The Kids Are All Right: On “Riverdale”




I WAS BUZZING on the pilot of Riverdale the first time I watched it. It was a neat trick to drop the wholesome, All-American characters from the Archie comics into a new fictional world: a pastiche of juicy teen soaps like The O.C. and Pretty Little Liars with campy shades of the surrealistic, small-town Pacific Northwest investigation of Twin Peaks. Some called it subversive, some insane. If they had done this with Archie a decade or two ago, the buzzy label for it — as it was with Twin Peaks — might have been “postmodern.” But whether we use that term or perhaps the more fashionable “dark reboot,” the series thrives on the frisson of incongruity between the source material and the expectations we bring to contemporary teen TV. Practically every scene in the pilot offers a new discovery, made all the more surprising by its new context: hey Jughead, oh Veronica, hello Josie and the Pussycats. Look at you now.

As is often true of new network series, the show goes through some freshman year growing pains as the writers seem to be trying different ways of coaxing yet another 42 minutes of television from the situation set up in the pilot without resolving too much, always saving more for another time. By the end of episode one, we have a fresh homicide, a mysterious bag of cash, a secret student/teacher love affair, a closeted football player, and a love triangle — or maybe it’s a rectangle or pentagon — for the leads. Betty has a missing sister, Archie has a missing mother, Veronica has a missing father. (Well he’s in jail, but what’s the story?) The parents who aren’t missing might despise each other, because the past. The voiceover in the weekly “previously” begins: “The story is about a town, once wholesome and innocent, now forever changed…” If the first season has been disappointing or frustrating at times, it’s not because the concept is shaky. The adolescent innocence of Archie isn’t just being outgrown, it’s being trampled and shredded week after week.

There are pleasures in Riverdale, and they’re often the kinds of pleasures we’ve come to expect from shows like American Horror Story: what they lack in narrative coherence and plausibility within the bounds of generic conventions they make up for in momentary gorgeous pictures, lively dialogue, and shocks of drama. Riverdale offers us a melodrama of adolescence that plays on our expectations of its cheerfully familiar story world, which often clash with equally familiar expectations of a twisty, sexy teen soap.

The tensions in any story about teenagers are between innocence and experience, familiarity and new adventures, the safety of the family and the dangers of independence. Riverdale maps onto these oppositions a tension between its source material in an idealized past versus its contemporary televisual genre, which keeps pushing the teenager identity absurdly further into adulthood (both by having teens act grown up but also by casting grown-ups to play them). It also makes a lot of room for adult characters, the parents of Archie and his pals, playing out intergenerational soapy scenarios of family feuds and business schemes. Riverdale presents these themes in a fun, casual, self-deprecating way that invites the audience to play along, reveling in winky excesses. “Is cheerleading still a thing?” asks the gay best friend. The supremely bitchy Cheryl Blossom retorts: “Is being a gay best friend still a thing?” Archie is supposed to be a sophomore, just emerged “from the chrysalis of puberty,” but he has Hollywood abs, revealed and remarked upon in several shirtless scenes (the actor is 19). Riverdale is playing with genres and generations, but it always lets us in on its game.

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This kind of thing is not unexpected in the teen drama, which tends to be a contrived, self-conscious form. Like a limerick or an HGTV renovation show, there are conventions, and once you get to know them, however crazy they seem, you might love them or at least appreciate how they work. As they have developed over a couple of decades of recent TV history, spurred by the rise of narrow-targeting networks like The WB, The CW, and ABC Family/Freeform, teen dramas place maturing kids in the foreground, often as nearly autonomous heroes of their own lives; adults are often secondary as antagonists or helpers. Often we get the usual cheerleaders and athletes, the place where everyone hangs out when not at the school lunch table, and characters entering and exiting bedrooms through the window. Episodes build up over several acts toward a pivotal gathering of characters at a party, a big game, or a performance. The classes and learning part of high school are peripheral if they are even shown at all, or they serve as the public scene from which someone can be led away by the principal and sheriff.

