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Katy Keene Review: Lucy Hale Shines In This Ridiculously Wholesome Riverdale Spin-Off

But the romantic musical has potential

Mekeisha Madden Toby

Katy Keene has a wonderfully diverse cast, head-turning fashion, and sizzling singing courtesy of co-stars Ashleigh Murray and Jonny Beauchamp. The two play Josie and Jorge, respectively, in this Riverdale spin-off that further explores a modern take on the Archie comics minus the murder. The CW's new series also happens to be the perfect showcase for star Lucy Hale's winsome charms as the titular leading lady. There's also romance, heartbreak, and lots of hot shirtless men with fantastic physiques.

But for all the things Katy Keene has going for it, The CW's "musical comedy-drama" feels depth-averse as its characters float around New York like stylishly dressed pappi in the wind. Of course the same could be said for the early years of Sex and the City, a show Katy Keene shamelessly emulates right down to the voiceover narration and multiple slow-motion walking sequences featuring all four twenty-something besties. It took four seasons for Carrie (Sarah Jessica Parker) to have money woes and Charlotte (Kristin Davis) to battle infertility, but SATC eventually dug a little deeper and the show was better for it. Besides, fans didn't sweat the lack of profundity too much because ample sex and Manolo Blahniks cleverly distracted viewers until meatier storylines emerged.

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Katy Keene, on the other hand, has neither the luxury of time in this crowded landscape known as Peak TV nor the benefit of dirty language and racy love scenes premium cable afforded Carrie and the girls to deliver authenticity. The end result is an endeavor that wants to be adult without knowing what kind of adult that is. For instance, Katy and her crew talk about sex but are only shown kissing love interests suggestively. In the first three episodes The CW sent to us for review, Jorge, who dresses as his drag queen alter ego Ginger at night, is the only character fortunate enough to bask in post-coital giddiness with his male lover. Josie literally has to say she is sleeping with her music producer Alex (Lucien Laviscount) for viewers to know anything more intimate than lip-locking has transpired between them. Meanwhile, Pepper (Julia Chan) kisses a girl who is basically never seen again.

Even the "cursing" feels forced; when Josie moves to the Big Apple from Riverdale and calls it "New York Damn City," she sounds like a grade school kid who has just discovered swear words. A bleeped out F-bomb would've been a better tack to take. Sure, Katy Keene airs at 8 p.m., but won't most of the target demo for this show be streaming it anyway? The missed opportunities continue in the story. Conundrums such as Katy getting demoted instead of promoted at Lacy's, the department store where she works as a personal shopper, or Josie and Pepper not having enough money for rent, are quickly resolved in convenient and fluffy ways. But thankfully there are exceptions.

Julia Chan, Lucy Hale, and Ashleigh Murray, Kate Keene

Peter Kramer

In one of the program's most impactful arcs, Jorge is trying to break into Broadway but is told by one casting director that he isn't masculine enough. It's a battle he continuously fights as he struggles to figure out if his Great White Way dreams are worth pursuing if he can't be authentic or if he would be better off focusing on the drag world. And Katy has long-term woes of the romantic variety. As she pursues her dreams as a fashion designer, Katy sadly comes to realize her hot boxer boyfriend K.O. Kelly (Zane Holtz) may not be cut out to join her on the journey. Katherine LaNasa, who co-stars as Katy's boss Gloria, and Nathan Lee Graham, who plays Francois, another one of her bosses, dazzle as they lend gravitas to and steal every scene they can as Katy's sounding boards and de facto work parents.

The same can't be said of Josie. Her storyline fails to compel as she chases fantasies of becoming her generation's Whitney Houston. This is in large part because Alex has a twin sister named Alexandra (Camille Hyde) who keeps finding ways to bully Josie without provocation. It also doesn't help that every standoff between Josie and Alexandra is punctuated by dramatic music as if it's an Empireparody but with less grit. It's unclear why the Cookie and Lucious approach is being mimicked in terms of Josie and her music career especially on a show that never addresses her race or that of Alex and Alexandra, who are also black. Here's hoping the writers behind Katy Keene find a more believable, less melodramatic middle ground for Josie and the Cabot twins.

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Lastly, there is the mysterious Pepper. She tells her friends she's well-heeled and incredibly connected but isn't. More social-media rich than she is IRL, Pepper would rather her friends think she's on top of the world than at the bottom of the heap as she attempts to build a modernized version of Andy Warhol's Factory. As Katy Keene's only prominent Asian character (Chan is half-Chinese in real life), it is going to be fascinating to see if the writers give Pepper a similar racial background and what other ways they flesh her out. After all, this series and its sometimes too-safe players have the potential to be something great, slow-motion struts and all.

TV Guide Rating: 3/5

Katy Keene premieres Thursday Feb. 6 at 8/7c on The CW.