The great dream of the glossy CW drama is style-drenched and smirky-decadent, its tone veering freely between sardonic camp and fashion-forward aspiration. The dream only really came true once, and even Gossip Girl was flailing through pastiche long before the 2012 premiere of Arrow set the network on a course toward its ever-expanding superverse. The charming yet slight new series Katy Keene (debuting Thursday at 8 p.m. ET) is nominally a companion series to the shadowtown teen noir Riverdale, another sexed-up adaptation of an Archie Comics character invented during World War II. But Katy’s swank Fifth Avenue setting and rom-com-on-steroids storytelling feels like another (final?) attempt to bring New York soap glory back to what will almost certainly get renamed the DC network in a few years.
Lucy Hale stars as Katy, a lifelong striver who grew up on Delancey before the Lower East Side got kamillion-ized. She wants to be a famous designer, and personally sews seemingly everything that everyone around her wears. Currently, she’s working at Lacy’s, a Bergdorf-y department store dominated by imperial personal shopper Gloria (Katherine LaNasa, having a ball).
Katy lives in a nominally crammed, arguably gigantic apartment with two ambitious roommates. Jorge (Jonny Beauchamp) is a drag performer with Broadway in his sights. Josie (Ashleigh Murray) just hopped the spin-off train from Riverdale to New York, seeking music glory in a post-Pussycats paradigm. Their friend Pepper (Julia Chan) is the “most connected person in New York,” a columnist/filmmaker/self-brand/Friend of Lupita/squatter with Warholian inclinations. There’s also Katy’s boyfriend, KO (Zane Holtz), a boxer-bouncer in boxer briefs and the lone nice-guy doofus in the show’s handsome-man ensemble, which also includes a ripped tycoon heir and a prince named Swoon.
Katy Keene was developed by Roberto Aguirre-Sarcasa and Michael Grassi. Like Riverdale and Netflix’s Chilling Adventure of Sabrina, this new series reflects Aguirre-Sarcasa’s charming fascination with pushing Archie Comics’ straight-edge appeal forward into a post-everything new century. Jorge’s drag performances regularize shimmery musical numbers — it only takes a couple episodes to go Gaga — and the central romantic plotlines juggle fairy-tale sweetness with twisty melodrama. Everyone looks incredible, every piece of clothing is art-designed to an almost Wes Andersonian degree. The third episode takes place on Valentine’s Day, and the sheer number of hearts on screen feels Guinness-worthy: glistening heart curtains, hearts stitched onto clothes, a heart-shaped box of chocolates, hearts decorating a window treatment, a drop of blood that forms (screech!) into a heart.
This is Hale’s third try at CW stardom, after the recent Life Sentence and the fondly-remembered-by-this-critic class comedy Privileged. Between those short-lived series, Hale became a generational star on ABC Family’s Pretty Little Liars, a proto-Riverdale set in another corner of small-town America containing a continents’ worth of secrets.
The big disappointment with the early episodes of Katy Keene is how shrunken its Manhattan feels, compared to those progenitor series. Josie keeps talking about how much scarier her hometown was — and she’s right! Riverdale is “the murder capital of the world,” whereas this NYC is a small town that keeps throwing opportunities into its attractive protagonists’ laps. Josie starts singing in Washington Square Park, and impossibly handsome Alexander Cabot (Lucien Laviscount) walks up to offer her a record deal. At Lacy’s, Gloria gets introduced as a Miranda Priestly type, surrounded by fearful assistants; KO even calls her “the Gucci-wearing devil,” because saying “Prada” would cross the line from homage to ripoff. The three episodes I’ve seen can’t really nail the Gloria-Katy dynamic, though: Katy gets fired, Katy gets rehired, Gloria gives her well-meaning life advice, Gloria absolutely refuses to let her shoppers design clothes.
A show about New York doesn’t need to be nasty. You want to feel a little grime, though, and Katy Keene has all the authenticity of a postcard purchased at the airport. Katy and KO smooch at Coney Island. Every firefighter is a hottie date prospect. “New York,” Katy narrates. “They say if you can make it here, you can make it anywhere.” Dialogue like that got banned decades ago. Aguirre-Sarcasa is a retro guy, I get it. I might not believe that two youngish musicians are still bonding in downtown record stores over Bob Dylan albums, but it’s nice to think so, even if the male songwriter looks like he walked out of a Tal Bachman biopic.
When Riverdale works, it finds a best-of-both-worlds mixture of faded-photograph sincerity and sinful fun. Katy Keene wants to do something similar with the big city. Pepper somehow finds an empty megaloft downtown and secures financing via a goofy call girl plotline, a situation that makes Katy Keene feel like a period piece for the Studio 54 era. A nemesis calls Katy “a gutter girl from the Lower East Side,” a line that would’ve been too archaic for Mad Men. But then there is a Zosia Mamet shout-out and Carly Rae Jepsen karaoke, an endearingly fluid chat about code-switching alongside limp gags about a Thomas Jefferson rap musical, one single evil-character throwaway line about drug use alongside the Succession-for-kids maneuvering of the Cabot family.
About that: Alexander has a sister, Alexandra, played with devouring relish by Camille Hyde. In these early episodes, Alexandra’s a barely appearing diabolus ex machina. She keeps messing with the main characters for what seems to be the hell of it, and she’s way too jealous of Alexander’s relationship with Josie because all twins have to be a little incesty post-Thrones.
Every other character is just too practically perfect in every way, hardscrabbling occasional setbacks with bright-eyed radiance because friendship conquers all. (Even an escort subplot turns into a moral fable about monogamy.) Alexandra feels like the insanity the show is trying to bottle up. Free the crazy, I say! If you want a semi-musical heartburst drama about Big City strivers that blends aspirational grandeur with smell-of-the-subway believability, watch Pose. Katy Keene is lushly designed but synthetic. Better title: Poser. Grade: B-