A casual viewer might assume that a show like Riverdale, on The CW, seemingly aimed at an MTV demo, would be strictly the stuff of kid wish fulfillment, but not really. Serious television people know that teen dramas are where some of the most interesting and beloved American series have been made in the past several decades. No television connoisseur now can fail to recognize the canonical status of My So-Called Life, Buffy the Vampire Slayer, Freaks and Geeks, Gilmore Girls, Veronica Mars, and Friday Night Lights. Less perfect cases, which we still generally know and admire at least to some degree, would include Dawson’s Creek, Felicity, The O.C., Everwood, Smallville, Gossip Girl, Glee, Pretty Little Liars, and The Vampire Diaries. There are films that cover neighboring terrain, from the John Hughes high school cycle to Clueless and Mean Girls. And there are television antecedents, which get less respect than they should, like James at 15, and, over multiple generations, the immortal Degrassi, which takes a very earnest and Canadian approach (up there, children get to play children). In other words, teen television grew up a long time ago.

And so have the networks that provide us with this content. With shows like Jane the Virgin, Crazy Ex-Girlfriend, and Riverdale, The CW is aging up their content as their audience ages up. As YA fiction, superhero movies, Harry Potter, and the like have spread from young people’s media to pop culture for everyone, teen dramas have also become more like all-ages fare. But we demand too much of them if we expect they will all be like My So-Called Life or Friday Night Lights and conform to our Quality TV expectation of well-made, “prime-time novel” aesthetics.

A show like Riverdale tries to have it both ways, mimicking the dual address of kids shows like Sesame Street and Phineas and Ferb, with appeals for one target audience leavened with goodies for another. There’s not just a smattering of references to Hitchcock blondes and Tarantino fatigue, Truman Capote and Toni Morrison, even specific seasons of Mad Men, but also actors who some viewers will remember fondly from old teenage roles. Mädchen Amick, Luke Perry, Skeet Ulrich, Robin Givens, and Molly Ringwald all show up to remind the parents of Riverdale’s younger viewers what their own televisual avatars looked like in the ’90s, and how old they’ve grown.

The presence of these middle-aged actors in prominent roles means that for Riverdale, more than many teen soaps, the layering of conflict crosses generations. The main characters struggle to assert their own identities in conflict with their family’s place in a setting caught between a facade of idealized small-town virtues and a seamy reality about to be exposed. As in Veronica Mars, which in some ways Riverdale strongly resembles, parents carry more baggage and are far more manipulative and scheming than the children, still largely innocent of adult machinations. Betty’s parents have sent their daughter Polly away ostensibly over the shame of a teen pregnancy. Veronica’s mother forges her daughter’s signature to make a business deal, while also scheming on behalf of her incarcerated husband with a biker gang called the Southside Serpents, which includes Jughead’s dad. Kevin’s father, Sheriff Keller, is investigating Jason Blossom’s murder, and Betty’s father seems to have broken into his office to steal his “murder wall.” Mrs. Cooper frequently exhorts and insists with an icy glare and a raised voice, forbidding Betty from seeing Archie. The Blossoms inhabit a creepy gothic mansion with an ornate iron gate and appear to be as evil as their house would indicate.

Perhaps the most misguided and blameworthy adult, though, is Ms. Grundy, Archie’s music teacher — white-haired and elderly in the comics, tragic and 30ish here — who is run out of town at the end of episode four after everyone learns of her relationship with Archie. (The statutory rape implications of this forced though frothy scenario, with frequent flashbacks to some steamy sex in a VW Bug, seem less urgent given that both of the characters look like adults.) This student/teacher situation is familiar enough from genre-mates like Dawson’s Creek and Pretty Little Liars to come across more like a ridiculous cliché than a moral provocation, and as Ms. Grundy has no family connection to the characters, she’s easy for the show to lose.

