The Riverdale Revision: a cautionary tale of spiraling teenage angst

Still shot from Riverdale
CBS Television/Courtesy

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Warning: The following contains spoilers for “Riverdale,” “Chilling Adventures of Sabrina” and “Fate: The Winx Saga.” 

In late January 2021, “Riverdale” debuted the first episode of its fifth season on The CW. The show, based on the characters from the famous “Archie Comics,” follows the strange, tumultuous lives of Archie Andrews (KJ Apa), Betty Cooper (Lili Reinhart), Veronica Lodge (Camila Mendes) and Jughead Jones (Cole Sprouse). The trailer for this season promised the group’s long-awaited graduation from Riverdale High School and a jolting timeline that leaps seven years into the future: Archie is in the army, Betty works for the FBI, Jughead is a published author and Veronica…is married.

The “Archie Comics” in their initial conception were pretty benign. Any problems the characters had — usually regarding the love triangle between Archie, Betty and Veronica — resolved with minimal collateral damage. They seemed like easy, amiable high schoolers, growing up in the blithe safety of small-town suburbia.

“Riverdale” is a little different.

Through examining the TV show’s evolution, “Riverdale” becomes the paradigm for a larger phenomenon I’ve dubbed the “Riverdale Revision:” the transformative process where a piece of young adult media — usually one with an established aesthetic and cultural nostalgia — is revamped into a gritty, moody and “modernized” live-action remake.

“Riverdale” reimagines its titular small town as a hotbed of secrets, danger and deceit. The first season took no prisoners in its divergence from the comics, but it was intriguing and rich with promise — at the very least, it was pretty watchable. Then, the next seasons came out, and as the stakes grew higher, so did the audience’s confusion.

By the time we arrive at season five, these brooding teenagers have been through a lot: Archie’s been to jail; Veronica runs an underground casino; Jughead’s joined a gang; Betty’s dad was a serial killer; there was even a cult-sponsored high school production of the musical “Heathers.” They’re also applying to college, apparently.

In rebuking the buoyancy of its source material, “Riverdale” has spiraled into half-baked plotlines, absurdly high stakes and ham-fisted dialogue. The show has slipped away from its writers and the diet-noir bravado makes it unrecognizable to loyalists of the “Archie Comics.” Though the process is in late-stage decomposition in “Riverdale,” the Revision is also apparent in “Chilling Adventures of Sabrina.”

“Chilling Adventures of Sabrina” is a dark riff on another “Archie Comics” character who was first brought to television in “Sabrina the Teenage Witch,” a fun and breezy sitcom starring Melissa Joan Hart. In “Sabrina,” Sabrina Spellman (Kiernan Shipka) deals with her dual identities as a half-witch, half-mortal being. Her coming-of-age story is sleek, stylized and sinister, focused on witchcraft, demons and darkness.

Thematically, “Sabrina” and “Riverdale” share an interesting strategy to atone for their predictable tropes of gilded, hollow self-awareness. This element in particular is part of the Riverdale Revision in attempting to make the shows “woke” enough to resonate with a young contemporary audience.

“Sabrina” approaches feminism as an aesthetic rather than a doctrine. The first few episodes revolve around Sabrina defending her queer friend against bigoted bullies, but this important effort is cheapened by the story’s focus on Sabrina’s saviorism and the pat-on-the-back feminist buzzwords that usually come across as pandering. 

Since “Sabrina” shares a showrunner with “Riverdale,” its Revision is disappointing but unsurprising. This phenomenon, however, has also spilled into the magical realm of Netflix’s “Fate: The Winx Saga.”

“Fate: The Winx Saga” is based on the vibrant, fantastical children’s cartoon, “Winx Club,” created by Iginio Straffi. “Winx Club” channeled futurism and art nouveau aesthetics to construct a savvy, stylish world that celebrated femininity and friendship.

“Fate: The Winx Saga,” like its source, focuses on a young girl named Bloom (Abigail Cowen), a powerful Earth-born fairy who trains at Alfea College. In the original cartoon, Alfea is colorful and joyful, but “Fate: The Winx Saga” makes the campus ivied, old and depressing. Quintessential to the Riverdale Revision, the fun, girlish tone of the original is completely bleached in favor of an edgier, haughtier ambiance.

Matching their ostensibly mature milieu, the characters in “Fate: The Winx Saga” dress like middle-aged PTA moms, and the faux-feminism is fruitful here too — in one instance, Bloom teases, “It’s a matter of time before we descend into a ‘Lord of the Flies’ situation…” to which her father (Josh Cowdery) jokingly replies, “Lady of the Flies, sweetie. Don’t be sexist.”

These frustrating faux pas would be generally forgivable if the show took more care in crafting the fairies’ friendship, which was the emotional core of the original cartoon. In “Fate: The Winx Saga,” Bloom’s friendships feel like a fickle product of proximity, not choice. 

“Fate: The Winx Saga” reveals that the show’s creators have wholly misunderstood their audience and their source. The blatant disregard for the original aesthetic ironically spoils the show’s freshness, as it feels regurgitative of other programs undergoing the Riverdale Revision. 

Perhaps we can regard “Riverdale” as a warning about the limits of weaponizing cultural nostalgia, and while “Chilling Adventures of Sabrina” has been canceled, perhaps it is not too late for “Fate: The Winx Saga” to speckle a little bit of original magic into its next season.

Contact Maya Thompson at [email protected].