TV Review: Riverdale

Each decade has one- that cringey, melodramatic, but nevertheless addictive teen soap that becomes a nationwide phenomenon. There was 90210, then Dawson’s Creek, then Gossip Girl, which each gained a strong base of adolescent fans. Their popularity comes frank (though sometimes unrealistic) discussions of angst, family issues, sex, drugs, and any other issue plaguing the teenagers in the audience.

For the past three years, that show has been Riverdale, the CW’s dark take on the Archie comics. Following the lives of Archie, Betty, Veronica, and Jughead, Riverdale is part murder mystery, part drama, and, for one episode every season, part High School Musical

There are two ways to look at this rollercoaster of television. You can view it as either a poorly made caricature of high school life or appreciate the unfiltered fun of drama that makes no attempt to appeal to critics.

Anyone watching the show critically has plenty of ammunition. The first season, while campy, was still grounded in a solid plot, with thirteen episodes to figure out who killed Jason Blossom. The twists were exciting but believable. After the mystery was solved, Riverdale faced the same problem that so many other shows face: what next? When the main storyline of a season has a defined ending and beginning, it can be difficult to start from scratch the next year. Seasons two and three suffer from the constant attempts to find stories as appealing and sensational as the first. It’s because of this that we end up with scenes of Betty dancing to “Mad World” and drugs called jingle-jangle. 

The plotlines can vary in terms of their distance from reality. For the most part, this makes for some good laughs, but it can have negative consequences. Take the season one story in which Archie, a sophomore in high school, is having an affair with his fully adult teacher Mrs. Grundy. Just to be clear, this is sexual abuse- Archie is a minor, and Mrs. Grundy is an authority figure who is not. Instead of presenting this relationship for what it is, however, the show tries to validate the affair, almost romanticizing it. The liaison is presented as nothing more than a little scandalous, which is worrisome in a show that’s made for teenagers. With real cases like this one happening every day (in which the teacher typically ends up in jail), it’s both insensitive and irresponsible for Riverdale to turn abuse into a casual fling.

And outside of the storytelling, there’s the acting itself. Oh, the acting. It may be the poor script that’s at fault for scene after scene of stilted, wooden dialogue and emotional arcs that are impossible to follow. Either way, the results can be difficult to watch. 

To make up for these flaws, Riverdale has a few crutches it leans on: scenes of singing, murder, and what I like to call “Look at Archie Go!” moments, in which the show tries to convince its audience that Archie is the most amazing, wonderful, talented boy who ever lived. Not to draw too many comparisons to High School Musical, but Archie suffers from Troy Bolton syndrome, a phenomenon where the unremarkable hero of the story is presented as a marvel because “he can sing and play sports!” Look, Archie is great and all, but not nearly as spectacular as the show would like us to believe.

So while the acting is not the main problem, with a few key members (e.g. the late Luke Perry) of the cast pulling more weight than the others, it exacerbates the underlying issues in the story. 

And now to counter everything I just said by looking at the show through the second lens I mentioned.

The thing is, Riverdale isn’t meant to be examined critically. Like its predecessors, the show is so bad it’s good. You could spend hours debating everything wrong in that messed up little world of gritty Archie comics, because that’s what the show does- it prompts discussion, whether positive or negative. Years from now, our generation can laugh at the ridiculously high stakes of a production of Carrie: The Musical because we’ll still be talking about that show that captured our imagination for so many years.

The show isn’t aiming to win an Emmy. Its goal is to entertain, and in that it certainly succeeds.