[SPOILERS: The following will contain detailed spoilers for the pilot episode of Riverdale.]
Riverdale isn’t going to be a show that everyone likes, but that’s the case with most teen dramas. Throw in a murder mystery, possible incest, a “steamy” teacher-student relationship and more teenage angst than The O.C. or One Tree Hill ever saw, and Riverdale is asking for a lot of out its audience.
But if you’re someone like me, who devours teen dramas because of the silliness that comes along with most series — looking at you, Gossip Girl — Riverdale is the newest show you’ll probably obsess over.
Riverdale follows the day-to-say suburban life of Archie Andrews and his friends: Betty Cooper, Cheryl Blossom, Kevin Keller, Josie McCoy and new girl Veronica Lodge. Veronica, a member of the New York elite who’s forced to move to Riverdale, comes into the small town at an interesting time. The students are still reeling over the death of Jason Blossom, Cheryl’s twin brother, and trying to figure out what went down that fateful fourth of July weekend.
Although different, the plot up until that point doesn’t feel overly strange. There are moments in the comics when Archie and the gang end up in dangerous, life-threatening positions and are forced to stop the bad guys before it’s too late. Sometimes, especially in older versions of the comics, these scenarios can feel like something ripped right out of a Scooby Doo episode. Other times, the close encounters the group is served can get pretty hairy. Riverdale takes these one-off scenarios and builds an entire show around that premise, using the obvious absurdity to demonstrate its own self-awareness.
The absurdity can especially be seen when later details emerge. The show goes from plausible reinterpretation of an Archie stand-alone comic to ludicrous teen drama. There’s the question of whether Cheryl and Jason had an incestuous relationship before his death. There’s the revelation that Archie heard what happened that day, but can’t reveal his whereabouts because he was hooking up with his music teacher, Ms. Grundy. And then there’s Jughead Jones, one of the most beloved Archie comics characters, who’s no longer friends with Archie in the new series. Instead, he sits at Pop’s Diner, blogging about the phonies he has to go to live with, recounting the story about Jason’s death.
Objectively, Riverdale is not a good series in any way. The writing is adequate at best, the acting is mediocre and the attempt to make it feel as close to Twin Peaks as it can possibly get makes the show feel unintentionally pretentious. Despite all of the strikes Riverdale has against itself, the show has become one of my newest obsessions, and a lot of that has to do with the CW formula it abides by.
Practically since the CW began with shows like Smallville and Supernatural, the network has become home to the campiest genre shows that mostly appeal to teens. In all of these series, every aspect of a character’s life or the situations they’re placed in, feels exaggerated and overdramatic. Everything is the end of the world and all of the normal teenage drama that comes along with it, like a breakup or troubles in school, feels all the more ridiculous.
Riverdale is no exception. One of the major arcs the show focuses on is Betty’s obsession with Archie. She wants to date him, but he only has eyes for two other women in his life: the exotic Veronica and his first love, Ms. Grundy. As a result, Betty immediately dislikes Veronica, but when the latter asks her to join the cheerleading team, they start bonding. Everything seems to be going smoothly for once until Betty’s mom, a woman who wants her daughter to attend one of the best Ivy League schools in the country, forbids her daughter from joining. Instead, Betty’s forced to study extra hard for school, swallowing Adderall pills like Tylenol, trying to live up to expectations.
If it sounds like a Lifetime special, you’re not too far off. One of the biggest problems Riverdale suffers from is pacing. The show could use time to explore different issues its characters are going through, but instead, everything is crammed into an hour of programming. The big, dramatic moments feel cheesier than they should as a result, and everything comes off as comical instead of worrying. It’s not like other teen shows have suffered any less. The O.C. often packed too much into an episode or two and the lack of breathing room made everything even more unrealistic than it already was. Gossip Girl, another CW great, would try to pack as many issues and story arcs into an hour-long episode as it could, and the show became less enjoyable at times because of it.
Even with its flaws, however, I’m obsessed with Riverdale. The dark and Holden Caulfield-inspired Jughead is a big change from the lovable, lazy goof most Archie fans know him as, but it works. Archie’s affair with Ms. Grundy is morally wrong and borderline disgusting, but it’s a longstanding trope within the teen drama genre that feels more self-aware than most. Even the Twin Peaks angle involving a mysterious town trying to figure out how Jason Blossom died is an arc that’s easy to get wrapped up in.
The key to enjoying Riverdale is to embrace the campiness of the show. If you go searching for logic or actual character development, you’re going to be disappointed. This can not be overstated enough: Riverdale is not a good show, but it is a very fun series that acts as the perfect, mindless TV we’re all looking for at the end of the day. This isn’t the Archie Andrews we grew up with reading comics, nor does it ever pretend to be. This is the CW reinvention of beloved characters, and despite everything working against it, the show actually manages to entertain immensely on a number of levels.
Riverdale premieres tonight at 9 p.m. ET on the CW.