It’s a common refrain among certain types of film people to say: Yeah it didn’t work, but at least they really went for it, you know? I’d rather see someone fail big than play it safe and succeed. Enter Riverdale, as big a swing for the rafters as I’ve ever seen. If the CW has been rolling towards designation as a home for confidently competent shows—think Jane the Virgin or Crazy Ex-Girlfriend, which find real pathos among zany trappings—then Riverdale is the network at its most unabashed and wild confidence.
The show is a “dark” and “gritty” take on the usually squeaky clean Archie comics of the 20th century, where the most famous dilemma was whether Archie would ultimately pick Betty or Veronica. Riverdale builds on that legacy in a way that is absolutely thrilling and utterly bananas—and, best, it’s never really billed itself as anything else. Its goal has always been to bring people together in a way that Game of Thrones could only dream about: Through increasingly wild scenarios that put the very notion of jumping the shark to shame.
Yet there’s some familiar echoes in the way those shows bounce off each other. Like so much of television these days, manufactured for an arms race of IP, diminishing ratings, and balls-to-the-wall-ness, it’s deeply polarizing. As we grow more accustomed to TV shows that cater to just a passionate few of us, television is increasingly met with just as much thunderous applause as it is skeptical shrugs. The beauty of a spectacle like Riverdale is that it’s the Tom Cruise of TV, skewing wildly in quality and influence, but never once doubting itself. And us viewers, well, we’re just along for the ride.1
For some that’s a little more fun than others. Every person I know who is still watching the show hasn’t just blacked out during the many (many) inconsistencies and erratic plot choices; rather, these are the moments where Riverdale truly shines for them. It is a mess, an inferno of madness and hormones that would boggle the mind to fully untangle, let alone explain. In light of that, let’s review some of these moments where Riverdale either cemented its legacy or severed ties with you forever:
OK let’s start with the season four development of the rocket. After having Chad Michael Murray on for an arc as a cult leader/organ-harvester frequently walking around shirtless to remind us that Chad Michael Murray is still cut, the writers needed a way out. So, Betty and her mom very quickly take over the new cult headquarters of “The Farm,” and Edgar Evernever (Murray) tries to “ascend” in a rocket, dressed as Evel Knievel.
How do you spoil a moment like this? In any other universe, any other version of 2019, this episode would be jumping six sharks. As is, it’s a footnote on Betty’s way to Junior FBI bootcamp, a way to dump a plotline that had basically run its course without actually letting it run much of anything. Riverdale cannot be stopped or slowed down. Even to talk about this episode out of context wouldn’t do it justice—the man is wearing a red, white, and blue starry jumpsuit, zipped down so you can still see his chest! You cannot stop this train. The stories that no longer serve Riverdale, that are holdovers or that prompt the urge to be resolved in a grounded way, these can be dispatched at will. Titillation, horror, melodrama—it’s all the body genres in one, gone as fast as they came, quickly lost in the fever dream that is a deep dive on this show’s history, burning out fast and glorious like a comet in the night sky.
Hot Archie who Fucks
The take that started it all. When we first meet Riverdale’s Archie Andrews he is shirtless and objectified. “Archie got hot,” Kevin Keller, audience stand-in and friend, exclaims as he and Betty Cooper ogle him through an open window. This was the talk of the town when the series launched: the idea that even Archie Comics wasn’t immune to a dark and gritty revamping with hot teens.
The truth is, Archie Comics is not immune, and hasn’t been for a while. Riverdale is just the latest in a long line of Riverdale reimaginings of the comics,2 including one that came out more than a year before the show, which did away with the love triangle and featured updated characters. By the logic of a comic book (a world our pop culture is increasingly dictated by), Riverdale isn’t that far out of bounds. All they did was add a little murder.
