Emotive ‘Riverdale’ Season 4 Premiere Renders Tribute to Luke Perry

To approach the fourth season premiere of “Riverdale” requires setting it apart from the rest of the show. No feverish melodrama this time around, no wild plot twists, instead the focus is on rendering tribute to Luke Perry, who passed away earlier this year. Those who dismiss “Riverdale” as absurdist teen entertainment may be surprised at the emotional punch this hour delivers, lovingly saying farewell to Perry’s character while capturing the sense of loss surely felt by the cast and crew.

We return to Riverdale as the town prepares for a major 4th of July parade. There is some sense of peace since gangster couple Hiram (Mark Consuelos) and Hermione Lodge (Marisol Nichols) were sent to the slammer. But the bliss is broken when Archie (K.J. Apa) receives a call from a nearby town informing him that his father Fred Andrews (Perry) has been killed in a hit and run. Archie decides to go identify the body while friends Veronica (Camila Mendes), Betty (Lili Reinhart) and Jughead (Cole Sprouse) offer their support. It’s a tough journey and when Archie discovers that the person responsible for the accident has been captured he momentarily vows revenge. But no amount of rage can fill the void left by Fred and soon all of Riverdale are paying tribute.

When Perry died in the middle of season three there was much collective mourning in the media for an actor who had been a 90s icon and found new stardom in this CW mass hit. Fittingly the season four premiere is titled “In Memoriam.” It is the one “Riverdale” episode that has come closest to achieving a level of real artistry. It’s also a welcoming break from the show’s usual insanity. Last season ended with everything from cults to FBI informants, and that was after a season of Archie going to jail for murder, escaping, battling a bear and still pondering how to take the SATs. But this entire season premiere is about remembering Fred and in essence Luke Perry. Skeet Ulrich as Jughead’s biker dad and now sheriff FP Jones has his best scene ever when he delivers the details of Fred’s death to Archie, breaking down in a way that betrays real pain. There are many such moments in the episode, including when Archie delivers a eulogy at the funeral and recounts a touching memory involving fireworks, or when Cheryl Blossom (Madelaine Petsch) tunes down the spoiled vixen routine and lends endearing words of support to Archie’s mom, Mary (Molly Ringwald). When Cheryl recounts her brother’s death and feeling completely alone, hoping to spare Mary such an experience, the performance by Madelaine Petsch reveals another side to the actress we rarely get to see.

Is “Riverdale” starting to mature? It’s not very probable. “In Memoriam” doesn’t necessarily bother to even continue the plot threads from last season. That will come later. It is instead the showrunners using the characters of this world to remember Perry’s character. The only plot twist in the season premiere is a tragic and piercing one when Archie finds the man accused of running over his dad, but it isn’t him, it was instead his young son and the father took the blame with the authorities. One of the show’s best ever scenes follows, as Archie, surrounded by the gang reflects on how his father was killed by someone not that much younger from them. In a show where high schoolers might discover their father is a serial killer, this episode brings out real and moving detour. Even the villains by the end contribute to Fred’s funeral.

Much of the episode consists of people delivering memories about Fred, which is a stand in for how the first days after Perry died must have felt on set. There is even a sense of poetry to the final moments as  the gang sit under the stars and watch some fireworks. For a moment the show’s famous pop color schemes dissipate only to return near the end. We can be certain “Riverdale” will return to its old antics. But as a tribute this season premiere took the show somewhere special, finding a heart that can easily get lost in all that high school drama.

Riverdale” season four premieres Oct. 9 and airs Wednesdays at 8 p.m. ET on the CW.