The CW’s Riverdale is a prime-time dramatic serialization of the classic Archie comics they used to sell at the grocery store when you were a kid. In other words, a dark gritty reboot( We’re only a mediocre pitch away from a dark gritty Scooby-Doo reboot, aren’t we?) Cynicism aside, Riverdale is suitably corny, uneven and shameless show with a fun aesthetic and a needlessly convoluted murder-mystery plot. It’s also a surprisingly astute marker of the current political and economic climate; hinting at issues of class, feminism and even race. In 2017, it couldn’t be any other way.
Before you decide I’ve totally jumped the rails, don’t think I’m giving the writers of Riverdale too much credit. I don’t think they set out to make some grand political statement or push any sort of particular agenda. The show is calibrated to sell above all else and any deeper meanings are incidental to the boardroom calculations that created the show. It is not a societal commentary by any virtue of its own, but by necessity of its existence. The small-town world depicted by classic Archie comics doesn’t really exist anymore. America’s small-towns are no longer cloisters of society where family values and childhood innocence are protected. With the demise of manufacturing and increasing corporatization of agriculture, small towns have withered from picturesque hamlets into desolate ghost towns. In 2017 a light-hearted Archie show wouldn’t make sense. There’s no place in modern television for idealism or naivete. So Jughead’s obsession with burgers has been replaced with the dark realities of poverty. Veronica has a history of cruelly bullying other girls. Betty’s family is hiding a dark secret about her missing older sister. And Archie? Struggling to get over his parent’s divorce as he breaks off a romantic relationship with his teacher.
The main continuous plot is a murder mystery following the death of Jason Blossom, twin brother of the infamous Cheryl Blossom. The story is pretty unfocused however, scattering in all directions to fill thirteen episodes. Some of these directions prove to be col de sacs, but remain for the most part entertaining. The classic Betty/Archie/Veronica love triangle is definitely here, but usually takes a back seat to other plot elements. The show is clearly planning a long game with these relationships, hinting at more drama to continue next season.
While Archie is the de facto main character of the series, the central relationship is really the friendship between Betty and Veronica. This is one aspect of the comics that the show absolutely nailed. Female friendship is sadly a rarity on television, with writers choosing to pit women against each other for drama rather than develop deep platonic relationships. It would have been very easy to have Betty and Veronica compete with each other for Archie in underhanded ways. But the show eschews this to show us a deep and abiding relationship of two friends with complementary personalities. Betty is the straight-laced good girl and moral backbone of the group, while Veronica is the fun-loving and fiercely loyal cool girl trying to make up for her dark past. Betty and Veronica are there for each other in the good times and the bad times, and even when they slip up and do something that hurts the other, forgiveness is just around the corner.
While the two do end up in romantic relationships by the end of the season (I won’t spoil who is with who at the end of episode 13), neither relationship is the focus of their character’s plot-line. It would have been very tempting to make Betty and Veronica boy-crazy teenagers, but both are shown to be mature young women with an understanding of themselves, and an appreciation for each other. That’s not to say all depictions of femininity in the show are rock-hard empowered 21st century women–nor should they be–but I think it’s commendable that a show ostensibly targeted at teenagers has two strong young women at its heart.
The idea of women’s solidarity is emphasized throughout their relationship and the show. Not only do Betty and Veronica choose their friendship over their romantic interests, they also make every effort to reach out to and understand the deliciously wicked Cheryl Blossom. Cheryl is Riverdale’s Regina George, but perhaps has more in common with Game of Thrones’ Cersei Lannister. However, beneath her cruel, cold and calculating exterior, Cheryl is just another pawn in a larger game, and at some level we empathize with her. Her villainy is a result of her environment and familial pressures, which makes her sympathetic, even as she antagonizes our heroes in a delightfully campy fashion.
Perhaps the most fully realized character in the show is Cole Sprouse’s Jughead Jones. Jughead is most known in the comics for devouring endless hamburgers and supplying wry one-liners. Being a dark reboot, his character is far less care-free and there’s less of an emphasis on his eating habits. That said, Jughead’s trademark wit is fully in-tact. Sprouse also gives us the best performance in the show, adding layers of complexity to an already compelling character.
Despite his whimsical nature in the comics, Jughead is the most grounded and realistic character in the show, often serving as the voice of reason. However, Jughead isn’t a saint. While struggling with numerous demons, his choices don’t always reflect the best interests of his friends, and his behavior could even be described as self-destructive at times.