“I don’t mind mixing tones, and I don’t mind mixing drama with comedy, and I don’t mind mixing earnestness with sarcasm or undercutting, sardonic humor,” Roberto Aguirre-Sacasa, chief creative officer of Archie Comics, has said. “I love all the things [Riverdale] is. It’s like the kitchen sink.”
That statement may seem abhorrent to those that still require unadulterated Truth from their media. But for those who know Riverdale, who love Riverdale, it’s an acknowledgement that the show can be just about anything. It originally pitched itself as “The OC meets Twin Peaks,” and the only thing it continues to be consistently is a wink and a nod to everything that came before it,3 all mixed up in a blender until it goes down easy.
Murders of the week
As Charles Bramesco puts it in a recent review for a season four episode, it’s not that Riverdale isn’t always action-packed, it’s that at this point, while “plenty happens in this episode…the action it does boast fails to live up to the standard of mania, out-there-ness, or shock that this season (perhaps the series’ best yet) has served up thus far.”
Riverdale, from the jump, has been about murder and mayhem. Unlike other shows which got their jump from a dead girl, this one stemmed from the murder of a dead boy—an inversion in that he was both a boy and also not a compelling enough character to leave behind a vaccum in his stead. And so the show had to be about upping the ante, about the fracturing that resulted from the initial loss of life, no matter how boring he may seem.4
Across four seasons, Riverdale has sought to be a show about how the loss of innocence spurred this group of four teens (plus a couple recurring guest ones) into confronting the seediness of their town. But in order to stay true to their soapy roots they had to really keep upping the ante again and again. What was once depraved is now daily; the characters of Riverdale couldn’t let a gruesome murder slow down their day any more than they might a gang war.
It is, often, a mess! But it is also a pulp odyssey, taking our protagonists on an epic journey that has neither boundaries nor singular reveals to live up to.
How many gangs and vigilantes there are in this town
Of course, were you to try to explain the long arc of Riverdale, you would have to explain the numerous, numerous deaths that happen here. To live—nay, survive—in Riverdale is to know trauma and desire protection. No wonder everyone and their mums is in a gang, or a vigilante justice group, or a shady business cabal.
There’s a compelling case to be made for Riverdale keeping track of all this trauma. But there’s also a compelling case to be made for the continued churning of gangs and groups, which mirrors how it works in our world: Post 2016 election, the “Resistance” was developed as a way for white liberals who underestimated how “far askew” American politicking had gotten to come together and find some solace in numbers. It was fractured; everyone seemed to belong to a different shade of liberal talking points. But people kept forming them, kept seeking them. Like the many gangs of Riverdale, these groups may seem pointed and jumpy and formidable. But they are ultimately there to provide a sense of safety in a chaotic world.
It’s hard to get a sense of the scope of Riverdale, a show that I almost have to imagine is created in a laboratory with random ingredients to see what sticks. Estimating the size of Riverdale is nearly impossible—it’s big enough to have two school districts, a wrong side of the tracks, multiple murderers, a luxury hotel (shout out to the “Five Seasons”), a 24-hour diner and an actual(?) teen(?) cruising scene. But it’s also small enough to be considered a small town community. And communities like to find some way to heal together—even if that means letting Archie Andrews start up yet another safety organization to cope with his traumatic past.
There’s a Gargoyle King
If there was ever a point where the high school realm of Riverdale just felt like it was fundamentally thrown out the window, it was season three. Herein, school served as a nebulous background through which characters could be thrown together in detention for a Breakfast Club-based flashback episode; high school milestones were right out the window.5 All the major plot lines revolve around life outside of school—your underground fight clubs in juvenile detention, mysterious cults, and, most memorably, the role-playing mysteries of the “Gryphons and Gargoyles” plot, also known as G&G. The latter’s function in the plot is first to be a D&D-inspired panic, but ultimately becomes a truly muddling web of paranoia and violence amongst the players (and whomever is behind the scenes pulling the strings). Oh, and there’s someone named the Gargoyle King who is running the whole thing.
