Riverdale sure is… a show that I somehow watched approximately thirteen hours of. It is a fictional work of a slippery and frustrating breed: a show that hooks you, steals your heart, then tosses it lazily out a window as it spirals downwards into utterly disappointing muddiness. It is a work with an intriguing premise and a strong premiere, a work that got into my head and had me on the edge of my seat, gripped by the vivid visuals and the delightfully tangled mystery it seemed to promise. It is a work that ultimately wasted all this potential and ran away from the strong parts of its own story while making a long, drawn-out fart noise directly at me.
Riverdale is the breed of show that, though it’s lying somewhere in a dumpster puddle, still has your heart, having worked so hard and so well to win it, and so you can’t help but be enraged by this TV show that you might have otherwise just forgotten about. Given that I have no knowledge of the comics, I can’t speak of Riverdale in terms of how it succeeds and fails as an Archie adaptation; but I can, and will, speak of Riverdale in terms of how it succeeds and fails in being a mystery-centred character drama.
I hate this show so much because it barged through my door with such promise, then proceeded to do nothing but leave a mess in my house. This mostly came in the form of the murder mystery, the core of the show’s plot. Because damn Riverdale to heck, that first couple of episodes got me with a diamond-studded hook. Our story kicks off with the mysterious death of Jason Blossom, son of the most rich and influential family in town, and twin brother to the high school’s resident Queen Bee (who is a nasty redhead instead of a nasty blonde, for a change). Far from being a sweet and beloved honour student who shall be tragically mourned, there are so many people who hate Jason and/or his family that trying to solve or even investigate the murder instantly becomes muddy business, for both the adult professionals and the teens that are the show’s main focus.
Two things make Jason Blossom’s murder (potentially) fascinating as the core of a mystery plot, and the first is that so many people have a motive (a nice change from the trope of pure-hearted young women who everyone loves being killed, you know?). So much of this small town’s history and day-to-day drama is tangled up in generations of personal relationships and personal vendettas, some blatantly obvious and some more shadowy. This is all set up with just enough detail to be informative and intriguing in the first episode, enough to build a foundation of expectations in the audience’s mind, all the better to shake it up as we learn new things and the mystery becomes ever-more-complicated. The saturated, grim aesthetic of the entire show and its careful cinematography backs this all up with a genuinely haunting and unsettling atmosphere. Yes, you think: this is a town where people would just straight-up murder their neighbour. But who, in this particular case? And why?
The second is that, unlike a lot of crime fiction, and despite in theory being an Archie product, there is no clear main character. Which means there’s no main point of view. We’re not looking over the shoulder of the detective investigating the case, for example, but are instead switching between the perspectives of many different characters in the cast. This means, for one thing, that Riverdale can hide things from its audience quite effectively, as well as delicately reveal them, constantly providing the audience and the characters themselves with different sets of information—sometimes we with our omnipresent scene-following eyes will know things they don’t, and sometimes information is withheld from us because the camera deliberately cuts away. Having no clear protagonist and no main “good guy”… well, it really makes the answer to the murder mystery that much harder to guess. Who can you trust? As I said above, the show works diligently to make as many people legitimately suspicious as possible, and the lack of singular protagonist enhances this.
My sister and I binged half this series in one night, and were flinging theories at each other for the better part of the next week. It’s implied that this person has a past with… oh but wait, then I realised we don’t actually know where this character was when… and if you think about what they said in that one scene it could lead to… back and forth we went, caught in the spiral of this delicious thrilling mystery. Those first few episodes that were all about setting up the shady intricacies of this story world and piquing your interest were so tightly woven that it was utterly heartbreaking when it all unravelled into sensational never-ending drama by season’s end. Reader, I wept. And they were tears of frustration and disappointment.
I think the biggest issue, on reflection, is that Riverdale is a show that wants to have it all, but its arms end up piled so high that it loses sight of where it was actually going and runs headfirst into a wall. It wants to show how Woke it is by having an episode about the dangers and awfulness of slut-shaming, but it also ends that same episode by putting its female characters in skimpy outfits and sexualised positions. It wants to shed light on and shame tired tropes, but it also dives straight into those tropes without abandon. It’s the problem of unhelpful self-awareness—yes, you had a character roll their eyes and point out that two girls kissing for the sake of shock value and titillation is a stupid and tired device, but… you also still had two girls kiss… lovingly framed by the camera… for shock value and titillation. Having a character sarcastically acknowledge that they fit the Gay Best Friend cliché doesn’t alleviate the presence of that cliché, it just serves as a lazy wink-nudge that proves you’re hyper-aware of the issues in your own writing, but you went ahead anyway.
Riverdale wants to be a gritty mystery, but it also wants to be a high school melodrama, leading to parallel plotlines so utterly dissonant it gives you whiplash. At one point, we’re switching between a story about Archie performing in the school talent show and a story about Betty investigating a grisly murder and a town-wide conspiracy, making it feel like I wandered into a weird Murder Mystery crossover episode of Glee. Most damningly, I think, Riverdale wants to be a tightly-woven, suspenseful crime story that reveals the dark heart of a wholesome small town, but it also wants to be a long-running series that thrives off Big Dramatic Moments and endless dizzying twists and turns.
We do learn who killed Jason Blossom, in the finale, but then the murderer ever so conveniently commits suicide so we cannot learn his reasons. As if this wasn’t enough of a fluttering red flag that this once-intriguing small-town mystery was spiralling outwards into endlessly-renewed and endlessly-expanding drama, the first season ends with someone else getting shot. By masked figures who get away! Now what was that all about? Is this connected to the Blossom family? Or is this a new and shocking development that speaks of an even deeper conspiracy? And how will this affect Archie and Veronica’s romance?? These are the questions I felt like I was meant to be asking at the end of Riverdale, but all that was going through my head was “why the hell did you just kill off the only consistently good parent in the show??”
Because darkness, I can only assume. Maybe they looked at Archie’s Glee-esque plotlines and thought his arc needed some good old violent death to spice it up (does this mean they finally picked which genre the show is? Probably not). Which is, inevitably, a problem you will run into with a show that wants to be a long-running TV serial. Riverdale almost instantly got renewed for a second season, which I believe is airing now. It almost pains me to say it but I just cannot be bothered even checking it out—something I never would have believed at the start of the series, in those golden premiere episodes that, for all their tropey nonsense and excruciating attempts at Teen Speak, genuinely sucked me in. This is the trouble, I think, and the trouble with any television series that lives off network renewal: it presented me with a beautiful and intriguing mystery and I wanted to know how it ended, but of course, it’s angling to be a long-running TV show with no concrete end in sight.
Perhaps if Riverdale had committed to being a miniseries that could complete its arc within a set timeframe, it might not have dropped the ball so hard. Alas, as I said, it wants to be both a gripping tight-knit crime story and a sprawling multi-season drama, and falls on its face in the middle ground, just as it does when it tries to be self-aware and clever with the teen drama genre. The intrigue in me died away as I realised that the succinct and tantalising mystery that had grabbed my attention had unfurled and rolled in all directions, all the better to provide enough material for future seasons. Alas, as I said, it relied on cheap and dirty tactics (suicide is a serious issue and not a convenient plot twist, guys) and shock value (why would you kill the only good parent??!) to try and string its audience along into season two.
Alas, dear reader, alas. It had me. It won me over. And because I know it could have been good, I am hyper-aware of how not-good it became. Alas, Riverdale, you aesthetically-pleasing, once-fascinating mystery bonanza. I hope someone who isn’t me and hasn’t been struck through with painful disappointment is enjoying season two.