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Tuesday, June 28, 2022

The Epic Highs and Lows of Riverdale

Katie Kirkpatrick unpacks the pure chaos of the infamous CW teen drama.

Teen dramas have been ridiculous for years. We’ve seen Chuck Bass’ dad fake his death only to fall off a roof while dramatic orchestral music plays in Gossip Girl. We’ve seen the ever-mysterious ‘A’ put five girls in a huge fake dollhouse in Pretty Little Liars. We’ve seen teenagers pray to a grilled cheese sandwich that happens to look a little bit like God in Glee. Until recently, however, we’d never seen a girl talk to her twin brother’s taxidermied corpse. We hadn’t seen a villain called the Gargoyle King kill people through a game that’s basically Dungeons and Dragons. We definitely hadn’t seen a plot about tickle porn, or organ farming. 

Riverdale is the teen drama to end all teen dramas. What started off as a fairly standard show about a teen murder mystery has evolved into essentially a parody of itself. The dialogue has to be heard to be believed, with real lines including “you can’t have any of my bodily fluids, you succubus!” No, I’m not kidding. Let’s do a quick recap – spoilers incoming, although with this show there’s no way I’ll ever be able to cover more than a brief outline so there will still be literal shocks at every corner.

Based on the Archie comics, the first series of the TV show follows a group of high school students trying to solve the death of their classmate Jason Blossom, and also looks at love triangles, teacher-student relationships, and gang clashes. Season 2 focusses on a serial killer called the Black Hood, but also features conversion therapy and fake siblings. Season 3 centres around a cult called The Farm which is revealed to be for organ donation, as well as Gryphons and Gargoyles, a deadly rip-off of Dungeons and Dragons. Season 4’s main plot is clearly based on The Secret History, about a murder plot at a rich private school, while there is also a story about a ‘voyeur’ who has been sending residents of the town videotapes of their front doors. Season 5, so far, jumps forward seven years to see the original characters trying to save their town. If it sounds like those things can’t possibly all be in the same show, that’s because they can’t. It’s impossible. And yet Riverdale does it anyway. 

Riverdale is pure chaos. None of the plot lines make sense together, and most of them are completely unrelated. The dynamics between the characters are endlessly confusing, with secret siblings and pseudo-incest galore. The dialogue, as I’ve mentioned, sounds like it absolutely can’t be real. And yet, the show is undeniably a success. It’s on it’s 5th season already, ratings are still high, the cast are all stars, and it doesn’t look like it’s stopping anytime soon. So, frankly, how? How is a show so categorically bad doing so well? Like the characters themselves, we’re going to do some investigating.

First: the genesis of Riverdale. A creation story to rival that of Adam and Eve. The way I see it, there are two key elements to Riverdale’s birth. The first, of course, is the comics. The series starts off with characters that already exist, and are quite familiar to some, and pretty much everyone under the sun has heard the song ‘Sugar, Sugar’, which is by the characters’ fictional band. There is existing lore, as such, and dynamics between characters that make sense. Familiarity is always helpful to get people to start watching a series. The second component is a person: Roberto Aguirre-Sacasas. RAS, as fans refer to him as, has a long past with the Archie/Riverdale universe: in 2003, he wrote and staged a play about the comic characters grown up, in New York, where Archie is gay and mixing with real-life serial killers. He was issued a cease and desist order by Archie Comics, but went ahead with the play anyway, just changing character names, such as making Jughead into Tapeworm and making Veronica into Monica. Yes, really. He also spent a few years writing for Glee, because of course he did. When you think about it, this creation story makes perfect sense: take iconic comic characters, combine them with a writer known for the weird and the camp, and you get Riverdale

RAS’ Glee past also explains one of Riverdale’s most random elements (okay, maybe not most random, that’s highly contested): the musical episodes. The show has now tackled Carrie, Heathers, and Hedwig and the Angry Inch, managing to squeeze an ungodly amount of songs into these 40 minute episodes. They’ve become internet-famous, but for bad reasons: half of the cast literally can’t sing. There are also random musical numbers in other episodes, and have been since the beginning: they’re a key element of the show now. A particular recent classic is the Riverdale cover of ‘Midnight Radio’ from Hedwig. It is a classic purely because it is terrible. At the same time, however, the musical episodes are some of my favourites. We’re a generation of musical theatre lovers, and it injects fun into the show, even if it also makes your ears bleed. Who doesn’t want to see a high schooler initiate a threesome in her auditorium while singing ‘Dead Girl Walking’ from Heathers, or a girl group singing ‘Milkshake’ on the literal roof of a diner? Don’t pretend you don’t. 

There is so much joy to be found in terrible art. Riverdale is, I would argue, the singular worst piece of television in the last couple of years, and yet it’s also one of my favourites. It’s impossible not to enjoy watching it. While the dialogue is unfalteringly abysmal, there does also seem to be some skill and craft going on behind the scenes. The show clutches on just about tightly enough to some semblance of plot, so the end-of-episode cliffhangers do leave you wanting to find out what happens. The character dynamics, while obviously bizarre, are easy to get invested in, especially as we’ve been following the same small group of friends for five seasons. Riverdale walks – or rather, totters – on the line between conscious satire and just poor writing in a way that’s unfailingly captivating to watch. I for one can’t wait to see what they do next – although I doubt they’ll manage to outdo the time Archie fought a bear. 

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