A Love Letter To Riverdale
Have you ever loved something? Like… truly loved. Not liked, not stanned for, not indulged in, but love. Pure, unfiltered, and passionate love. If you haven’t watched Riverdale, the answer is no.
Two years ago I began to hate-watch a show that proved to be the single most important thing that I have ever experienced on an intellectual, spiritual, and personal level. What I thought was a show that was just Archie with hot people turned out to be so much more. It was a high school drama, it was a murder mystery, and it was the most melodramatic thing I’ve ever seen.
Before I go any further, let me go over my history with Archie — not to be self-indulgent, because I think it is important to what Riverdale is pulling from. My history consists of two wildly different experiences as a youth and a few less-exciting ones as an adult.
As a kid, we had a box of comics. In that box there were lots of Archie comics. Some of these, however, were not the main canon of Archie’s story, even though I could not tell the difference. This version Archie spoke about Jesus, told his readers morality tales, and made me spend the first years of my life thinking that Archie was a religious comic book. There were normal Archie comics, Betty and Veronica comics, and even a couple Jughead comics, but I never knew the difference between them. Growing up in the church bubble means that you don’t really possess the ability to differentiate between Christian and secular culture. Anyways, the point is, Archie had me mixing genres from the get-go.
My next clear memory of Archie happens on a camping trip. Every year we went camping, and every year I brought my Archie comics. In one of those comics there was an ad for a television movie called Return to Riverdale. For the rest of my trip, this was all I could think about. An Archie movie? What could go wrong. What ensued was a movie that had adult versions of Archie, Betty, Veronica, and Jughead juggling their nostalgic look at high school for what I believe was a high school reunion — I saw this once 20+ years ago. When I got home, I went to Blockbuster, so it goes, and rented it and boy was I surprised to see a sexual Archie film that had Jughead rapping to his son over the Sugar, Sugar beat. My puritanical Christian Archie comics had lied to me. And it was at this moment that I knew one thing — Archie was insane, but how insane could it get?
Since the 90’s, Archie has joined forces with The Punisher and Batman, he has fought Predator, he has lived through a zombie apocalypse, and he’s fought a Sharknado. He’s been shot, he’s met Barack Obama and Sarah Palin, and he’s even hallucinated about the time he met the Monkees after hitting his head at band practice in 2018.
To those who view Archie from afar, he’s just a slice of Americana. He’s a normal Rockwell painting by way of Family Circus. He’s a high schooler who does wacky things with other high schoolers and always comes out having done what is best for he and them as they mull over their shenanigans over a milkshake and cheeseburger at Pops. That’s the essence through all of these, but hidden beneath this is something different and THIS is where Riverdale comes in and succeeds in everything it does.
Riverdale draws from almost 80 years of Archie lore and knows what that entails. Sure, there’s the exterior too the All-American redhead who seems perfect at the core inside this small American town that envisions the American dream, but there’s a dark interior that has always been there in the comics. Old Archie comics are filled with racist caricatures, questionable gender politics, and other storylines which just don’t age well, yet nobody talks about these and they get brushed beneath the surface. Riverdale is that space under the surface.
On any given week, Riverdale may be a high school drama, a mafia epic, a boxing story, a supernatural thriller, a prison movie, a musical, a survivalist tale, or a murder mystery, but what binds each one together is the theme that the city of Riverdale is hiding something. It may look like the American Dream, but that American Dream is an American Nightmare when we dive deeper. It’s filled with sex and drugs and violence and cults and serial killers and your standard high school bullshit. Its characters are all archetypes who are good at everything they strive at, be it singing, boxing, sleuthing, reporting, or breaking out of prison. It’s ridiculous, stupid, brilliant, and absolutely mesmerizing, and that is the point. What happens when these perfect people are forced to be imperfect?
The show itself has plenty of flaws which cannot be ignored. The season 1 arc in which Archie is sleeping with his teacher is portrayed as forbidden romance, not statutory rape. I do not know why television, specifically, has such a fetish for this type of storytelling. Its portrayal of Kevin, Cheryl, Toni, and other gay and bisexual characters tends to make their sexuality their only defining feature as a character regardless of the situation they are put in. In a show where almost every character has a Swiss Army knife of skills and demons and quirks, having these characters be so two-dimensional is troubling.
The other, less egregious flaws, however, are exactly what make the show what it is. In a world that just saw Game of Thrones end through the eyes of people who seemingly did not understand the work that they are adapting to screen, Riverdale knows exactly what it is. It doesn’t accidentally stumble into poorly-written cliched dialogue, insane plot holes, and nonsensical events — it embraces them.
In one episode, Archie might be mauled by the bear, and in the next one he might be studying for SATs. (Yes, this happened.) It’s a high school drama that may go weeks without showing the school, but suddenly has its characters taking breaks from gang activities, business careers, and cults to put on a musical version of Carrie and Heathers. Describing it to someone who hasn’t seen it almost sounds like parody, and if you try to articulate any web of plot to them they may think that you’re crazy. Even season 1 seems tame to what they’re doing now. This is why it’s perfect.
It also cannot be said how much the acting carries the show. Existing in some sort of strange middle ground between awful and brilliant, the cast of Riverdale always plays the show as though their lives depended on it. With the exception of Luke Perry, whose Fred might have been the only human character, every character in this show is insane. Archie is an angsty teen who might as well run the city as a superhero. Betty is the literal girl next door who finds her inner darkness coming out. Veronica is the mafioso’s daughter who apparently has the business acumen of America’s top entrepreneurs. And Jughead? He is just your everyday terrible teenage writer who happens to moonlight as the leader of a gang and film nerd. The parents, sans Fred, are all awful people in some regard, the supporting characters are all insane archetypes, and the city that they run in lies somewhere between American Horror Story and Sons of Anarchy.
Riverdale isn’t trying to be a a realist drama, or a comedy, or even high art. It is a satire of America and mass-media. It is showing what happens when everything we’ve done leaks into the milktoast world of Archie and forces America’s favorite redhead to experience actual problems. It is as though every single movie, TV show, and book got put in a blender and thrown at the CW. It’s guerilla art and excess at its finest form. It is the CW show that Hunter S. Thompson would have made if he were told to adapt Archie. And for all of this, I am forever grateful.