP, but jaded enough by it to need a postmodern twist; they didn’t grow up reading comics or paperback page-turners, but they’re saturated with enough culture to get the references. And if Riverdale could grab their attention with a nonstop barrage of musical episodes and paranormal subplots, maybe Nancy Drew and Kate Kane can help hold it.