One consequence of the emphasis on intergenerational drama might be that Riverdale ends up suffering from a common problem in contemporary serialized dramas: so many characters, never enough time for them all, flurries of short scenes between too-frequent commercial breaks. In this case, among the many characters are an awful lot of grown-ups for a show about teenagers. Regrettably, the parents are much less nuanced than the kids, with the exception of Hermione, Veronica’s conflicted mother who is helping her imprisoned husband keep his affairs (of questionable legality) humming along while also negotiating her family’s status in a new town. Betty’s and Cheryl’s parents are overbearing gargoyles, and it might help to draw them with more humanity given that one key element driving the story is an unborn child whose parents are their teenage children, one of them dead. As Archie’s regular guy father Fred, Luke Perry often looks concerned, even pained, but seems to be given the same thing to do in every scene. Some of the characters like Jughead’s Serpent father and Kevin’s dad, Sheriff Keller, appear so infrequently it’s hard to think of them as anything more than plot functions.

The CW might imagine that this equal time for parents will help the show appeal more broadly — parents have been some of the most vivid and memorable characters in shows like Friday Night Lights and The O.C. — but it seems short-sighted if anyone assumes adults won’t obsess over teens in a TV drama in the first place. No episode has room for all of the characters, and the teen-focused episode 10, with Archie’s dad away and Betty throwing Jughead an ill-fated birthday party sans adults, felt like the show finding the right key for its range. If the producers think balancing the kid beats with adult stories will help older viewers connect with the show, they might want to reflect on why anyone watches a teen soap in the first place.

What makes these dramas compelling is so often the magic of the in-between status of adolescence. Conflicted relationships with parents should function in service of that. While some teen shows work with eternally ripe coming-of-age scenarios, developing the teenager’s character through formative experiences and life lessons, a show like Riverdale seems to be more about exploiting the tension between family identity and individual responsibility and independence. The Scooby gang on Riverdale are constrained by their parents’ often checkered pasts and struggling to define themselves. Their liminal status on the threshold of adulthood could be a hugely productive narrative engine, as it has been on shows like My So-Called Life, Buffy, Freaks and Geeks, and Gilmore Girls. So far, however, it seems more like a potential inherent in the show rather than something it’s managed to express very effectively.

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Maybe the awkward handling of intergenerational drama on this show is so conspicuous because it obscures the show’s greatest strength. What Riverdale does well, well enough to make me eager to keep watching, are evocative — and visually striking — scenes and images of adolescence, of characters experiencing the ups and downs of being a teenager. What keeps the show interesting are beautiful moments with lyrical expressions of teen romance or jealousy, charges of eroticism, and utterly conventional flourishes of style done well. Often these draw on Archie iconography and more broadly from familiar tropes of pop culture representations of American high school, sometimes clashing with the darker notes the series hits. Sometimes they are just the stuff of prime-time serials, like the hook at the end of an episode posing a question to be answered next week, even if you doubt the show will deliver anything as jaw-dropping as is suggested. While the series struggles to do this work at a narrative level, its visuals tell all the story we need.

Owing to the source material, Riverdale embraces the retro feel of midcentury Americana, and the mise-en-scéne brings this unsettling nostalgic feeling to life, in tension with the seamy underbelly explored in the ongoing murder, crime, and corporate plot arcs. The girls wear fitted sweaters and old-fashioned collars, Betty has her ponytail, and Archie has his Riverdale High letter jacket. They gather at a ’50s-style diner, Pop’s Chock’Lit Shoppe. In one diner scene in episode four, Betty’s pink sweater perfectly matches her strawberry milkshake. We often see symmetrical compositions to push comparisons of characters of different generations or backgrounds, with Veronica and Hermione on either side of a fire in their hearth, or in episode five, Cheryl and Veronica on Cheryl’s ornate bed with its upholstered headboard and dark red linens, looking at photos of her dead twin brother, their skin tones and outfits contrasting in color to underline their rivalry and strange friendship. The characters often are dressed in coordinated colors, as in the maple tapping scene of episode eight, where everyone is in navy or red (to match Cheryl’s signature heavy lipstick) like a magazine spread on the season’s in colors. As images, the characters can be more fascinating than they are on the pages of the script.

Putting aside the cringey hot-for-teacher scenes, there are moments of erotic appeal between the teenage characters, exploiting the bursting energy of teenage sexuality and the incongruity of the wholesome Archie world being reimagined in low-key tones. Betty is first introduced in a bra, and she and Kevin both ogle Archie’s physique through their bedroom windows. These windows are voyeuristic portals as much as they are points of communication between the neighbors and best friends. Veronica and Betty dress up in seductive attire for a quasi-torture hot tub scene in episode three, with Veronica in a dark wig and lingerie setting up a football player for a lesson on slut-shaming. The underlying message of the episode might be feminist, but the sexualized image of Betty and Veronica luring a hunky boy into their trap goes a few dangerous campy steps beyond “girl power.”

