On the morning of July 4th, two rich redheaded twins went on a boat ride on Riverdale’s Sweet Water River. A few hours later, the sister was found sitting soaked by the riverbank. Her brother was nowhere to be found.
Cheryl Blossom claims that her brother Jason fell into the water when their boat capsized. But Archie Andrews was down by the river that morning too, and he heard a gunshot at the time that Jason disappeared.
Welcome to Riverdale, on the morning when the town’s perfect small town facade officially began to collapse.
Whenever I heard about Riverdale before watching it, I assumed it was a teen soap opera, along the lines of Dawson’s Creek or Everwood. And Googling it now, that would have been a fair assumption, even if I’d been better informed, since Riverdale’s producer Greg Berlanti created both of those shows. But Riverdale is not a soap opera. It is a modern small town Gothic. It’s all about creepy mansions with forbidden rooms where murderers lurk behind smiles. It’s torchlit investigation of the abandoned woods in the middle of the night, a story where everyone has secrets, and they’re all slowly coming to light.
AKA it’s a show with my name all over it, and I missed it entirely until Sabrina withdrawal convinced me to check it out. And honestly? I like it more than Sabrina. It’s less thoughtful, but way more fun to watch.
Ostensibly, the show is about Archie Andrews, All American football star slash wannabe musician. It’s not. Archie is well-meaning but clueless. The real protagonist is Betty Cooper, teen investigative reporter and murder solver. With her neat blonde ponytail and her nightmarish family, she will get to the bottom of what happened to Jason Blossom, and uncover a few other secrets besides.
Joining Betty and Archie are Jughead Jones, the proud “weirdo” who is currently living at the drive-in after problems with his alcoholic dad, and Veronica Lodge, a rich NYC socialite who just moved to town after her father was arrested for white collar crime. And of course there’s Cheryl Blossom, the surviving twin and our Gothic heroine-slash-villain, with bright red hair and brighter red lips, oozing confidence, privilege and spite.
The show is gripping to watch. The only way to describe it, really, is extra. The latest episode I watched involved a cult, weird satanic rituals, gang warfare over a dog, a murder trial, a summer pool party, and a bow and arrow. On the Riverdale scale, this wasn’t a particularly weird or dramatic episode. The show constantly seems to be challenging itself to go bigger, to do more. It’s utterly addictive, and the combination of murder-solving, genre mash-up and teen sleuth protagonist means it might scratch that old Veronica Mars itch, just on a far more melodramatic scale.
Of course, since the show is so extra, there are some narrative choices that might not suit everyone. You quickly grow attached to the characters, but they’re all larger than life at best. Abandon any belief that these are meant to be teenagers. We have our Nancy Drew, a teen detective who is far more capable than the town’s non-corrupt sheriff. We have our spoiled and oppressed Gothic heroine, our clueless puppy-dog hero, our outcast Jughead. All of the characters are a little bit awful and a whole lot compelling and addictive to watch, and we do get plenty of small, genuine character moments and relationships to ground things, but generally the show’s motto is go big or go home. Sometimes it misses its mark.
But it’s a great binge show. I’ve heard a lot about how Season 2 was comparatively disappointing after the awesomeness of Season 1 (another Veronica Mars comparison there), but watching it all in two weeks, straight after binging Season 1 and before immediately going into Season 3, I didn’t really notice or care. Some episodes weren’t as strong. Some plotlines got a bit lost. But it feels like the sort of show that you just need to dive straight into on Netflix, rather than enjoying it slowly, week by week. Always having the next episode queued up might have made all the difference.
The show does have a few problems that might put people off. It forgets that its protagonists are teens almost 100% of the time, and it’s most enjoyable when you just sit back and accept that the show is about a bunch of 20-year-olds who happen to be in highschool. But when you do remember that these characters aren’t just highschoolers but fifteen when the show begins, some of the plotlines seem, in a word, insane. It’s jarring to go between the reality that the show is presenting you — of these young adults figuring out the Gothic nightmare of Riverdale — and the show’s actual reality, of high school sophomores who definitely don’t act like it.
The show also has a mixed record on how it presents mental health issues. On the one hand, when one character was suicidal, they displayed the classic subtle signs, showing good research on the show’s part. But many of these characters need some goddamn therapy, and the show seems to use the idea of “darkness” as a catch-all phrase for Betty’s issues in particular. As the show has progressed and this idea of “darkness” has come into more prominence, there have been hints that it might deal with it properly as Betty learns to face her problems properly, but the jury’s still out on that one.
Really, the show comes down to one thing: do you want your television to be grounded and realistic, or are you here for something more than a little bit extra? The characters are gripping, the shipping is great (at least, for me!), and it manages to be creepy, high-stakes, and incredibly fun. Basically, everything you want a Gothic to be. And if that sounds like it would appeal to you as much as it appeals to me, you should definitely give it a try!