It is exactly as half-baked and thrilling as it sounds. But the weird thing about Riverdale, a show with an actual horror-minded cousin in Chilling Adventures of Sabrina, is that this show understands how to do horror in a way that is spooky and eerie. And weirdly, I would credit that to Riverdale’s lack of rules. Good fantasy—that’s all about strict worldbuilding and rules; we have to understand what the parameters are so the magic doesn’t seem like it’s coming out of nowhere. But as a soap, Riverdale can often be rewarded for breaking taboos and pushing its characters to newer and newer extremes. Melodrama is driven by the shock and awe of it all, and Riverdale knows how to keep doling out shock in order to see what sticks. And so it gets to sample genres and affectations to see what strikes the audience best.
G&G, like the greater brooding aesthetic of the show, allows it to be whatever it wants to be in any given moment. Though it has certain world aesthetics that it more specifically plays within, when it chooses to do some moody horror things it can be genuinely gripping.
The flavor-blasted aesthetic of Riverdale
No one is against intentional costuming, and Riverdale, on some level, does it with the best of them. Each character has a color scheme and fashion influence, speaking to their character, historical influences, and archetype.
That being said, there’s something so lovingly bewildering about this town’s commitment to aesthetic. This is a high school where high heels are the go-to shoe for teenage girls. Cheryl, the town’s reigning queen bee, has a closet full of thigh high boots, numerous capes (which she pulls out to…suddenly hunt things with a bow and arrow, and also break and enter), and various shades of her cheerleading uniform, including, hysterically, for funerals.
There is a cynical way to read this, which is that the lingering taste of Riverdale is that of superficiality. What goddamn season is it if there’s snow on the ground but everyone is wearing unzipped jackets and tights? But there’s a delightful cohesion that sort of gels thanks to the costuming too. To be clear: there’s absolutely no way high schoolers would dress like this. Even if there weren’t puritanical dress code rules across the U.S. for most girl students, it’s just so much work. But the thing is, grounded realism is never quite the goal. If it were, we wouldn’t have such cloying one-liners that serve mostly to spotlight the references these kids are making. There’s no verisimilitude in their dialogue, and there’s no way it could be mistaken as such. Everything in Riverdale is heightened, right down to the moody make-up of the town itself.
Parents just don’t understand
You could argue that most adults haven’t gotten over the wounds of high school, serial killers or no. But I would say it’s more acute than that: most of us don’t ever stop thinking about popularity with the same lizard brain we had when watching cliques navigate high school movies. This is a condition that teen shows just inherently understand—as one friend wondered to me, “why is that person allowed?” is a way that you can find yourself feeling about everyone from a high school queen bee to an incompetent boss.
The adults on Riverdale fall in line with this sort of catty attitude, where grudges never die and archetypes only warp with time. They are often framed as the major antagonists against the teens—the ones with the legacy of murder and boneheaded decisions that created or perpetuate such a corrupt town in the first place. But, deliciously, they are terrible at it.
Hiram Lodge is a ruthless business kingpin and untouchable crime lord. But he also wrestled his daughter’s boyfriend in a masculinity contest and frequently gets bested in said shady business operations by a group of meddling kids! How can we take an archnemesis seriously when he is a grown man fighting a group of teens and he can’t even win? Probably the same way you take Penelope Blossom—once mother to a son murdered by her husband, who eventually became a serial killer and mentor to two other serial killers—welcoming the “Core Four” to the grounds of her estate to undergo a series of trials that will likely kill them.6 If you thought that seasons two and three were wobbly7 in their plotting, she exists as the Blossom ex machina, here to tie up loose ends and make a…surprisingly compelling case for a Big Bad. Perhaps the most thrilling thing about Riverdale is how everything can be recycled and made new again.
The sheer bizarreness of the parents, in lockstep with the overall untamed nature of the show, could definitely be seen as a detriment. But it also lays a solid (if somewhat simplistic) groundwork for watching some baseline evolution out of those same high school tropes without feeling like it’s a pat afterschool special.
