Chuck Winters: Welcome to the premiere installment of Riverdale’s Edge, a column devoted to the moody soap / murder mystery adapted from the goofy comic about a redheaded teen ne’er-do-well, his two loves, and his best friend who likes hamburgers. Before we get started, I presume that some of you have questions, like “Wait, Riverdale is good enough to get covered here?” Or maybe, “Is this one of those things where they ironically laugh at a dumb TV show that nobody would have any serious interest in?”
Folks, I don’t do irony. The concept of The Guilty Pleasure was invented to help segregate art into neat little piles, thus diluting the concept until it feels like a chore, thus making you less interested in art, thus making you dumber, easier to influence by malevolent media entities, and worst of all, boring as hell. So no, I’m not here to tell you “It’s SOOO BAD, but I love it anyway and I can’t stop watching!” This show is a little shaky at times, with a melodramatic streak a mile wide that doesn’t always agree with me. But I love watching it, thus it is A Good Show, and I refuse to make excuses for watching something I enjoy.
Instead, I want to tell you why you should be watching it too. Time and again I’ve tried to write one of my trademark deep dives about this show as a whole, but I eventually decided that I needed help. So not only am I back on my bullshit, I’ve willingly dragged fellow Riverdale fanatic (and Archie Comics fan, which is something I’m not) Andrew Niemann into it. Let’s not keep him waiting any longer.
“I’m weird. I’m a weirdo.”
Chuck: So I’ve talked more than enough, Andy. Let me ask you: Of all the great TV that’s worth talking about, why should we be talking about Riverdale?
Andy: That’s a good question, Chuck, and I’ll do my best to answer it! Riverdale came out of left field this year as a midseason pick-up with its Scooby Doo-meets-Twin Peaks-by-way-of-Dawson’s Creek atmosphere. It’s pretty easy to nail down exactly what makes this show work for me since it’s just the nexus of things I absolutely love. Like you described earlier, it’s film noir but it’s also soap opera and comic book weirdness rolled into one package. There’s just a lot to love here even if you have no prior experience with the Archie Comics universe.
Chuck: Yeah, that’s the thing: This is a teen soap for nerds, but not necessarily the “comic books and action figures” type of nerd. This appeals to a different kind of weird than the Arrowverse does, a kind that’s rarely catered to. The references are less explicitly genre, taking more cues from the thoughtful detective noir of Raymond Chandler, combined with the mid-20th century melodramas of Nicholas Ray and Douglas Sirk, and maybe an occasional sprinkling of Hitchcock and, yes, Lynch for flavor.
This is a crazy stew that you’d never expect to be served; not in an Archie comics adaptation (though I only know the characters through cultural osmosis), and CERTAINLY not through a young adult network like The CW. But if you think about it, it’s obvious what kind of teenager this would appeal to. Riverdale is a show for theater kids, and it’s about damn time they got one.
Andy: Being a theater kid, I definitely have to agree with that. I’m glad you mentioned this too because the show has a deep focus on “tortured” creative teens. Archie himself is a wannabe musician whereas Jughead fancies himself a writer and film critic. Other characters in the show are also involved in creative outlets that range from music to painting to fashion. It’s a show chock full of creative youths who want to eventually leave or at least achieve lasting success beyond the mostly blue-collar hamlet of Archie’s Riverdale.
“Archie got HOT.”
Andy: So, let’s rap about the man himself. How do we feel about Archie Andrews (KJ Apa)?
Chuck: You know, people complained about Apa’s performance throughout the run and I kind of saw where they were coming from. That whole arc with Miss Grundy (Sarah Habel), while I liked where they ultimately went with it, is painful to watch develop and ultimately stranded the character. When your show is presumably about Archie (in the end I don’t think it is, but still, it’s called “Archie Comics” for a reason), then it hurts to have that character dealing with comparatively petty bullshit while all his friends are dealing with murder mysteries and twisted family secrets.
But as far as I know the character of Archie—as a well-intentioned idiot who tries to do right by his friends and family—I think Apa was rock solid, if a little too angsty at times. And I think Roberto Aguirre-Sacasa and company were able to get a better sense of him as they went along and slowly developed him into a formidable lead. By the time the season closes out, I can’t imagine anyone who isn’t a hundred percent behind him, flaws and all.
Andy: It isn’t a knock on Apa at all, I think he did an exceptional job, but I wasn’t hot on Archie until the finale—and I think that’s precisely what the writers of the show intended. Archie is a tough character to approach because he is defined by the perception of his chums and I think the show absolutely NAILS that.
Chuck: But when your main character’s a cipher, that makes it harder to identify with him, doesn’t it?
Andy: Correct! He’s a mysterious tortured teen who often makes the wrong choices and he’s absolutely supposed to do so. Archie is generally a pariah until he realizes the error of his ways and then becomes the only one who can solve the problem. By the season finale, Archie has a big damn hero moment that resonates with me still.
