I thought the first season of the CW’s Riverdale, based on the Archie comics, was promising. The second season’s overarching plot includes a crime lord who has just returned home from jail, a masked serial shooter and fear-driven mobs. The CW’s teen melodrama is trying to do three things this season; 1) create a compelling season-long plot; 2) keep the angsty teens front and center and 3) make serious points about privilege, hypocrisy and the fear of the Outsider. They are failing on two of those (those teens are front and center). I don’t think the writers and showrunners are capable of delivering all three, and right now, the show is taking on water and in immediate danger of capsizing under its own melodramatic waves.
There are two big problems with Season Two and both involve the character of Archie Andrews, who, since the show is based on his comic, must be said to be the main character.
Problem One: Archie is stupid.
Let me quickly tally the ways Archie is stupid. We’ll give him a pass on Season One, Episode One, where he was too stupid to realize that gal-pal Betty Cooper was in love with him, because this is a common, time-honored trope.
Moving on, Archie was too stupid to realize that the gorgeous, unethical 30-something music teacher Miss Grundy was sexually exploiting him. He was too stupid to realize when she was lying to him, (“Archie, what we’re doing is against the law—we’ll go to jail.” Archie was 16. He wouldn’t be the one going to jail.)
Archie was too stupid to see what the football team was doing – and he’s on the football team. More on this later.
Archie was too stupid to maintain a relationship with Pussycat songwriter Valerie Brown, the best girlfriend he’s had so far.
He is too stupid to see that Veronica’s father is manipulating him.
He is too stupid to see that his Best Friend Ever Jughead needs his help.
He is too stupid to look at all the evidence of the so-called killer (who is really a shooter) and see where it leads—and where it doesn’t lead. Even when he says to the sheriff of Miss Grundy’s murder, “She was killed with a cello bow* that I gave her! It’s personal!” He is too stupid to listen even to himself.
More seriously, Archie, a character in a fictional world that is close – this close—to our own has absorbed nothing from current events. Archie is unworried about gun violence; in fact, he’s hoping he can perpetrate some. He has learned nothing about the dangers of a hate-filled, fear-driven mob and how much they can damage and destroy.
Usually this wouldn’t matter. Archie is a stupid character who is usually surrounded by smart people who shield him, eventually, from the worst of his own stupidity. Not this season. Dad got shot (he’s all right); Jughead got sent to the Bad High School on the South Side of Town, and both Betty and Veronica left their IQs in their lockers. No one is saving Archie from himself… and no one is saving the show.
Obviously, after Archie films a video with a bunch of masked guys behind him (who kind of look like the football team!) threatening the Black Hood shooter, after he gets a gun and a Kevlar vest, after he sneaks into the South Side of Town to spray threatening graffiti on innocent people’s buildings, after he threatens a South Side teenager with the gun and after he starts a gang-fight that looked more like a football scrimmage with knives, we assume that Archie will, eventually, learn a Very Important Lesson. I worry about what that lesson will be. At this point, I fear that it will be, “People with your hair color shouldn’t wear plaid,” or something.
Problem Two: KJ Apa, who plays Archie, is unable to depict emotional conflict in his acting.
Oh, don’t get me wrong, he emotes like crazy. He delivers emotionally laden lines in a dramatic manner, but he can’t sell inner conflict. In theory, at least, Archie, who was unharmed while his father was shot down in the diner in The Good Part of Town, is suffering from PTSD, a sense of powerlessness, fear and even guilt. For a brief period in Episode Two, I was accepting the PTSD. Now I’m accepting nothing. He can’t sell it.
But those aren’t the only problems here. The smartest character right now is Kevin, the sheriff’s gay son. Kevin has always been smart. It’s a worry that even Kevin, who is trying to verbally shake some sense into Betty, at least, is, even while he’s talking smart, hooking up in the woods, when there’s a Black Mask Shooter lurking about!
Betty, the show’s designated Nancy Drew character, withholds key evidence from the sheriff mainly because it embarrasses her, but also, as she tells Kevin, because turning it over and not solving the mystery herself “makes her look weak.” No, it makes her look the way she used to look, smart. Veronica, confronted with a boyfriend who is putting together a masked mob to rain terror on the South Side, has commemorative t-shirts made to show her support.
Alice Cooper, Betty’s mom, proves that, while she is still a glorious train wreck of a parent, she is a terrible journalist. She prints a letter that purports to be from the shooter before sharing it with the sheriff, and before doing any vetting.
Regarding the Black Hood shooter or killer (the show has quickly labeled him a serial killer, although he has only, so far, killed one person… if he’s even that killer), let’s take a quick look:
A guy in a black hood shot Archie’s dad. Dad’s not dead.
Somebody strangled Miss Grundy with a cello bow. Miss Grundy is dead.
Some guy in a black hood shot Moose, the closeted football player, and shot at the girl Moose was with at Lover’s Lane (because closeted). Neither Moose nor the girl are dead.
Does anything stand out about these three crimes?
If these are truly meant to be the work of one person, and the show really wants a serial killer, then this is bad writing. Any mystery reader will recognize that the Miss Grundy’s death has a completely different modus operandi. What is up with that?
Two out of three of these incidents are directly tied to Riverdale High School. Through Archie, the attack on his father might be too.
The shooter’s letter to Betty says that she inspired him with her scolding speech at last year’s town Jubilee. Who was at the Jubilee? Why, everyone… except, kind of a funny thing… anyone from the South Side, because it’s the Bad Part of Town. They don’t go to Jubilees.
The shooter, therefore, based on the evidence is… clearly someone from the South Side.
So says the excitable Alice Cooper, now serving as the show’s token fascist. More seriously, so says Archie.
It’s not outrageous that Archie worked himself into a froth, or even that he would blame the South Siders for no reason, since he hasn’t talked to his his Best Friend Ever Jughead, who is a South Sider, since he formed the mob. It’s not outrageous that Archie would give the football team masks and send them out into the night when their last off-the-field activity was to sexually assault female high school students and keep track of their assaults in a logbook. None of this is outrageous for Archie. Archie stupid.
No—what is outrageous is that while people try to talk him out of harassing people on the South Side, they say things like, “Let law enforcement handle it,” or “You could get hurt.” No one says the most obvious thing, “Dude, it’s not a South Sider!”
(I really hope the shooter is Betty’s father, but that’s too much to hope for. The clues do point to Kevin, and I really hope it isn’t Kevin, because that would be terrible for the show.)
The writing would be more convincing if instead of mouthing platitudes like, “We mustn’t turn on each other,” people in the “town hall meeting” (only North-siders, surprise!) had actually said, “The facts don’t point to a South-Sider,” and that had gotten shouted down by panicky “haves,” too terrified of the have-nots to even listen.
I know I’m not the demo for this show. I know it’s aimed at teens and twenty-somethings, and that bothers me. It bothers me a lot, that they show Archie in anti-ballistic gear, waving a gun, spraying graffiti on the walls of the people of color, the people with less, in his home town. It bothers me a lot that no one has said to Archie—excuse me, no North Sider, no white, wealthy North Sider, has pointed out to Archie that if he were a young man with brown skin running around with spray paint and a gun, he’d be bleeding out on a sidewalk by now.
Maybe the upper class black football player character could say something… Oh. Wait.
Maybe the corrupt black woman mayor could… oh, nope. Maybe the high school principal? Maybe.. hello? Anyone?
Can the Riverdale writers room pull out of this down-spin somehow? I don’t know. I hope so, but I don’t know.
*No, I don’t know how you stangle someone with a cello bow either.