Today we are traveling to small town America.
Ahh, the teen drama. When I was in high school it was Dawson’s Creek. And then there was The O.C. in college. One Tree Hill. And I can’t forget Gossip Girl. Pretty Little Liars could fall into this category, and shares aspects of our subject today, as could a few that I didn’t watch; Secret Diary of the American Teenager and Switched at Birth. All shows with their own little hooks but all doing the same thing; giving the viewer a glossy, attractive, and dramatic look at what it’s like to be a teenager. Riverdale is just the newest incarnation.
Riverdale is as American as apple pie. It’s a story of a footballer player, his best friend, the girl next door, the raven haired vixen of a new girl. It’s about friendship and relationships, chocolate milkshakes at the local diner, dreams of the future. And, oh yeah, murder. The writers of Riverdale said from the beginning that they had intentions of subverting the sweet nature of the original Archie comics. Of exposing the dirty underbelly of small town America. And they did that. The catalyst for the story is the disappearance and presumed death of Jason Blossom, twin brother of Queen Bee Cheryl. The tale was simple. They went out boating on the fourth of July and only one Blossom returned. An accident, it was said, until months later when Jason’s body washes ashore with a bullet between his eyes. So who killed Riverdale high’s king and why? Everyone, of course, is a suspect and the old characters we loved when were little have secrets of their own. Betty (Lili Reinhart), sweet overachiever, has anger management issues she barely keeps contained with the Adderall her mother keeps her on, Jughead (Cole Sprouse) is adrift, his family issues much more complicated than any relationship he had to a hamburger in the original comics, Veronica (Camila Mendes) is new in town, fleeing from Manhattan after her father is arrested for his part in a Ponzi scheme,and Archie (KJ Apa)… well, naturally he’s involved with his teacher, a young and hot version of Miss Grundy. And there’s Cheryl Blossom (Madelaine Petsch with hair so long it often looks cumbersome), who showed up later in the comics just to stir up trouble and to be a more extreme version Veronica Lodge, who’s family is basically some sort of Gothic nightmare.
Like any good girl, I grew up reading Betty and Veronica double digests while driving to family vacations. When Archie comics were rebooted a couple years ago I gamely checked them out. Riverdale is different from both of those. While the rebooted Archies give new origins and new twists on the old characters it’s clear that Riverdale wanted to do its own thing. It takes much of the humor of the comics, Archie being accident prone and his inability to choose been two wildly different ladies, Jughead’s obsession with hamburgers, and replaces it with intrigue. What is Hiram Lodge up to from behind the scenes? What’s going on at Thornhill, the Blossom’s estate, and, actually, what’s up with the Blossoms in general? What happened to Betty’s sister? And above all; who killed Jason Blossom?
Ah, the beautiful dead girl. Such a well worn trope. It’s been done well, it’s been done poorly. From Twin Peaks to Veronica Mars, The Killing, Pretty Little Liars, even Thirteen Reasons Why we are presented with the aftermath of a death of an innocent beautiful young woman. Why anyone would want to kill her is the question the show relies on, as the characters unfold her life and discover layers that no one knew were there. Usually, because apparently no one can think of anything better, they were involved in inappropriate sexual escapades (though that’s seldom what got her killed, its’ just necessary, apparently, to establish she’s a slut). Riverdale subverts this slightly because their beautiful dead girl is a guy. The mystery of who killed Jason Blossom is what powers the first season, with the plot becoming more complicated and more wide spread with each episode. The killer is eventually revealed in episode twelve, the penultimate episode, with extremely fine acting from most of the show’s young cast. The reveal was satisfying, but the characters reaction to it was pitch perfect, particularly from Lili Reinhart and Madelaine Petsch.
Parents in teen television shows are a constant problem. The only show I recall which sucessfully managed to make the audience care about the parents was The O.C. and let’s be honest, that’s juts because Peter Gallagher is charismatic AF and Melinda Clarke as Julie Cooper was downright hilarious. Other shows have tried. There was the eternal will or they or wont they with Lily and Rufus on Gossip Girl, until they realized no one really cared that much and had her drop their marriage like a hot potato when her billionaire husband, who had been presumed dead (long story) showed up back in everyone’s lives. Every once in awhile a parent on Pretty Little Liars has a subplot, generally a romance, but they tend to wear thin. Except Laura Leighton as Ashley Marin, who was a supportive tour de force for awhile. Parents are an eternal problem in teen shows, because the teens can’t live without them, but they’re often just… in the way. Riverdale manages to fail and thrive at the parent issue. Like in The O.C. they are present and involved in what is going on, but don’t take too much time away from the main cast of teenagers. First there is Alice Cooper (Madchen Amick) who often comes across as slightly insane. She is the editor of the Riverdale Register and demands perfection from her daughter, doping her up on Adderall to keep her focused. She’s incensed at the very thought of Jason Blossom, who she perceives as having treated her oldest daughter, Polly, badly when they were dating. Then there is Fred Andrews (Luke Perry), Archie’s father, who’s mostly holier than thou, but offers occasional nuggets of true wisdom. Hermione Lodge is back in town after her husband goes to prison, she grew up in Riverdale but has been living in New York. She’s not too proud to take a waitressing job to make ends meet and can hold her own, but she also dabbles in occasional shadiness. Finally there is F.P. Jones (Skeet Ulrich [remember him!?]), Jughead’s father who runs with a gang, the South Side Serpents, and is largely absent from his son’s life.
It’s filled with characters who are likable within their complexities. Veronica isn’t just a spoiled rich girl that we like because she’s amusing. She’s spoiled and rich, sure, but she’s immediately friendly and respectful of her new best friend, Betty, and has deep concerns over the activities of her parents. Archie wants to write music instead of focusing on football, which his father doesn’t understand (this was, to me, one of the more annoyingly cliche plotlines but I will mention it anyway). Betty has harbored a crush on the boy next door for as long as she can remember but bears up well when she is rejected, even while dealing with a lot of confusion at home. Jughead is probably the most changed, from an affable caricature to a moody loner, but his family life is fraught and feels abandoned by his friends. Cheryl is a stone cold bitch, but shows considerable depth, mostly in her grief over her twin’s death. So, no one is simple, no one is one thing, which is both rare and important.
Riverdale is not a perfect show. Nothing in this genre really could be. But it is fun, darkly light hearted, and genuinely mysterious. Sometimes while watching it I’d find myself exclaiming out loud “Oh come on! Really?! This is what you’re going with?” at the more comically dramatic moments. But I could never wait for the next episode to find out how it ended. It’s often delightfully over the top, but in the best ways.
Riverdale is available starting today on Netflix