Can Riverdale be the next Pretty Little Liars?
In just a few weeks, Pretty Little Liars — the ABC Freeform show with which I have a complex love-hate relationship — will air its final episode. After 7 years, 10 murders, 4 fake deaths, 2 kind-of incestuous relationships (3 if you count Toby and Jenna) and a metric tonne of absurd feather earrings (I’m looking at you, Aria), this ridiculous, over-the-top show will finally come to end.
I’ll be honest. I’m pretty bummed about it. Between watching the actual show, reading theories on Tumblr, cooing over Instagram photos of Troian Bellisario and Ashley Benson, and listening to PLL podcasts (Bros Watch PLL Too and Cabernet and A are the best of the bunch), my love of this show takes up a good few hours of my time a week. And I’m not entirely sure how to fill that time once the show has ended.
(Please keep your suggestions of ‘do something productive’ or ‘be an actual adult woman’ to yourself.)
The obvious answer, of course, is to transfer my obsession onto a new show — something, ideally, within the Sexy Teen Murder oeuvre to which I’m partial.
When Riverdale launched in January this year, I assumed my search for a new show had been answered. Here was a show that had almost everything I love about Pretty Little Liars — murderous hijinks, absurdly attractive characters, punchy dialogue, enviable wardrobes and salacious relationships. On top of that, Riverdale, from episode one, has employed a frankly stunning visual style you generally don’t associate with teen dramas.
The signs were positive — and as such, I’ve faithfully watched each episode, as soon as it’s become available on Netflix. And while I’ve enjoyed it, the reality is that Riverdale is no Pretty Little Liars.
And with the season one finale of Riverdale airing today, and the confirmation that there will be a season two, it’s time to look at what the show needs to take into consideration if it wants to see the kind of endurance Pretty Little Liars has had.
Embrace the slow burn
In 13 episodes, Riverdale has charged through storylines and tropes at an alarming pace. The Betty-Archie-Veronica triangle was resolved within a couple of episodes. We know who killed Jason Blossom already. Betty and Jughead slipped into Serious Relationship Territory in just a few episodes, the Miss Grundy arc came and went, and the mystery of what happened to Polly Cooper was answered by mid-season.
While that pace has kept each episode fresh, it also prevents the audience from becoming truly invested in each of these storylines. Every one of these storylines had potential to be truly engaging — they all just needed a little more room to breathe.
Assume your audience is smarter
When it comes to shows that hinge on ongoing mysteries — like Pretty Little Liars, Riverdale, Twin Peaks or How To Get Away With Murder — half the fun is in the audience ferreting out clues that are hidden away in the background.
Take a look, for example, at The PLL Sherlock — an Instagram account dedicated to digging into the clues and hints buried within Pretty Little Liars episodes. Whoever runs this account (a mystery in itself) goes to great lengths to interpret every hint, song, literary reference and scene in the show, knowing that the writers have hidden clues in everything.
With Riverdale, there’s very little of that. A lot of that has to do with the pace of the show — questions are raised and answered so quickly that there’s not a lot of time to tease things out. And what that leads to is a tendency to make things obvious and explicit, which takes the fun out of it for the audience.
Make your motivation clearer
Here’s the reality: Jason Blossom is not a pivotal enough character within the world of the core four Riverdale characters for his death to be that important. While the show addresses this by saying that this murder ‘changed the town’, it still doesn’t really make sense why Jughead and Betty would be so focused on finding out what happened.
If Cheryl Blossom was part of that core group, it would make sense. If Polly, rather than Jason, had died, it would make sense. If Jason had had a direct relationship with Betty, Jughead, Archie or Veronica, it would make sense. If he’d had secret connections to all of them, that had slowly come out over the course of the show, it would have been amazing.
The central mystery of Pretty Little Liars, initially, is the disappearance of Alison DiLaurentis — the best friend of the four central characters. However, it isn’t until the girls start being tormented by the omnipresent A that they are driven to dig further into the mystery. The liars engage in ridiculous hijinks to solve the mystery, in a bid to finally stop the torment and discover the truth.
Without that level of personal motivation, Betty and Jughead’s investigations seem unnecessary — all the more so when you consider the fact that it’s part of their work on a school-sanctioned newspaper.
While the MTV Scream series was not great in a lot of ways, that was one thing they got right — Noah’s Serial-esque podcast served as both a great narrative device, and a source of motivation.
Use your adults better
There are too many parents on Riverdale.
Look, I love Skeet Ulrich and Luke Perry and Madchen Amick and that guy from A Night At The Roxbury as much as the next 90s kid, but financial dealings and divorces are boring, and no one is watching Riverdale for that.
(It also makes zero sense that Alice Cooper works on the school-paper-slash-murder-investigation with Betty and Jughead.)
Dial back the parental characters. Make most of them mere sounding boards or foils for the main characters. Make one or two of them key to the central mystery, like Peter Hastings or Jessica DiLaurentis in Pretty Little Liars.
Your cast is young and hot and I promise no one watching cares about Luke Perry and Molly Ringwald’s separation.
Explore the dark side
The best Pretty Little Liars arcs are the ones where one of the main characters goes dark. Spencer joins the A Team, Spencer gets hooked on Adderall, Toby joins the A Team, Mona is A … the best episodes are the ones that explore the darkness within.
Riverdale touched on the darkness that lives inside Betty early on in the season, but never really delved further into it — though I hope that it’s foreshadowing for an epic Dark!Betty storyline next season. They’ve also alluded to the fact that Veronica used to be a total bitch — before moving to Riverdale, and embracing her sweetness.
All of the characters on Riverdale currently are too good. Too pure. Too earnest. Archie’s flaw seems to be being too good at everything (?), Veronica’s an affinity for excess, Jughead’s a tendency to be morose. But these are not flaws. They’re barely even traits.
Pretty Little Liars has a habit of taking character traits, and subverting them until they’re unsettling. Spencer’s perfectionism leads her to obsession and substance abuse. Aria’s desire to be seen as an adult leads her to an unsavoury relationship and an inability to handle the adult situations she places herself in. Ezra’s dreams of being a writer see him effectively stalking a bunch of teenage girls for years. Alison’s attitude almost gets her killed.
At present, the Riverdale characters are largely untouched by darkness, remaining as external observers to the messy and dark things that happen in their town. To keep it interesting, that needs to change.
Use your secondary characters better
Kevin, Cheryl, Joaquin, FP, Reggie, Valerie, Josie … these are all secondary characters in Riverdale that seem to be there simply to tick a box, rather than add to the story.
The secondary characters in Pretty Little Liars — especially Mona — are fleshed out. Complex. They have their own backgrounds, their own motivations, their own quirks and traits.
The secondary characters on Riverdale all have exactly one trait. Gay. Bitchy. In a gang. Also in a gang. Jerk. In a band. Also in a band.
If you’re going to have these characters, use them as more than props.
You can’t judge a TV show by its first season. Look at Parks & Rec. Buffy. The X Files. 30 Rock. Each of these shows, so iconic in their own ways, had premiere seasons that were not really indicative of what those shows would become.
Riverdale has the potential to become the kind of engaging, ridiculous TV show that inspires its audience to construct elaborate theories and fansites and Instagram accounts. It has the potential to propel its stars to insane levels of fame, and to dominate social media.
Will Riverdale ever be critically acclaimed or lauded? No, probably not. But that’s fine. Not every show has to be Game of Thrones or Better Call Saul or The Wire. There’s always room for a fun, camp, Sexy Teen Murder show in the television landscape — and now that Pretty Little Liars is nearly over, it might be time for Riverdale to take the mantle.
I’ve got my fingers crossed it gets there.