CW’s TV show Riverdale creates a creepy but pleasant sense of cognitive dissonance. I am not the demographic for this show by any stretch, but Riverdale was a pleasure, and not a guilty one.
I jokingly told a friend that Riverdale was a cross between Archie Comics and Twin Peaks. It actually is that, with showrunners wanting to use the characters and Americana of Archie Comics to explore the dark secrets of the mythical American small town. Twin Peaks was pretentious, while Riverdale is a teen drama more interested in romantic entanglements and existential questions of identity, and it doesn’t have the nasty undertones the David Lynch show did. It’s a little pretentious too, but I forgave it because it was so appealing in other ways.
I didn’t love Archie Comics when I was a kid,( although lately a couple of writers have mentioned that they have started reading it) so I wasn’t thrilled about the source material. Like any teen drama, Riverdale relies heavily on dead, absent or incompetent parents, a trope that makes me roll my eyes. The show is shameless in its hand-waving to get around inconvenient plot obstacles like, oh, you know, law. In spite of that, I enjoyed it.
First of all, I love the Vancouver location, (even if the setting is somewhere in the Northeast USA). It chimes with the Twin Peaks vibe and contributes to the surrealism that gives this show some unintended depth, or at least interest. In the same way, I love that the wealthy, evil family in the House on the Hill are part of a powerful maple syrup cartel… because there really is a maple syrup cartel (only I think it was founded in Canada). Again, this creates that weird sense of dislocation; the Blossoms harvest maple sap from… what? Fir trees? It’s perfect.
The next thing I liked about Riverdale was that it minimized the character of Reggie in favor of developing Jughead, who is also the show’s narrator. Judhead is the outsider, the weirdo, wrong-side-of-the-tracks kid, the observer, the secret writer, narrating the story of the current of darkness that flows beneath the bright shiny surface of Riverdale. By the end of Season One, observer-Jughead merged with participant-Jughead, which dimmed my pleasure a bit, but only a bit.
The Twin Peaks elements showed up early and stayed for the entire season. In the first episode we learn of the death of Jason Blossom; scion of the maple syrup Blossoms; fraternal twin of high school Queen Bee Cheryl Blossom; football team quarterback, Golden Boy. Weeks earlier, Jason had disappeared, but now his body has been found in the river.
Episode One introduces Veronica Lodge and her mother Hermione, who have fled New York City in disgrace. Hiram, Veronica’s father, is in jail for embezzlement. Hermione grew up in Riverdale, on the wrong side of the tracks, a fact that will play out through the first season. Veronica is a glamorous party-girl who knows all the pop culture references.
Although Jason Blossom’s corpse is not the sexual fetish object as Laura Palmer’s was, the death is a big deal. In spite of the “there are secrets in this town – dark secrets” tone, the first one or two episodes nearly lost me with its tedious storyline of Archie Andrews, who is having an affair with his 30-something music teacher, Miss Grundy. Thankfully this snooze-fest of a plotline ended pretty quickly.
Archie is the Boy Next Door—actually the Boy Across the Street from Pretty in Pink Betty Cooper. Betty is academic, intellectual and driven. She wears blouses with Peter Pan collars and little floral prints. Until Veronica shows up, it seems that Betty has no female friends, but she has the gay best friend Kevin. Kevin fills a bigger role as the story progresses because he is also the sheriff’s son, which means he can provide useful information once the quartet of teens decides to investigate the murder.
I was lukewarm about Riverdale until the Dark Betty episode, when Betty and Veronica team up to bring justice, or vengeance, to the football team. Some players have made a practice of sexually harassing and humiliating girls and keeping notes in a logbook. It’s possible, or likely, that Betty’s mysteriously missing sister, Polly, was one of their victims. Veronica and Betty cook up a plot to entrap one of the ringleaders, and Betty cosplays Dark Betty with over-the-top enthusiasm. We clearly see that there is something broken and angry behind the ponytail and the pink sweater.
