Riverdale is My Guilty Pleasure Show, But I’d Still Like to Feel Less Guilty

WTF is Riverdale?

Riverdale is a series that just finished its second season on the CW (or Netflix, in Canada). Like all CW shows, it’s about pretty-looking people who betray each other, but it’s also a hardboiled detective reboot of the Archie comics, where Veronica’s a gangster’s daughter, Jughead lives on the wrong side of the tracks (like, literally), Betty has a dark alter-ego who wants to murder people, Archie’s sleeping with his teacher, and Cheryl Blossom gets more screen time than Josie and Reggie combined.

The first season is about solving the murder of Cheryl’s brother, Jason, and all the random side-mysteries that get stirred up in its wake. The second season is about two adult criminals (Veronica’s father, Hiram Lodge, and Jughead’s father, FP Jones) who hilariously fight their battles using random teens.

There are love triangles, and idiotic plot twists, and very special episodes about how it’s okay to be gay – and how you should rescue your friends if they get sent to a gay conversion centre, but not report the centre to the police or worry about anyone else who’s being held there.

It’s kind of Desperate Housewives with aspirations of being Veronica Mars, and I can’t defend any of the batshit things that happen on it, but it is amazing.

Why should I watch this?

Oh, you shouldn’t. You absolutely shouldn’t. It doesn’t even have the redeeming feminist virtues of my other guilty pleasure show, The 100. On this show, they literally make up an excuse to have all the female cast members do a sexy dance. It’s actually kind of offensive.

But here are some other things that happen:

  • Jughead is an aspiring writer who’s writing the story of this series, and he narrates it in an appropriately over-written Mary Alice Young voice.
  • Archie decides to join Mr. Lodge’s gang, and Mr. Lodge lets him because he doesn’t have any other guys anymore and also because, somehow, they are locked together in a hypermasculine, homoerotic struggle for supremacy that involves un-ironically acting out Foxcatcher and saying stuff like, “I need to make my bones with you” in what is ostensibly a non-sexual way.
  • Archie and Mr. Lodge become blood brothers without touching hands. They just cut themselves and bleed on the table.
  • Cheryl Blossom turns out to be a lesbian and starts dating a cool and criminally underused character named Toni. Then, she covers herself in blood and threatens to kill her whole family.
  • Everyone has a stupid name like “Papa Poutine” and… Papa Poutine is the stupidest one.
  • They refer to the guy who works at the junkyard as “Junkyard Steve.”
  • A gang member named Tall Boy is accused and convicted of betraying the gang based on the testimony that the person who sold them out “was tall.”
  • Betty’s mother tries to convince her ex-boyfriend to get back together with her by asking him to come watch her perform as the only adult cast member in a high school production of Carrie: The Musical.
  • Everyone in the entire town loses their shit over what’s published in the high school newspaper.

Also, Betty and Jughead are dating, and the internet loves that, but I don’t care. I’m here for the wacky schemes and the tantalizing promise that maybe they’ll have a good story for gay people that doesn’t involve not calling the cops on a gay conversion centre that’s holding kids hostage.

There are other substantial criticisms I should probably mention

I know I blew past it above, but the show can be kind of gross about objectifying the women who appear on it – and it’s not something where you can say, “Archie takes off his shirt all the time!” and dismiss it. Because, Archie does take off his shirt all the time, but that doesn’t hold the same significance in our culture as a girl doing a pole dance in her underwear (which is a thing that happens during a very confused plot line about whether Betty can join the gang Jughead and his dad are in – I guess she can?).

On top of that, and on top of the thing where homophobia is either the entire point of the episode or something everybody just ignores, Riverdale can be a little bit weird about race.

There’s a thing that sometimes happens on shows where the cast ends up being diverse but the writer’s room seems to have a lot more ideas about what to do with the white characters. I don’t know what goes on in the writer’s room at Riverdale, and I don’t know what the cast’s availability is, and I can’t speculate about why this has happened, but I observe that Josie was put forward as a major character when the series launched, only to fade into the background. I also observe that Reggie, who’s been played by two different Asian actors since the series started, is basically a non-entity, despite being a central character in the comics. I observe that Toni showed up just long enough to teach Jughead the meaning of white privilege, and then disappeared before resurfacing to be Cheryl’s girlfriend. And I observe that the Lodges are acting out Italian mafia stereotypes while calling their daughter “mijha” a lot. I’m not saying that any of that’s necessarily wrong; I’m saying that I see the show’s attempt to diversify the cast, but I’m not sure I see a clear vision for how to use that diverse cast within the story.

Real talk, though, here’s how I’d reboot season three so I didn’t have to feel guilty anymore

In my ideal third season, we’d find out during the cold open to episode one that the events of Riverdale, as we’ve seen them in seasons one and two, were exclusively shown to us through the filter of Jughead’s brain as he works on the novelization. The stuff we saw happen did sort of happen, and it felt a lot like what we saw, but the reality was a lot more mundane,and confusing, and unresolved, and painful in ways that don’t lend themselves to sudden outbreaks of song (oh, because that’s a thing that happens on this show: people start singing pop songs)

For the rest of the season, we shift back and forth between capital R Reality, which is a lot more nuanced and revolves a lot less around Jughead and his friends, and the hyper-reality where he translates what’s happening into a more fantastic story. We get a lot of self-reflexive mileage out of examining how that story is constructed, and how we all use stories to understand what’s happening in our lives.

We also have a great opportunity to have the characters who’ve been disappeared resurface. The Pussycats can be mad that they were barely in Jughead’s story at all. It can turn out that they, and Toni, and Reggie, actually led super interesting lives and played a crucial role in what was happening, just, Jughead didn’t know about it. It can turn out that the Lodges’ super secret meetings, that no one actually told Jughead about, were not a deleted scene from The Godfather, like he imagines.

We spend time learning about what “really” happened, but we also spend time with the characters now as they confront the fictionalized version of their lives. By the end of the season, they decide, in various ways, to live more boldly than they have in the past, which subtly brings Reality closer to the hyper-reality we had in the first two seasons.

Rolling into season four, we can ease off of the hyper-reality because of that,  or we can explore the hyper-realities that exist in other character’s minds – not just Jughead’s.

In the hyper-reality inside my mind, I could wish this reboot into being just by wanting it enough, but I think, in this case, as in so many others, capital R Reality will disappoint.

Image: Riverdale; The CW Network | June 16, 2018