In the premiere of the fourth season of Riverdale, the gang of troublemaking teens, plucked from the pages of the Archie comics, take a break from staving off bears, inciting turf wars, and spontaneously bursting into song to pay tribute to Luke Perry. The somber first episode acts as both a respectful homage to the beloved actor, who played Archie’s dad Fred Andrews in the show’s first three seasons until suffering a fatal stroke in February, and as a way to explain his character’s sudden absence.
The serious tone of the episode means none of the usual unrealistic, delightfully-absurd antics that make the show fun to watch, from a cheerleading squad breaking into juvie to perform “Jailhouse Rock” for the inmates to the time that Archie wore a bowtie to his murder trial. Instead, Season 4 picks up during the surprisingly uneventful summer before Archie’s (KJ Apa) senior year of high school. He and his friends, Jughead (Cole Sprouse), Betty (Lili Reinhart), and Veronica (Camila Mendes), are enjoying the peaceful respite from investigating murders and sparring with mob bosses. They’re making plans to go camping when Archie receives the news that his father has died.
Without spoiling the details of Fred’s death, I can disclose that he gets into an accident that reaffirms his characterization on the show as a selfless and humble local hero. The rest of the episode will undoubtedly leave viewers misty-eyed, as Archie and co. struggle to come to terms with the reality of the tragedy and make preparations for the funeral. In one particularly moving scene, the town’s annual Fourth of July parade is converted into a celebration of Fred Andrews.
The townspeople line the streets to greet Fred’s hearse, wielding red, white and blue signs with messages like “Welcome Home Fred” and “Always in Our Hearts.” Even the self-involved bully Cheryl Blossom, played by Madelaine Petsch, pitches in by funding a fireworks show. It is undeniably sentimental, but moving, nonetheless.
The sincere grief of the actors, many of whom were close with Perry, elevates the premiere beyond a sappy attempt to pull at heartstrings, in spite of the fact that earnestness is not the typical or natural approach of a show like Riverdale. When Archie, while delivering a eulogy at the funeral, says, “Fred Andrews will always be a part of Riverdale,” you can just as easily imagine swapping in Perry’s name. Petsch’s face is contorted with sobs when she, as Cheryl, lays a red rose on the casket and Ashleigh Monique Murray, who plays Josie, delivers a stirring a capella rendition of “Amazing Grace.”
Several of the cast members have taken to social media to share messages honoring the deceased actor ahead of the premiere. Lili Reinhart shared three group portraits featuring Perry on Instagram with the caption, “Tonight’s episode, and all of episodes for the rest of our run, are for Luke. We love, honor, and cherish his memory every single day. I only wish he were here to see how many lives he touched with happiness and laughter. I know he’s watching from above. We love you, Luke.” Madelaine Petsch similarly posted a photo of herself and her late co-star with a lengthy caption about his role as a mentor on set. Perry, she wrote, “was always so generous and supportive and patient.”
Riverdale has a well-established trend of casting famous actors from ‘80s and ‘90s teen dramas, beginning with Perry—a simultaneous nod to the shows and films that laid the groundwork for the genre, as well as an act of hopeful foreshadowing that its young, relatively unknown stars will become household names like their predecessors. The other Riverdale parents include Mädchen Amick (Twin Peaks), Skeet Ulrich (Scream), and John Hughes teen queen Molly Ringwald. Last season, Chad Michael Murray, though of a slightly younger generation of high-school heartthrobs, joined the cast as a dad-turned-sadistic cult leader. And in the newest episode, Perry’s Beverly Hills, 90210 co-star Shannen Doherty makes an unexpected appearance—the first of what will surely be many twists in the upcoming season.