Riverdale uses music video aesthetics in conventional but effective ways in the high school hallways, a standard transmedia appeal to the teenage audience, and for all of its emphasis on family relations, these moments away from the grown-ups are where the show just works by doing its teen thing. In episode five, after Archie hurts his (guitar-playing) hand in football practice, Veronica notices him sitting alone by a window, tending to his injury. “Strange Boy” by El Michels Affair featuring The Shacks, with velvety female vocals, strummed guitars and a laid-back vibe plays while Veronica notices Archie. The lyric goes, “I like you anyway” as she sits next to him and offers comfort and advice. Veronica seems jealous of Archie and his girlfriend Valerie and concedes, “I had my seven minutes in heaven with Archie Andrews,” calling back to their hot kiss from the pilot as she modestly kisses his injury. There’s iconic heterosexual romance in this scene of the cheerleader and the quarterback with his dirty uniform over boxy shoulder pads. They exchange parting glances as she walks away to the lyric “you’re so strange,” and the guitar repeats a chord rhythmically. Stuff like this is a CW version of Norman Rockwell.

In the following episode, after Valerie quits the band and Veronica joins Josie and the Pussycats, the newly reconfigured group of girls strides in slow motion down the high school hallway lined with lockers as the other characters look on and “OverdoZZe” by Pell and ZZ Ward plays. Veronica grins. Val and Archie look on; Val has a blank expression. Cut to a close-up of Veronica’s pussycat ears. She smiles at Josie. Low angle of the girls confidently striding, Veronica clutching Josie’s arm. Valerie looks pissed. This is high school rivalry and status-jockeying expressed so purely, with so much more energy in this moment than there is in the back and forth about who will play with whom on the Variety Show stage, or in Archie’s angst over giving a good performance. And nothing in the parent plots comes close to the energy and feeling of this.

There is a scene in episode four, at the last night for the Twilight Drive-In, that crystalizes the appeal of the heightened adolescent moment true to the Archie source material in tension with the intergenerational melodrama quality of Riverdale. Veronica and her friends are watching the movie, but the Southside Serpent gang is there too, talking loudly. Rich girl Veronica, whose mother is secretly in business with the Serpents, stands up to them as James Dean’s CinemaScope image from Rebel Without a Cause floats above her head on the screen. She shouts: “Hey! You know what happens to a snake when a Louis Vuitton heel steps on it? Shut the hell up or you’ll find out!” The audience cheers and honks car horns in approval and she curtsies. It’s true to Veronica’s character, gives the actress a chewy line, punctuates a tense moment with humor, works in ironic counterpoint to her mother Hermione’s story line with the gang, and sets the contemporary world of the show against a classic 1950s image of teenage life (both the movie and the drive-in theater) to draw out the resonance and contrast. This scene is better than the episode it’s a part of, but it’s also in service to the larger story line about Veronica’s family and their place in the town.

Riverdale can be dark or light, arch or cute. It’s cool that they made it, but maybe it would be stronger as a serialized narrative if they’d just let it be a teen series that tells stories about kids growing up. That’s not a low purpose or a compromised ambition. There’s a history of greatness in teen soaps, and Riverdale seems both aware of that and anxious about it. The formal and generic play can feel ingenious, but it can also feel as though it’s overcompensating, adding another character or twist to the mix in case something else doesn’t work. In other words, as much as Riverdale loves the genre and seems to exalt in its manipulation, it also regrettably wants it to “grow up” along with its viewers. The moments that work exploit the drama inherent in adolescence caught between childhood and responsibility, and the clashing expectations of Archie comics and a prime-time television drama. They evoke the best of these teen dramas because they seem, for a moment, indifferent to being anything other than what they are.

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Michael Z. Newman teaches at the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee and tweets at @mznewman.


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