“Riverdale” is like a gleaming pile of greasy, oily, saccharin-saturated junk food — terrible for your health, but oh-so delicious.
OK, not everyone shares my thoughts on the matter. The character motivations flip-flop faster than a flapjack served with a side of Blossom maple syrup. Plot lines are inexplicably dropped, then picked up again when convenient. The Core Four are regularly handling extreme situations of crisis but still magically have time to finish their homework each night.
I get it, the show ain’t perfect. But I still can’t help but stay aboard this angsty, brooding, twisted hype-train and ride it out into the murky sunset over the Sweetwater River.
The show has been criticized for its lack of “narrative sense,” and rightly so. Does Veronica Lodge (Camila Mendes) hate or love her father? Depends on the episode. The gloomy narrations of Jughead Jones (Cole Sprouse) used to feel charming as viewers watched him muse about the dark side of Riverdale while writing his amateur mystery-crime novel. But even with a new murder to ponder over, Jughead’s narrations feel sporadic at best and spoon-fed at worst.
In spite of (and maybe contributing to) all its jerky, narrative elements, “Riverdale” manages to choreograph moment after moment of intense, disturbing and — strangely or not strangely — exhilarating scenes that thrill the sadist in me.
We watch as Archie Andrews (KJ Apa) sprints across the frozen river with friends in tow, then bashes his hands against the ice until they’re bloody. We see a rich snob and would-be rapist get the utter shit kicked out of him by Veronica and the Pussy Cats (in heels!). We relish the sight of Jughead slipping into his father’s Serpent leather jacket as he too relishes the moment. “Riverdale” knows how to hit its beats.
Everyone loves to make fun of “Dark Betty” (both in and out of the show), but “Riverdale” insists that there’s a Dark Betty in even the most innocent of characters. This insistence has led to one of the critiques that’s harder for the show to overcome — that it doesn’t hold true to virtually any of the traits or characteristics of its source material. But the shirking of most any loyalty to the fluffy, light-hearted “Archie Comics” series is part of what makes “Riverdale” all the more enjoyable to watch.
Despite being a kid who didn’t venture far out of my corner of the local Barnes & Noble store, let alone into a comic book shop, I loved reading Archie. Having convinced my parents to buy the occasional issue for me at the grocery store or at various gas stations, I have fond memories flipping through page after page of benign teen drama and tame jokes about really nothing at all.
More simply put, the comics, as Emma Cline writes, were “a pleasant place to rest our eyes, a warm bath for the brain.” The worst that could happen was Jughead maybe losing out on a hamburger or two. And then there was always the next strip of comics — much like there is always next week’s episode.
But that idealized version of cookie-cutter, white-picket-fence American innocence is deader than Jason Blossom (Trevor Stines), or so Riverdale would have you believe. The comics have been reinvented a number of times, so why can’t “Riverdale” reconceive cult classics like “Twin Peaks”?
Perhaps that likeness is stretched too far, particularly for a show that’s written the now-infamous lines, “In case you haven’t noticed, I’m weird. I’m a weirdo. I don’t fit in. And I don’t want to fit in. Have you ever seen me without this stupid hat on? That’s weird,” as an absolutely serious mini-speech for Jughead.
Yet this is where “Riverdale” shines. Sure, it sneaks in an Easter egg or two, and there are several times when the comics’ ‘50s iconography seeps into the reality of the show’s world (hint: Rewatch the first episode this season, and pay attention to what the nurses and doctors are wearing). But in shedding the majority of banality and blandness of the original comics, it wholly embraces and, as one Daily Cal writer put it, “memorializes egregious teen drama attributes.”
Even as “Riverdale” demands that the town is dark and full of secrets, the dialogue and relationships reveal the characters to be self-conscious open books.
In an interview with the A.V. Club, Sprouse said the world of Riverdale “takes itself so so seriously that it almost rides an uncanny valley of silliness.” Maybe that’s what makes the show more addictive than Jingle Jangle — for every pop culture reference alluding to the artifice of the show, there are real glimmers of sincerity in the voices of these characters.
Every time the characters take their lives much too seriously, it allows us viewers to not feel so guilty when we loosen our waistbands, take a sip of a Pop’s Chock’lit Shoppe milkshake and indulge in the seriousness of their world, too.
Alexandria Yoon-Hendricks is the managing editor. Contact her at [email protected].