The CW’s Katy Keene is Sweet as Sugar — and Twice as Nice

Katy Keene - a dark haired woman in a red cape, navy skirt, red vest and blouse with a cherry-shaped accent - strolls confidently down a New York street

Katy Keene is a sweet soufflé of a show that goes a little soft when it tries to interrogate class distinctions from its cotton candy perspective.

Katy Keene

Maggie Kiley (director), Roberto Aguirre-Sacasa & Michael Grassi (writers)
Lucy Hale, Ashleigh Murray, Camille Hyde, Jonny Beauchamp, Julia Chan, Lucien Laviscount, Zane Holtz, Katherine LaNasa (cast)
February 6, 2020
Based on Archie Comics

Katy Keene - a dark-haired twenty year old girl in a fancy retroish red dress - sits perched on a grey cloud. Surrounding her are friends - Jorge, in black leather with a white sheepskin collar; Josie in a black boustier, and Pepper Smith in Peach. They perch on grey clouds before a backdrop of a New York City skyline, which is highlighted from behind by milky sunlight from the rising sun
Julia Chan as Pepper Smith, Ashleigh Murray as Josie McCoy, Lucy Hale as Katy Keene and Jonny Beauchamp as Jorge Lopez — Photo: The CW — © 2020 The CW Network, LLC. All Rights Reserved.

There’s something magical afoot from the first frame of CW’s adaptation of Katy Keene. As the viewer slowly floats through the window of the title character’s childhood home while Katy (Lucy Hale) waxes about the dreams of her mother and we watch her learn the art of sewing at the woman’s knee by the flickering light of a candle, the viewer understands that they’ve been taken somewhere warmer, softer, than previous CW Network Archie adaptations have gone.

Yes, in Katy Keene, there’s a sense of personality that’s missing in the makeup of the soapy nature of Riverdale (from which Katy Keene spun off) and the brittle angst of Nancy Drew, two other teams of classic lit teens who have been resurrected and rebranded for Gen Z consumption.

But that’s not to say that the salacious acorn falls too far from the naughty tree; less than a minute into the first episode, K.O. Kelly (played with a wink by Zane Holtz), Katy’s boxing hopeful main squeeze, is seen in his underwear trying to seduce Katy into a day off filled with pure pleasure at Coney Island. This proves to be an impossibility, since Gloria Grandbilt, Katy’s boss, needs her and needs her now.

Gloria has clearly become Katy’s mom figure in the wake of Katy’s biological mom’s passing — and Katherine LaNasa cuts a fun profile as Ms. Grandbilt, tough and soft in the right places, determinedly single and trying to get Katy to give up her dreams of designing to focus on her career in personal shopping. That the show is setting up its biggest conflict between Katy following her heart into the world of design or forever becoming a part of the wallpaper at Lacy’s is a nice change of pace from the endless romantic triangles and angst offered elsewhere. Katy’s greatest foe isn’t any external force but her own humbleness and lack of self-belief — which may be relatable to the viewer or irritating, depending on how they process Katy’s actions.

At large, the series succeeds because it feels fresher than its origin point, and much, much easier for teens and twenty-somethings to relate to than Riverdale’s parade of bodies and split personalities. While viewers might think of other, soapy “20 year old kids try to succeed in the cruel big city” series, Katy distinguishes itself thanks to its lead, and its happy fearlessness in keeping its characters hustling.

Katy is a zippy, cheerful, confident, hyper competent and wide-eyed optimistic soul, and Lucy Hale does a great job of both portraying her earnest ambition and her friendly, devoted nature. Because she’s so kind — perhaps sometimes too nice, as K.O. hints during the opening scene — she’s much easier to get attached to than many of CW’s recent leads. Though it is a bit silly for her to be so golly-gosh-gee about a city and a department store where she’s been working for three years before the pilot begins, Hale pulls it off with wholehearted determination. I love her swaying, determined little walk and her frantic, never-let-them-see-you-sweat attitude which slowly bubbles over into wide-eyed panic as the pilot progresses.

