Riverdale is back, and blessedly, it is also back on its bullshit — namely, being the wildest show on TV with pizzazz and the utmost sincerity.
Season 5 was among the sleepier of the show’s installments. Archie tried to revitalize the town after Hiram Lodge actively sabotaged it for his own gain. Betty chased a serial killer who kidnapped girls (such as her sister) off the highway and got held at gunpoint by her half-brother (also a serial killer). Veronica, now known as the “She-Wolf of Wall Street,” tried to distance herself from an abusive Gordon Gekko-type husband. Jughead did shrooms to help him write his next novel. Cheryl helped start a cult worshipping her dead brother (which includes Cheryl’s experiencing stigmata that “imitate the holy wounds of Jason”). Standard stuff.
Even compared to other Riverdale outings, season 5 was all over the map. The season was tasked with wrapping up what was supposed to have been season 4’s plot, before jumping the world seven years into the future, then layering in new characters, mysteries, and Jughead voice-overs. Because of that, season 5’s storylines often hit natural stalling points. The plotlines felt artificially drawn out — like a cliffhanger where Jughead might be kidnapped leads into a Hiram Lodge Goodfellas flashback episode, before revealing that Jug was fine after all. And once the conclusions came, they didn’t hit the same thrilling peaks that Riverdale was once capable of. (Chad Michael Murray rocket, never forget.)
But with just one episode under its belt, Riverdale season 6 promises to be something wilder. The writers replace Jughead’s usual voice-over with him doing hammy Twilight Zone-style introductions (complete with winky check-ins, delivered straight to the camera). Unlike Rod Serling, he’s the show’s framer and narrator, but also apparently still the same character. He quickly introduces the audience to the new town of Riverdale — sorry, that’s Rivervale, where everything is the same plotwise, except that the timeline has moved forward a few months, and everything is a bit closer to idyllic. Pop’s never burned down. Archie and Betty nearly being blown up by a bomb in the season 5 finale is hand-waved away as a dream Archie had of an alternate reality where he lives in a town called Riverdale. (No matter what the town is called, Riverdale loves an homage.)
Like the fifth season, Rivervale is fielding a ton of continuing plotlines. It inherited no fewer than five new romantic pairings. None of those couples were together when the last season started, and each of them are marking their own bizarre milestone. Betty and Archie are officially cohabitating, having just gotten back together in the season 5 finale, and are now planning on when they can start a family. Tabitha and Jughead just moved in together after dating for a few months, and he was absent for much of that time. Alice and Frank can’t figure out how to take their relationship to the next level. Toni and Fangs are just trying to get their colicky baby to sleep through the night, while Reggie and Veronica struggle to make their business empire work alongside their relationship.
It’s all straightforward stuff until Cheryl’s foray into witchcraft is brought in as the solution, as she uses her newly discovered magical ways to pull people into some nefarious web she’s weaving. The issues climax in a midnight ceremony where the whole town rallies behind Cheryl to sacrifice Archie, including Betty, who apparently used him to conceive a child earlier in the night. “A son, I know it, I can feel it in my bones,” she tearfully beams at him before he gets tied to a post, stabbed, and Cheryl holds up his still beating heart to a dancing crowd. Rivervale believes killing Archie will solve all the town’s problems, from the fertility issues to the bugs in Tabitha and Jug’s apartment to the sick baby. It’s hard to know exactly what this Rivervale alternate reality is meant to be: a fictional world Archie’s living in after a very real explosion left him injured? A five-episode anthology of each cast member’s mystical Fantasy Island world? A simple excuse to introduce the magic of Chilling Adventures of Sabrina’s neighboring Greendale into the story?
The truth is, everything feels possible after the season 6 premiere, which is the sweet spot where Riverdale thrives. Critics might knock the show for living its truth so bombastically, but fans know the series’ pure, unabashed hubris is its secret, un-parodiable sauce. The season 6 iteration of Riverdale is a bit cheekier than the past season, winking to the audience about where we’ve ended up after so many years. The Rod Serling persona allows Jughead to shed his overwrought, dour novelist tone and be almost impish, relishing lines like, “Let’s go next door, where my old chum, Archie Andrews, is living with my ex-girlfriend Betty Cooper ... let that one sink in for a minute.” But though the series is self-aware, it’s never self-conscious, even — especially — when it’s having characters say things like “I’ve always wanted to make it on a pile of money” with a straight face.
How Riverdale lands the plane has never been the most important thing, so long as it can constantly be topping itself and raising the bar for audacity along the way. This is a show where Archie fought a bear, joined the Mafia, and extolled the highs and lows of high school football, and his peers met them all with the same sincerity. (All of his choices were also largely footnotes to the more bombastic elements of their respective seasons.) Now his first attempt this season to investigate weird happenings has found him with an antler crown and runes drawn on him in his own blood. The premiere’s final sequence in the woods is lofty, bold, and full of incredible aesthetic choices, as the whole town comes together in the Cheryl Blossom Midsommar collection. In other words, it is exactly what Riverdale should be.
The first episode of Riverdale season 6 is now streaming at CW.com, with new episodes airing on Tuesdays.