See: FP Jones and Alice Cooper, two people who started out as possibly the worst parents in the entire town. But through a number of developments (him: quitting drinking and getting his act together, eventually becoming sheriff and taking the mantle from Luke Perry to be a shining beacon of hope; her: moving from snooping NIMBY housewife to accepting her rough-neck past, to joining a cult in grief, to becoming a mole in the cult for the FBI, to owning up to her past mistreatment of Betty) they have managed to come out the other side as a wholesome couple. Some of this is thanks to the acting; Skeet Ulrich still has the brooding heart of gold that made you want him to not be bad in Scream. Amick can strut walk with anything the writers toss at her, no stranger to weird shows inspired by the mind of David Lynch.
Them musical numbers
Early on in season one, Josie (of “and the Pussycats” fame) balks at singing a cover, since the band only does originals. Put that down as yet another marker of how Riverdale quickly outkicked its coverage, now turning to covers of any genre to set the mood for a scene or a speakeasy run by a high schooler; not since Glee’s “Losing My Religion” cover has a show so freely misinterpreted the actual meaning of a song to fit its intentions.
By season four, Riverdale’s music numbers—of which there are both the aforementioned floor shows, as well as the now annual musical episodes—serve to highlight how the show isn’t run at the behest of basic concerns like “plot” or “storytelling.” These moments exist because, we imagine, the actors want to sing! That’s it.
Similarly the love stories are all but sewn up, because four seasons in they know what the fans want. For those that aren’t on board, the intercutting between Veronica singing “Saturday Night’s Alright for Fighting” and Archie fighting a neighborhood scoundrel in an alley brawl is just a mishmash of nonsense. For those indoctrinated, it is that. But it also further underscores how easy and fun it can be to just let the show take the driver’s seat: You can trust that everything that happens will be in service of, if not the greatest story, then the most operatic of version of it.
Archie fights a bear
Remember that time Archie fought a bear, Revenant style, as a big cliffhanger, and then we never thought about it again save for Penelope’s trials and a few scars on his chest? I would say the actual more interesting thing that happened was elsewhere (at the time the town was under a faux quarantine so that Hiram Lodge could do crimes), where everybody else’s plotlines were similarly played just for a cliffhanger. But it all essentially ties into the same point: Why are we watching high schoolers do this, where are their guardians, and why aren’t they concerned about truancy laws?
The deal with teen shows isn’t intended to just be melodrama for a younger set. It’s a way to place teenagers where they believe they are—the center of their universe, dealing with a constant onslaught of bothers and inconveniences that mean more than you could possibly know. The best of these YA-focused materials find a way to make a reasonable case for teens handling adult problems: Buffy was “the Chosen One,” a role that meant she had to take up the gauntlet at a young age. The Hunger Games sacrificed teens because it reminded the adults in charge of them of their place. Fare like My So-Called Life, Gossip Girl, and Freaks and Geeks keeps its sights clearly trained on the teen angst that causes their life to be so full of upheaval in the first place.
Riverdale skirts along these lines in the first season; it’s a bit bizarre that Betty invited Jughead to write a series of In Cold Blood-esque articles for their teen newspaper, but it does, in theory, trade on their connections to the teens around them. But ultimately Riverdale never manages to really land this plane. The main kids solve the main mystery (“Who killed Laura Palmer Jason Blossom?”), but ultimately there’s not any real reason that it had to be them. Veronica Mars proudly flaunted her dad’s attempts to curb her P.I. instincts, and dug in on the mystery of her best friend’s murder in a way that only she could’ve known how. These five just…do the police’s job.
