Reviews

Riverdale: Good but not ground-breaking

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My one memory of The Archie Show consists of sitting in front of the TV as a child while my dad was watching old music videos. ‘Sugar, Sugar’ came on. The track, released for the show in 1969, played to a scene reminiscent of classic Scooby-Doo, complete with an anthropomorphic dog and goofy teenagers (albeit ones who turn into giant animals when kissed… if interested, it’s available on YouTube). Riverdale’s version of the song, which features in the second episode of the Netflix series based on the Archie Comics, is starkly different, performed by all-black girl band Josie and the Pussycats, while the other women in the show give a full-length, gratuitous cheerleading performance (the first of several).

The series sells itself as halfTwin Peaks-inspired murder mystery, half teen high school drama, and that it certainly is, up to and including the unfortunate tendency for such dramas to think that they’re a lot more progressive than they actually are.

The series sells itself as half Twin Peaks-inspired murder mystery, half teen high school drama, and that it certainly is, up to and including the unfortunate tendency for such dramas to think that they’re a lot more progressive than they actually are. Episodes sometimes awkwardly straddle the two genres, switching between cinematically-beautiful-if-somewhat-cliché shots of the investigation and equally-cliché spin the bottle. Added as well are heavy-handed sub-plots on topics like why slut shaming is bad, the dialogue for which seemed in places like a badly-made awareness campaign.

One of the show’s largest issues, both for me and many others, is its attitude towards queerbaiting. Its first episode provides a kiss between the two women leads, Betty and Veronica, only for Cheryl – the sister of the show’s murder victim Jason, and head of the cheerleading squad the women are trying out for – to immediately respond that ‘faux lesbian kissing hasn’t been taboo since 1994.’ There is no indication that either of them disagree with this label, despite Betty seeming very into the kiss long enough for the shot to be conveniently placed out of context in Riverdale’s trailer. Funnily enough, indicating that you’re aware of what you’re doing through meta dialogue, but doing nothing to change it – other than including a stereotypically ‘gay best friend’ in the form of Kevin Keller – doesn’t cancel the act out. Just as troubling was actress Lili Reinhart’s response in reaction to the trailer before the show aired: asked if anything more will happen between her character, Betty, and Veronica, she responded in an interview that no, it won’t. ‘Our show is not meant to be fan fiction. […] People love Beronica and they want to see them together, but that’s just not our show.’ As others have pointed out, such a response seems specifically dismissive towards queer relationships, especially considering that within Riverdale’s universe, Archie has an affair with his teacher – changed from the elderly ‘Mrs. Grundy’ to the young ‘Miss Grundy’ – and Betty dates Jughead, who in his recent spin-off comic is canonically asexual and characteristically uninterested in relationships. If Betty and Veronica dating is to be considered ‘fan fiction,’ then surely these relationships are too. Cole Sprouse, who many will remember from Disney Channel’s The Suite Life of Zack and Cody, has spoken out about his disappointment that his character Jughead does not seem to be asexual in this incarnation, but hopes that this could be developed and revealed in a later season.

In terms of racial diversity, the show offers some range but is not particularly ground-breaking. The Pussycats, as singers with relatively small parts, are not atypical roles for women of colour to play, and do not receive much screen time – however, Valerie’s brief relationship with Archie, and some focus on Josie’s character, has the potential to let these characters develop into larger, more complex figures, if Riverdale would actually be willing to do so. Ross Butler, playing the school’s head jock Reggie, provides one example of subverting racial typecasting as an Asian actor, but has an even smaller role than the Pussycats. Veronica, as a side-note, is made explicitly Hispanic with her mother’s use of Spanish terms of endearment. While KJ Apa, who plays Archie, is himself half-Samoan, his bleached hair and eyebrows – and most tellingly the two white actors who play his parents – indicate that he is intended to pass as fully white.

I got excited for a second when, in the most recent episode (ten), Jughead reacted badly to a surprise birthday party Betty had planned for him – starting to say that he wasn’t ‘wired’ like other people, the connotations of his language made me half-believe he was about to reveal that he was neurodiverse, on the autistic spectrum, struggling with the sensory overload of a loud, crowded atmosphere. At the very least, I thought it might lead to a nuanced discussion of mental health better than has been portrayed so far with Betty’s very questionable characterisation, episodes alluding to her having a dark alter-ego and zoning in on dramatic shots of her self-harm. But alas, he finished his response falling into a typical ‘I’m an outsider’ monologue which, although broadly relatable, had the potential to be much more.

And yet, despite my mixed feelings, I’m thoroughly enjoying waiting for new episodes to come out, and watching them when they do. Perhaps it is precisely the potential Riverdale has – the ability for it to be so much more – which makes it so appealing to fan imagination. It offers enough moments and chemistry between characters for practically anyone to be shipped with anyone, and this seems clearly deliberate; it draws on enough familiar tropes and imagery in its plot and visuals to connote a wide range of thematic ancestors so that anyone familiar with even one of its influences from television, film and other media can link the two in their head, bringing with that any leftover emotional connections. The show is aesthetically pleasing, and the theatricality of some sequences demonstrates a self-awareness of this: the colour symbolism, for example, of characters’ clothing is very noticeable in places – most prominently Cheryl’s use of white and red.

As an adaptation and reboot of Archie, part of the recent trend of ‘gritty’ reboots aimed at older audiences than their source material, it would be interesting to compare the works in detail. However, my knowledge of the original is relatively limited – although it has stayed around, Archie has not had the massive long-standing presence of Scooby-Doo, and was not normally on television when I was growing up. As Riverdale turns the story into a murder mystery, it may almost be wondered why the creators didn’t use Scooby-Doo. However, Scooby has gone through so many cycles of adaptations and reinterpretations that it would be difficult to escape its past, and even harder to have Scooby himself replaced with an ordinary dog, which a reboot like Riverdale would require. Archie’s relative distance allows the show space to carve itself out, while also bringing in viewers intrigued to see how it draws on its source. One of the largest differences outside of the obvious change of tone and genre is the speed with which it dropped Archie’s infamous love triangle with Betty and Veronica; although playing with threesome vibes during the first episode – with Archie, Betty and Veronica going together to the school dance – it is clear throughout that Archie does not reciprocate Betty’s romantic interest, and instead a bisexual/pansexual subtext is created between Betty and Veronica, and kept up throughout the episodes. Despite the queerbaiting so far, Betty and Veronica’s frequent moments could easily be made explicitly canonical in the future.

Overall, Riverdale certainly isn’t the most original thing you’ll see: I can’t think of anything in it that hasn’t been done at least once before. However, it’s enjoyable, and importantly for a murder mystery, there’s not one obvious suspect: the list of who could have done it grows with each episode. The question remains of how it will progress into a second season; with a number of episodes left to go before the current season ends, it’s unclear if all the details of Jason’s murder will be revealed or if they will be dragged out. If it is solved and neatly concluded, will the series then shift away from the murder mystery genre, or continue with another crime to centre the next narrative around? I’d like to see subtext become reality and characters moving away from their archetypes, which will be needed if the series is to progress strongly rather than fizzle out.

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