Deftly throwing a million cliches about an idealised version of New York City only seen in musicals and romantic comedies in a blender, the pilot — which is available to stream on Foxtel Now — succeeds through the sheer force of its sparkling happiness, and a cast who is more than game to dance and sing the night away in a version of the Big Apple that mostly exists in our dreams.
Created by Archie-verse maestro Roberto Aguirre-Sacasa and Riverdale writer Michael Grassi, the series stars Lucy Hale in the titular role. A relentlessly earnest worker at Lacy’s, the show’s stand-in for iconic store Macy’s, there’s nothing Katy can’t accomplish if she puts her mind to it — except, perhaps, a plum job as Lacy’s newest personal shopper.
Along for the ride are Josie McCoy (Ashleigh Murray), off the bus after touring the country with her father, and ready to seek musical stardom; Pepper Smith (Julia Chan), an “It” girl who seemingly knows everyone who is anyone, yet spends her time chowing down on Chinese food with Katy and company; and Jorge Lopez (Jonny Beauchamp), who dreams of Broadway stardom but truly only owns the stage as drag queen Ginger Lopez.
Like Aguirre-Sacasa’s dark take on pulp crime and Americana in Riverdale, and horror mash-ups on Netflix’s Chilling Adventures Of Sabrina, Katy Keene is a pastiche of a million influences that pile together to make something fresh and new.
Katy Keene isn’t just one “aspiring creator trying to follow their dreams” TV show; it’s at least three to four of them.
Get a 10-day free trial* Stream Foxtel Now
Not so into the Marvelous Mrs Maisel by way of Frank Capra world Katy exists in, battling evil fellow assistants and stuck-up bosses while on her way conquering the world of fashion? That’s fine, in two minutes you’re over to Josie, whose storyline liberally pulls from Empire, SMASH, and every musical ever as she finds stardom, loses it, and balances romance along the way (and of note, Murray’s singing voice is stunning, as usual).
And if that’s not your thing, there’s Jorge/Ginger, who throws in a Pose meets A Chorus Line flavour with plenty of sass that will make you almost instantly fall in love with Beauchamp, who is clearly poised to be the breakout from this show.
Ultimately, it’s the chemistry of the cast that holds all these disparate elements together. Katy’s apartment, where she lives with Jorge (he works at the bodega downstairs during the day), and eventually Josie, is their meeting place, something that the deft script by Grassi and Aguirre-Sacasa helpfully sets up as a rest area between the non-stop, over-the-top drama.
The four — including Pepper, who mostly shows up for comedic interludes in the pilot, but clearly has a bit of scammer culture going on behind the scenes — are fast friends, and Murray, Hale, Chan and Beauchamp have the ease of an improv team instantly supporting each other in the initial episode.
This is the real life camaraderie of aspiring artists moving to the city right after college; New York might be a big city, but they’ll conquer it, together.
Credit is also due to Archie-verse directing alum Maggie Kiley, who perfectly captures New York City at its glittering best.
The funny thing about living in New York City (I speak from years of experience here) is that it often smells, is often filled with rats and bugs, and the subways never run on time.
But every once in a while, on a clear night it becomes that mythical New York that sparkles, when anything seems possible.
That’s what Kiley and crew channel for the look and feel of the show, taking that one night and stretching it out to series length. It’s a fantasy, for sure, but it’s one with a touch of truth behind it.
It’s not all squeaky clean happiness, however.
There’s a villain introduced in the first episode in the form of Camille Hyde’s sneering Alexandra Cabot, who runs her father’s record empire and refuses to help her brother Alexander (Lucien Laviscount) lift Josie up into stardom.
Katy’s boss Gloria Grandbilt (Katherine LaNasa) is also a foil for the fashion storyline, though there’s plenty of kindly, helpful older men there to help fight that particular darkness.
And Zane Holtz appears as Katy’s boyfriend KO Kelly, a boxer who throws a wrench in Katy’s future plans.
As a note for those weary of Riverdale’s boxing storyline, don’t worry, KO is mainly there for his beefcake appeal in the pilot — though if he sticks around, there probably will be fisticuffs down the road.
And on that note, what of the Riverdale connection? The show takes place at least half a decade after the “end” of Riverdale, meaning Josie has been on the road for a while, and the teens of Riverdale High have long since graduated.
None show up, but yes, there is a mention of Josie and Katy’s mutual friend, Veronica Lodge (Camila Mendes).
And Josie gets off a pretty good joke about not being worried about violence in New York because she grew up in Riverdale, the murder capital of the world.
There have been hints that more characters might drop by as Katy Keene continues, but for the first episode at least the two shows might as well be in different worlds.
That’s why the pilot works. It doesn’t try to ape the non-stop insanity of Riverdale, or the arch darkness of Sabrina. It’s very much its own series, a musical with only occasional musical numbers.
It’s most adjacent to a cartoon come to life — particularly when it comes to Hale’s wide-eyed stares and big smiles.
But for anyone iffy about giving it a try, by the end, you’ll be as worn down by Katy’s indefatigability as everyone else. Isn’t that just wonderful?
This story originally appeared on Decider and has been reproduced here with permission