But because it’s a group of high schoolers, you never quite know what you’re going to get when they set their minds to investigating. Bizarrely, the show’s structure feels almost like a manifestation of adolescence itself—the rules are increasingly unclear, seemingly ever-shifting, and any authority that claims to have power over them is promptly challenged and questioned. Similar to how meticulous worldbuilding can create a lived-in space for creators to play, the very haphazard nature of Riverdale and Riverdale’s world rules allows for a true absorption of the viewer’s imagination. Our attention can be pulled in, and fully saturated, because who the hell knows what’s going to come next in a world where a teen can own a speakeasy, and her boyfriend can go to jail for pleading guilty to a murder he didn’t commit, just because he didn’t know it was going to happen?
And so in season three Archie fights a bear, Revenant style. Betty briefly experiments with being a cam girl, and that plot line is relegated (probably as it should be) to a few stray opening and closing scenes. See also virtually any Halloween episode, which exist first and foremost to be mostly self-contained vignettes that should likely be addressed in a bigger way, like say, a therapist. Like, if my friend received portraits from a stalker who was never caught, or got buried alive for a night as a prank, I would expect to hear more! In the most recent Halloween episode, Veronica gets attacked and fights off a serial killer, whom she ultimately sets on fire before she runs out. Presumably he is caught, but that’s the last we hear of it. It’s like these episodes are the uncooked spaghetti that bounce off the wall and are never heard from again.
The true beauty of Riverdale’s spaghetti method is that if you don’t like something you just have to wait and it will likely be gone soon. Or, even better, they get dredged back up when you least expect it, like when everyone finally gets the therapy they very much need in the form of Gina Torres. She is there to review the immense amount of trauma, complexes, and decisions our characters have made over the years. But she is also there to show just how much of a tightrope act Riverdale is walking. It’s trying to sell this outlandish world in a way that makes sense to us at all, and you know what? It works.
It’s not your fault if the exact buttons that Riverdale pushes for its fans don’t impress you (though truly, I feel for you, as you have clearly never known the epic highs and lows of high school football). But I have no doubt that you have your own version of Riverdale, something you’ll love no matter what curve balls it throws your way. I can’t say that Riverdale is the show we need right now, but I can definitely say it is the show I want.
- Which is why this essay won’t touch on some of the truly heinous stunts Riverdale has tried to pull in the name of shock value. Miss Grundy, Betty’s strip-dance initiation, the continued disinterest in fleshing out characters of color or queer people on the show in any real way etc.—don’t care to defend it, and consider them genuine missteps.
- With all the retconning and reinvention that comes from the world of comics, Archie has done everything from meet the cast of Glee, died taking a bullet for Senator Kevin Keller, and married Betty, Veronica, Cheryl, Valerie, Ethel, and Sabrina Spellman (in different timelines). Among other alternate universes of the Riverdale gang is a 1960s spy spoof (The Man from R.I.V.E.R.D.A.L.E.), a superhero story, and a satire of Mary Hartman, Mary Hartman where Betty is possessed by a Puritan witch named Felicity Goodbody!(!)
- They got in front of the narrative too: The casting served as a knowing wink and nod to those that came before them whose style they’d be pulling from—90210 (Luke Perry), the work of John Hughes (and his muse Molly Ringwald), and obviously David Lynch and his perversion of the Hughesian suburbia (Mädchen Amick). It’s a layer of meta, sure, but it’s also a layer of pretension and subversion, soaking everything together in that ol’ creative sink of theirs.
- Truly the only thing in the least bit interesting about Jason Blossom was the weirdness between him and Cheryl. Like are they incestual? And if they’re twins, why was he coded as a senior in high school?
- Remember a time when “I love you” and sex was a real milestone for a teen drama relationship? Meet Riverdale season three, where there is, for some reason, a bunker in the woods that the kids all use for sex, outfitted with electricity and also approximately 247 candles that are always all lit.
- In prom outfits! Overnight! They’re ultimately rescued by Cheryl’s (latest) gang, whom she’s taught to shoot arrows with frightening efficiency and they’re wearing capes! Aesthetic, gangs, momentum; I love this show.
- They were.