Note: The review only covers the pilot of the series.
The CW’s newest drama is KATY KEENE. A spin-off of Riverdale set in the Big Apple, it’s about a group of young adults looking to fulfill their career and relationship aspirations. Less highly stylized than the mothership, though still with a healthy dose of hyper-reality and charm, and carrying over one established supporting character, this show should be really good. And it probably would be if not for awful writing.
The fault lies not in the performances. Lucy Hale (Pretty Little Liars) is spunky, cheery, and thoroughly convincing as Katy Keene. Ashleigh Murray’s Josie McCoy feels like a second lead, which makes sense, given that she’s already been developed on Riverdale and should have a prominent role in the new venture. These two are strong enough to hang a show on.
The supporting characters are also delightful. Pepper Smith (Julia Chan, Saving Hope) is the worldly, wild woman with sage advice. Jorge / Ginger Lopez (Jonny Beauchamp, Penny Dreadful) is easy to root for. Francois (Nathan Lee Graham) has the early 00s gay best friend vibe now in a boss suit. Gloria Grandbilt (Katherine LaNasa, Truth Be Told) and Amanda (Helene Yorke, Masters of Sex) are deliciously awful villains. KO (Zane Holtz, From Dusk Till Dawn: The Series) serves his role as eye candy and dutiful boyfriend, and Alexander Cabot (Lucien Laviscount, Snatch) seems like he’ll be a slightly better developed version of that.
But those supporting characters get to the heart of the problem. Their characters revolve solely around the leads. They don’t seem to have their own lives and personalities separate from interacting with Josie and, primarily, Katy. They exist only to further her plot, and so the world feels a lot less realized than other shows on the air right now.
Similarly, KATY KEENE goes for emotional payoff over a story that makes sense. Katy rebels against a boss and immediately gets a dream job with encouragement to pursue her talents. Ginger gets to tell off a jerk casting director in a speech that, in different context, would feel arrogant and coming from spoiled brat, sure to get him blackballed before his career even begins. If Pepper is so worldly, why is she spending every evening hanging out with Katy? Amanda and Gloria are written to be self-obsessed, but we only see them doing so in ways to hurt our protagonist, and the way high school peers would, not adults.
There is plenty of room for a fairy tale on the airwaves, and you could definitely call KATY KEENE that. If it committed more fully to the hyperreality stylings of Riverdale or The Chilling Adventures of Sabrina, it might even be easier to overlook how it thumbs its nose at reality because that would signal to the audience that what they’re watching is not in any way tied to the world we know. Yet, because KATY KEENE feels grounded in an actual place and time, it clashes with those sensibilities and instead feels half-finished at best, or cartoonish at worse. And the fact that so many of the characters are paper thin is the final nail.
Might the series get better in subsequent installments? Absolutely. A bit of retooling, and this could be something worth watching. But the blatant bad-ness of the pilot turned me off in a major way to the point that I don’t even care enough to watch the second episode and see how the cliffhanger resolves. In a landscape with less quality programming, I’d give it more of a chance because it is spun off of a show I enjoy. But in the current climate, there’s just no room for a show that doesn’t know what it is, or can’t make up its mind.
KATY KEENE airs Thursdays at 8/7c on the CW.