‘Riverdale’, get off your hype horse

Jennifer Donnellan roots out the many flaws of the comic turned teen drama

The CW’s Riverdale exploded onto our screens in January 2017. Marketed as a reboot of the Archie Comics for the digital generation, the series takes familiar characters to new places, the first series revolving around the suspicious death of Jason Blossom, the schoolmate of iconic original characters.

The series received generally positive reviews and has since been renewed for two further seasons. Stars of the show – with the exception of Disney Channel child star Cole Sprouse – were relatively unknown prior to the show’s debut, and have since been launched into fame by its adoring teenage fans (helped by the disproportionately attractive cast). But when actually watching Riverdale, paying attention to the writing, the acting, and even the cinematography, it should become immediately obvious that this is one of the worst shows currently on mainstream network television.

Riverdale belongs to a particular category of teen dramas with fast paced, relentlessly changing plots and subplots – think Gossip Girl, Pretty Little Liars, and The Vampire Diaries. The strength of the first season lay in the intrigue provided by the death of Jason Blossom – there was a revelation for the show to work towards, a promise of something that would be revealed in the season finale. But when this mystery had been solved, Riverdale was forced to invent increasingly ridiculous and convoluted plot arcs that left it floundering amongst an unwieldy pile of mysteries, obstacles, and traumas.

The second series purportedly revolved around a masked killer stalking the town of Riverdale, but was complicated by the arrival of Betty’s long-lost brother, Jughead’s initiation into the town gang, a mayoral race, and a confusing sideplot involving Jason’s twin sister Cheryl.

The third series, meanwhile, has completely changed the direction of the show by introducing a new supernatural twist, with a Dungeons and Dragons style role-play game leading to deaths among the student population.

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All this would be well and good if the show’s writing was able to carry these plot twists. However, it is here most of all that the show really pushes the viewer’s suspension of disbelief – not in introducing a supernatural demon that gains power when teenagers play a board game, but simply in the fact that it tries to pass off dialogue that no real human being would ever say.

In part this is down to some poor acting, but it is also indicative of the fact that the show’s priority is attempting to create dramatic and wow-worthy moments rather than actually letting the dialogue be cliché and cringe free. Take the most recent episode: on being interrupted taking a pregnancy test, rebel-girl Alice Smith tells Catholic-girl Hermione Gomez: “Shouldn’t you be in a church or something?”

Back in season one, when the gang find a memory stick hidden in the lining of a jacket, the writers just can’t resist having Veronica remind us of her privilege through having her blithely add that she “always loses her Mont Blanc pens this way.”

Often, it’s genuinely difficult to gauge the writers’ intentions with lines like this. Do they genuinely believe this is how teens talk? Or are they aware of the fact that they are essentially filling their show with a string of badly-delivered, buzzword-filled, cringe compilations?

Less easy to forgive is the show’s treatment of social issues. From season one onwards, the show has chosen to tackle political topics by having them feature as plot points. This is itself is not necessarily a problem and could be effective if handled tastefully. But the problem is that in the context of the fast-moving pace and punchline-centred tone of Riverdale, it seems like issues like toxic masculinity, racial politics, and the colonialist origins of local festivities are only being discussed for social kudos, and to get the show in the news. They are being co-opted rather than addressed.

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A case in point here is the treatment of the show’s solitary gay character, Kevin Keller, and it’s only two black characters. Kevin gets few lines that do not revolve around his sexuality. Yet there is the sense that the writers see this as cuttingedge social commentary. In Chapter 18, when asked for a password to an invite-only speakeasy, Kevin responds with “Um…Stonewall?” It is difficult to imagine something so superficial and so dismissive of the struggles of the LGBTQ+ community.

In the name of being representative, Riverdale does little more than tick the box of having a gay character. Likewise, Josie’s mother is shown in a flashback episode as having little to no personality beyond her ethnicity – we open with her writing ‘end apartheid’ on the mirror, but learn nothing about her motivations or what it means to her to be a person of colour in a small American town.

None of these issues will stop me from watching Riverdale. For all its flaws, it makes for easy Thursday morning viewing. But we should not forget that the show is based on a patronising, condescending, and downright ignorant view of the intelligence of teenagers as an audience.

It is not overdramatic to say that it is one of the worst shows on television.

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