Chuck: It’s a breathtaking moment, one I really wish we could talk about, but let’s jump into the other main guy of the series. I wanna say Jughead (Cole Sprouse) is probably the most radical departure from his original character, and I know there’s been a lot of jokes about how he never eats any burgers, plus there’s, you know…
But once you get past all that (and I’d argue that the point of that much-memed scene was his severe social anxiety rather than him doing a serious riff on “I’m a loner, Dottie, a rebel”), I think Sprouse puts in a hell of a performance. I’d say it’s THE strongest performance if he wasn’t just surrounded by so many other great ones, but look at what Jughead has to do here: he has to serve as our narrator, which is always a tricky proposition in any film or TV show. He has to represent a fairly inverted (if not completely reworked) take on a damn near iconic character, and he’s saddled with some extremely dour characterization that can really fuck with one’s ability to hang with a performance. He STILL comes out of it as one of the most lovable members of the ensemble.
Andy: I absolutely loved Jughead in this. It’s definitely a Rian Johnson-ass Brick take on the character that stands apart from the aloof comic version. It’s a bummer they didn’t explore Jughead’s asexual orientation that writer Chip Zdarsky added to his character in the latest comic book adaptation but I actually really enjoyed Jug’s doomed relationship with Betty Cooper.
Speaking of Betty Cooper, can we talk about the actual best part of the show? Of course I’m referring to DARK BETTY.
“Full dark, no stars.”
Chuck: Jesus God. Yes. My apologies to Andy as I briefly push him off the stage to explain this. DARK BETTY happens in episode 3 after Veronica gets slut-shamed by Chuck Clayton on social media; Veronica isn’t having that shit, so with Betty’s help they discover that most of the football team’s gone in on this game, victimizing many others including Ethel Muggs (Shannon Purser, Stranger Things) and Betty’s sister Polly. So the next step is to get Chuck to confess on camera, right?
Well, Betty, as played by Lili Reinhart, is trying to be the sweet girl next door, but she’s chafing under the pressure of a domineering mother (Mädchen Amick), a dickhead father (Lochlyn Munro), her unrequited love for Archie, and her concern for Polly, who as far as she knows at this point was driven mad after getting her heart broken by Jason Blossom, whose murder kicks off the show. She’s got scars on the palms of her hands where her fingernails dig in every time she has to swallow one indignity or another.
So when it’s time to entrap Chuck, with nobody understanding that her sanity is hanging by a thread, this wild shit happens:
You know what the real cherry on top of this is? Ethel watches the torture go down in the background and she’s fucking grinning. Not just grinning as in “Ah, finally, justice.” No, she’s grinning as if she’s turned on by the violence of what Betty’s doing to Chuck. It’s a shame Purser got called up to the new Jason Katims drama because I’d love the show to explore where the SHIT that comes from.
Other than that, it’s a defining moment because it eventually goes to show just how much these kids rely on each other. Veronica (Camila Mendes) becomes Betty’s best friend after that night, and her “rich girl gone good” character tempers Betty’s most severe impulses. Archie is, well, Archie. Jughead, as an outsider, gives Betty someone to be more like herself with, even if they both quietly realize there’s an expiration date on their romance because of Archie. The chemistry between that core group is just bang on, even if it’s tweaked here and there.
And then there’s Cheryl Blossom. Oh my fucking God, Cheryl Blossom.
Andy: Cheryl. Motherfucking. Blossom. What a delight Madelaine Petsch is in this role. I think about her line to Fred Andrews (Luke Perry) almost daily: “You’re looking extra DILF-y, Mr. Andrews.”
Chuck: To be fair, I don’t blame her. Perry’s got a real Springsteen thing going in this show; I half expect him to pick up a guitar in any given scene and start crooning “The Wrestler.”
Andy: Every noir needs its femme fatale and Cheryl definitely fits but she’s also oddly the heart of the show? I’d also be remiss in not mentioning Mädchen “Shelly
Johnson Briggs” Amick’s stunt casting as Alice Cooper. I mean all of the adults in Riverdale are terrible (except Fred) but I truly enjoyed Alice’s constant scheming and control of her daughters’ lives. The bitterness she emanated in her scenes opposite Hermione Lodge (Marisol Nichols) was a hoot and she gets more scenery to chew in this arguably more than the Twin Peaks continuation this year. There’s so many characters to talk about and we’ve barely scratched the surface (Josie and the Pussycats! Moose! Kevin Keller!) but we gotta move on. I will say I’m pleased at just how diverse the cast is in a way that makes total sense.
“Sticky, dirty secrets!”
Chuck: In a show that’s even part soap, your characters are your lifeblood, and they’ve got a really deep bench of appealing characters (teen AND adult) and strong-to-solid actors to work with. But with Riverdale, Aguirre-Sacasa and his staff are able to back all that up with thoughtful plotting. You mentioned this running idea of all the adults in this show being terrible people, let’s talk about that a bit.