Fans of Josie McCoy will perhaps be a little disappointed that they have to wait almost ten minutes for her to make her first appearance in the series, but Ashleigh Murray makes it worth the viewer’s wait when she pops into the scene, a little more wary than she was in her Riverdale days but nonetheless determined to have her dream at any cost. While Josie is less wide-eyed than Katy, when it comes to New York’s music scene she lacks experience, putting her in the same boat; but the pilot throws in odd moments where she feels out of character in comparison to her Riverdale self. (For example: Josie, after witnessing Ginger perform asks wonderingly, “Is this what it’s like every night?” At this point in her life, Josie’s witnessed multiple murders and gang wars, so I doubt a mid-level drag show would knock off her socks).

Josie finds a moment of fairytale harmony with a stranger in a park — which scores her an audition with record label exec Alex Cabot (a handsome and assured Lucien Laviscount), which may not be all that it seems and brings both her and Alex into conflict with Alex’s twin, Alexandra (Camille Hyde, properly chilly but not unsympathetic).

Both the Alex/Josie and K.O./Keene pairings have nice, low-key chemistry that the show seems destined to bank on successfully. In K.O. and Katy’s case, the twosome are rock solid, and it’s nice to have a root-able central couple whose commitment isn’t constantly in question.

Our third lead takes even longer to grab a little sliver of the spotlight, but Jorge Lopez (essayed with pep and talent by Jonny Beauchamp) is a delight when he finally manages to grab more than a few seconds on screen. Everyone being super into his performance and super into Ginger, his drag persona, was sweet — though I did laugh that K.O’s only reaction to Ginger’s performance was to yell “Katy made that dress”- tunnel vision ahoy — and I love that his battle to be seen is about fighting stereotypes related to his masculinity. He’s more confident than Katy, but it takes awhile to let his light shine brightly.

Pepper (a classy Julia Chan), is the weakest of our four leads so far; a cosmopolitan, fast-talking hobnobber and name dropper — a Tahani Al-Jamil in quirky glasses. She feels a little less accessible to me than any of the rest of the main cast due to her lack of originality, but she has a bit of promise. It will be interesting to see what the show makes of her.

Overall, the show does a good job of setting up Katy and Josie’s friendship, and setting up a potential Four Musketeers situation with Katy, Josie, Jorge, and Pepper Smith.

Visually, the show is a fine treat that serves New York well, its costumes pretty and sparkly. The lighting could use a little help — unless we’re inside the department store, it’s gloomy for the most part, no matter where we are, unless we’re in someone’s memory.

The show conversely does callbacks well — the little winks back to Josie and the Pussycats in both the comic and cartoon forms (Gloria asks Alexandra about her “adorable” Siamese cat, Sebastian, as she tries on clothing) are amusing; there’s even a bit of zaniness as Katy has to pose as Josie’s agent, but nothing that distracts severely.

The show at large is an easy-to-swallow, smooth experience. It does get a little tripped up when it tries to get serious, as when a thematic note rises in our three leads about class differences and how they rage in New York to this day. To avoid puncturing the candy atmosphere of the show, these problems are not quite solved in the universe, but are soothed by helpful friends, many of them women and men of color — only Jorge/Ginger gets to save himself. The show doesn’t quite tip into white savior tropes, but I did wince a bit at window dresser Francois (Nathan Lee Graham) and Katy’s relationship, since he mainly seems to exist either to help out (to her own ultimate benefit) or to pick up the spotlight and toss it to her. I know he’s her long-term mentor and has had window dressing glory of his own, but I hope he gets more time to shine.  This only puts a little twist of a tart taste to the show’s sweet soufflé fantasy.

Katy Keene is, in the end, a fine start for a show that might be a happy, sweet respite for audiences worldwide.