It is through Jughead that the show begins to explore class issues in America. At the beginning of the show, Jughead is living a semi-homeless life in the halls of the school. We learn that his mother is living in Toledo, and his father a petty criminal and alcoholic. Throughout the show Jughead has trouble fitting in at the relatively affluent Riverdale High, and is one step away from following his father’s footsteps to becoming a Southside Serpent (the dominant gang in Riverdale). His crushing poverty stands as a contrast to the Blossoms grotesque wealth as well as Archie and Betty’s middle-class mediocrity. Class status affects and shapes every character in the show. In Jughead’s case, his economic status dominates his destiny, turning him down a dark and lonely path even as his father (Skeet Ulrich) is used as a pawn by the dominant bourgeois class.
There has been some minor controversy regarding Jughead’s romantic relationship in the show. I won’t spoil who he starts dating, but some fans felt this aspect of the show was disrespectful to the characters recently confirmed asexuality in the comics. Even before his asexuality was confirmed, Jughead showed no interest in dating, his only love has historically been hamburgers (and the occasional hot dog, for which he named his puppy). Cole Sprouse has said he hopes Jughead will eventually come out as asexual, and has played the character to be asexual, despite his romantic plot-line. “Because of the fluidity of sexuality and how oftentimes a person discovers who they are after a series of events – like those told in our origin stories – this is an ongoing conversation.” Sprouse said in an interview with Teen Vogue. Personally, I think the revelation of Jughead’s asexuality (if it ever comes to fruition) will only be made the more satisfying by the romantic history established in this season.
At this point you may be wondering why I just wrote three paragraphs about Jughead and have said next to nothing about Archie. If you’ve watched the show, you’ll know why. Archie in Riverdale, much like in the comics, is a moral every man on which to hang a story and other more compelling characters. Despite having multiple romantic interests, a complex story-line and a unique relationship to almost every character in the show, Archie himself is a bit of a snore. His character is predictable and one-note. Maybe that’s okay, and maybe he’ll be given more layers next season, but for the time being Archie is a Gary Stu.
Riverdale focuses not only on class conflict, but also generational conflict. The parents of our fresh-faced teen protagonists have a strong presence at the center of the story. Archie, Veronica, Betty, Jughead and Cheryl are all living with the consequences of the world their parents created for them. Through the course of the season, they grow further from their parents as they discover more of the dark secrets lurking beneath the surface of their mundane lives. The decline of Riverdale, and small-towns in general is illustrated through the parents. It is no accident that Archie and Jughead’s dad’s are former teenage hearthrobs. Archie’s father (Luke Perry) emphasizes how the world has changed since he was a kid, and how much the town has changed with it. The last generation is ill-equipped to prepare their children for new and unpredictable social and economic realities. The old ways are dying, and the youth must forge their own path or risk repeating the destructive cycles that brought their parents to this low point.
In a dream sequence, Jughead sees an idealized version of his life, that holds much more resemblance to Riverdale of Archie comics. But this overly bright and sunny world serves as more than a winking nod to the fan-base. Through this dream, Riverdale is making an argument for its own existence. A faithful adaptation of Archie would not work in today’s television landscape, or make sense at all in today’s world. The world of small-town idealism is gone, if it ever existed to begin with. A Gothic neon melodrama is the only direction that makes sense for the once innocent Archie & Pals, and with that comes both cynicism and something of a political edge. The Riverdale of the comics makes sense only as a dream.
Riverdale is an uneven show that has yet to hit its stride. At times it succeeds as a campy good ride, an un-winking tongue-in-cheek Gothic soap opera delivering on the absurdity of its premise. At other times, the material is played too earnestly and leaves a lingering taste of unoriginal melodrama. The show seems intended to be a guilty pleasure, and it excels towards the end of the season. The final four episodes are truly exhilarating and full of over-the-top imagery and drama. A rocky beginning and lethargic middle make the final episodes feel earned, but also leaves me wondering how many viewers will stick it out to the best the show has to offer. I myself took a long break from the show, because the weak middle failed to hold my interest. While the ending does deliver, I have reservations about giving a wholehearted recommendation. If this seems like your kind of show, I recommend testing the waters, and if you quit, I can’t really fault you.
All media is a reflection of the culture that created it. In the case of Riverdale, that reflection is characterized in the starkest of terms. The show’s dark and trashy elements are unsurprising, and not encouraging. But the show’s casual class consciousness and feminist themes, are also signs of the times. Signs we might be moving in a positive direction. At any rate, it’s fun to watch, and I look forward to next season.