Andy: The show is rooted in this idea that the generation which came before makes life even more miserable for its progeny. It’s a common theme seen in today’s cultural zeitgeist as the baby boomer and Gen X groups are fading away. There’s a secret history that we get throughout the season of the adults having the same sordid high school years as their children which causes them to enact levels of control which make their kids’ lives even worse. It’s a testament to the show’s stellar plotting that the adult characters have cloudy motivations that become more unraveled as the season progresses. But, also, no one adult character sees themselves at the villain in the slightest which makes it all the more tragic.
Chuck: And there’s moments where you just can’t help but empathize with those adults, as horrible as they can be. We touched on Mädchen Amick’s Alice Cooper being an emotionally abusive tyrant, but as the show goes on, you really get a sense of her perspective on the town and the events of the series. She gets a scene in an episode midway through the show where some old wounds between her and her husband get reopened due to the murder investigation, and the ensuing fight is fucking brutal. Again, the key word is “melodrama;” it’s not Tony’s infamous throwdown with Carmella in that one Sopranos finale, or Betty Draper learning that her husband is actually Dick Whitman on Mad Men. But in the context of the show it is ugly and raw and powerfully acted by Amick, to a standard that many network shows can’t touch. And it makes her instantly relatable on some level.
Andy: I love the boldness of the show’s main mystery hinging on a centuries-long maple syrup business feud between two families. It’s very Shakespearean in that way but also fits with what I deem to be the show’s main thematic throughline of revenge. The season starts in media res with every major character wanting to get back at another who has wronged them. In many ways they succeed but with often dire consequences. I think the show is telling us that revenge may feel sweet (like syrup??) but ultimately can lead to one’s own destruction.
Chuck: It’s interesting in a structural way too. The murder mystery is by no means a parlor game (where you know who did it but the hitch is how to prove it), but the show isn’t really trying to surprise you with the solve. The eventual culprit was on the board at a very early point, and the mystery is mostly wrapped up by episode 12. The season finale is devoted to the fallout, and it’s probably one of my favorite episodes of television this year. Rather than just being “shocking” or “suspenseful,” it’s more about how devastated Riverdale is by the truth, and how the powers that be are so desperate to get everything back to normal that they go right to the old standbys of blaming the “criminal element” (read: kids, poors) because that’s what makes everyone (read: the establishment) comfortable. And that, in and of itself, ends up being just as intensely dramatic as learning who killed Jason Blossom.
Andy: I’m glad you mentioned the class system here because that’s a big part of what makes the show feel real. Beyond the Coopers (who seem to be the only truly middle class family) everyone else is either disgustingly rich or working class. There’s even a subplot about Jughead being homeless! It’s moments like that which make the show feel incredibly relevant and modern even if the costume and set design are from multiple time periods and settings.
Chuck: Costume, set design, sometimes even cinematic style. There’s a scene at the end of Episode 4 between Jughead and a biker gang leader (Skeet Ulrich)—right after it’s revealed that Jughead’s homeless—that’s straight Nicholas Ray in how it’s written and staged, and it’s one of my favorite moments from the show. The style just works; it’s earnest, bold in the sense of just how hard they lean into the Drama of things, and by turns oppressively dark/fucked-up and beautifully affirmative.
“Things are going to be different now, Mommy.”
Chuck: Anyway, the plan is for us to cover the show every week the way Max, Kayleigh, and Sarah cover Gotham, so let’s talk about what we want from season 2.
Andy: I absolutely cannot wait to do a deeper dive on this show because, as you already know Chuck, every episode is richly compacted with great moments. As far as Season 2, I really wanna see new characters and I’m particularly intrigued to see what kind of a man the mysterious Hiram Lodge is. I also desperately want Sabrina the Teenage Witch but I’m cautious about supernatural elements being added (beyond dream sequences of course). How about you?
Chuck: Aguirre-Sacasa’s been dropping some intriguing hints about season 2 on his Twitter account, stuff I really don’t know if I should go into here since this is primarily for people who don’t know what’s up with this show. I will say this: he mentioned last season’s cliffhanger ending as the birth of Archie as a heroic figure rather than someone who was concerned with more trivial teenage matters. Certainly, the events of that last scene are going to force him into the fray in a way the show kinda needs at this point. But I see it less as a superhero origin story and more like the start of an admittedly lighter take on a James Ellroy crime novel, and I can’t WAIT to see how (or even if) that plays out.
I’ve also got my own theory about a key figure in that cliffhanger, but that’ll have to wait until we roll on Season 2, which premieres October 11 on The CW. While you wait, if you haven’t seen Season 1, it’s on Netflix, and it’s only 13 hours long—short enough, conveniently, to burn through in a weekend.
We hope to see you soon after that!
(Disclosure: Cameron DeOrdio, an editor for this site, is contracted with Archie Comics as a writer. The opinions expressed here do not necessarily reflect his own.)