Betty and Betty’s family were dark points of interest in the early episodes. Judhead primarily narrates at first although his story takes center stage near the end. Cheryl Blossom is the indulged, manipulative and crazed survivor. Veronica is glam and formerly rich, but while Betty fights darkness in crusader mode (“The truth shall set us free!”) a more abstract view of life, party-girl V shows personal compassion and empathy. It’s nice that her own disillusionment (her father’s problems) seemed to have opened her up to recognize suffering. Empathy, by the way, is something Archie Andrews lacks, to the detriment of the show.
As I said, with any teen drama, parents have to take a back seat to the agency of the teen protagonists. Riverdale has no dead parents so far; when it comes to absent and incompetent, the show outdoes itself. We get the most blatant Twin Peaks homage with the Blossoms; the creepy house, the icy enforcer mom and the dad who has a different red wig for every day of the week. Hermione Lodge wants to make a home for her daughter out of the range of her criminal husband, without really sacrificing any part of their lifestyle – although she does get a job. Hermione’s character arc is both interesting and disappointing. She started as a woman with some strength, trying to make changes; with the possible return of Hiram, Hermione’s agency and moral sense waned until, in the finale, she is reduced to a woman who is safely asleep, her daughter says, “in the arms of Prince Valium.”
Archie’s mom has moved to Chicago for reasons that are incomprehensible, and his dad, played by Luke Perry, is a well-meaning, bumbling blue-collar guy who is diligently running his construction company into the ground.
F.P. Jones, Jughead’s dad, is the head of the Southside Serpents, a motorcycle club who run black-market maple syrup over the border—ha, no, they don’t. They’re your basic full-service criminal gang who mostly deliver drugs. Played by Skeets Ulrich, Jones is the most melodramatic of the incompetent parents. He’s a criminal, he’s an alcoholic and he has no idea how to take care of his family, but he loves them and he wants to protect them.
By several lightyears, the best train wreck of a parent is Betty’s control freak mom Alice. Alice is played by Madchen Amick (wave to Twin Peaks, everyone!). At first she just seems like a perfectionist control freak, but as the story progresses we see Alice as a highly lacquered decoupage of secrets, lies and fear. She has infected both her daughters one way or another. With Betty, honor student, high school journalist and crusader, the venomous need for control is closer to the surface than she wants to admit.
These complete disasters at parenting are riveting to watch. Amick and Ulrich are standouts and they risk overshadowing the teen stars when they share screen time.
Other adults are basically types; a corrupt mayor, a semi-useless principal, a sexist football coach. The use of a west coast location for an east coast setting, the gleaming neon of the Chok’Lit Shoppe, and the cheery 1940s bungalows all contrive to hide the corruption and wrongness of this pretty little town, and makes the ineffectiveness of the adults in any role seem almost like a message.
Secondary characters are uneven. Josie and the Pussycats tend to be bland. Josie has a parental conflict; her mother is the corrupt mayor and her father a well-known jazz musician who sniffs at her pop music. Archie’s mediocre musical career is a yawn and that meant that his brief fling with Valerie, lyricist for the Pussycats, was bland too, although Valerie knows her own worth and kicked Archie to the curb for all the right reasons. I’d like to see her character have her own storyline.
The mystery of the murder was predictable but had a lot of nice noir-ish moments. The show has none of David Lynch’s toxic classism; it may be giving a critique of classism, but right now it contents itself with upending the status quo; it’s startling how many “respectable” Riverdale folks are closely entwined with the Serpents. I liked the fact that Kevin and his handsome boyfriend Joaquin (a mole for the motorcycle gang) actually advanced the plot, and their conflict mattered to the story.
As Season One wound down, the murder is solved, the quartet is broken apart by circumstances, and Archie and Veronica’s romance is shifting into Montague and Capulet land. Evil Hiram will make an entrance in Season Two; Betty has still more secrets to unfold, and Jughead will made some life-defining decisions. I’m hopeful for Season Two.
Archie Andrews –KJ Apa
Betty Cooper –Lili Reinhart
Jughead Jones – Cole Sprouse
Veronica Lodge –Camilla Mendes
Kevin Keller – Casey Cott
Cheryl Blossom – Madelaine Petsch
Hermione Lodge – Marisol Nichols (Her heading in imdb.com read, “Actress, Felon” which gave me a start. Felon was a movie.)