The first season of The CW’s Riverdale was like being handed a surprise bowl of that oatmeal that hatches candy dinosaur eggs when you microwave it: disgusting, delightful, and a possibility so bizarre, most people’s brains would never arrive there without help.
Archie Comics’ chief creative officer Roberto Aguirre-Sacasa was heavily involved in the process that turned Archie from a beloved comics series into a swoony suburban teen drama. Now it’s equal parts Desperate Housewives, Gossip Girl, a Lordemusic video, and whatever previous murder mysteries there have been about maple syrup tycoons. (With some slight tonal shifts and even more white people, it could have been a Coen brothers movie.)
The second season, rushed through production with grotesque consequences, premiered last night, just five months after the season 1 finale. It’s clear that the CW knows it has a small hit on its hands. What’s less clear is how a major network figured that out and still moved forward without ruining the fun. If you can believe it, these are just the highlights of the season 2 premiere (spoilers ahead): Archie (K.J. Apa) personally drags his recently shot father (Luke Perry, whose first Google search result is this fan website) to a local hospital staffed by two women in old-timey nurse Halloween costumes and a doctor in a murder outfit. Jughead Jones (played by Cole Sprouse, the nation’s favorite former teen star and current Weird Twitter crown prince) assures his girlfriend that owning a motorcycle doesn’t necessarily make him a murderer, but it does necessarily make him a crime boss, and he is one now. (He’s 16.) Cheryl Blossom (who burned down her own house with her mother inside it in the season 1 finale) wanders around a hospital in a ‘90s competitive figure-skating costume. And Archie’s former lover Ms. Grundy (a tutor and serial pedophile) kisses a new teen-music prodigy goodnight, then gets murdered by a mysterious hooded figure. Thank goodness, the best and weirdest show on television is back.
And thank goodness this is not a writers’ room inclined to make changes to appeal to a broader audience.
On Riverdale, the traditional demands of narrative don’t exist. The first season didn’t have much of a dramatic arc, because a dozen wildly dramatic things happened every week. Betty and Jughead’s will-they-won’t-they plot was resolved within a few episodes so there would be more opportunities to show them kissing. Maple syrup was a code for drugs, if I recall correctly? The season was ostensibly about solving the murder of Jason Blossom, but it was hard to care about a mysterious dead boy when the living were making utterly bananas choices week after week. And the showrunners didn’t actually ask the audience to care about Jason. Instead, they indulged us over and over with surprises — my favorite being Betty’s mom’s sudden interest in exposing a local crime cartel in a student newspaper. Her name is Alice Cooper, there is a fan theory that she’s a witch, and I can’t believe this show is real.
Riverdale is lit in a way that makes its young stars look like otherworldly beings made out of marzipan. They acknowledge the (theoretical, though invisible) limitations of their physical forms only when they need an opportunity to flash a tube of CoverGirl waterproof mascara to the camera. Most episodes of Riverdale are broken down into scenes ranging in length from 15 seconds to 90 seconds — roughly 10 to 12 panels of a comic book. That narrative style gives the impression that these stories wouldn’t be unpleasant to read as installments of an Archie comic, and would fit just as well on Snapchat. The unquestionable beauty of every person flitting through these video clips makes each micro-story as easy to experience and digest as an angel food cake, or an ad for CoverGirl mascara.
The only story component the writers actually are beholden to is character motivation, which is crystal-clear in the second season’s first episode. On a quick trip home from the hospital for a change of clothes, Archie and Veronica take a break from worrying about Archie’s dad’s near-fatal bullet wound to make out in the shower. Their soundtrack is the whispery-wail of Cat Pierce (half of the duo who sang the Pretty Little Liars theme song), singing “Do you want more of this? Isn’t it glorious?” This detour is slotted between two hospital waiting room scenes, after Archie washes the blood out of his fingernails, but before he walks in on Cheryl making out with his unconscious dad’s forehead, while wearing what looks likecosplay from the 1992 classic The Cutting Edge. Archie and Veronica’s choice is not weird, because no matter what else they want or feel, the kids on Riverdale are wantin’ and feelin’ each other.
In the first season, Riverdale had two timelines: the main storyline, and the flashbacks to events directly before or after Jason Blossom’s Fourth of July murder. Jughead narrated each episode, typing what he was saying into a Microsoft Word document, adding 20 words at a time to his short, dramatic novel about Riverdale (the town, not the show). However, the Jughead character wasn’t always actually aware of the events the Jughead narrator was sort-of talking about. For example, he was able to give the ominous warning in the fourth episode of season 1: “It’s been a week since the discovery of Jason Blossom’s body. But his death would not be the first, nor would it be the last casualty that the town of Riverdale would suffer.” I still don’t even know who he’s talking about, since the season finale death of Cheryl’s psychotic father did not cause anyone any suffering. Whatever he was referencing hasn’t happened yet, and I would hope we can all admit that this doesn’t make any sense.
With season 2, Riverdale doubles down on strange narrative conventions by adding in Grey’s Anatomy-inspired near-death hallucinations: Archie’s dad is lingering in some strange in-between state and imagining the graduation day, engagement, and wedding of his beloved, tall, brave son. Everyone wears kilts to the wedding, and Jughead wears his hat, which is rude. It’s hard not to laugh through these sequences, which are just the latest bonkers idea plopped on top an already-wobbling Jenga tower. Are we doing this for a reason other than to give an old 90210 star some screen time and some scenery to chew?
It almost doesn’t matter. None of this is meant as a criticism, and I can eat my vegetables with some other TV show. Riverdale is specifically built for online fandom, with musical numbers, mysterious killers, hints about at least a dozen potential romantic pairings, beautiful leads constantly back-lit by neon signage, and a soundtrack pulled directly from Spotify’s “Today’s Top Viral Hits.” Much of the writing staff has worked on shows like The CW’s Supergirl or Fox’s Glee, and they know that sometimes, what an audience wants even more than logical or traditional structure is a story where it feels like absolutely anything can happen. There’s no such thing as closed doors on Riverdale, only plotlines briefly forgotten, and romances the writers haven’t gotten around to yet.
If anything can happen, it follows, there’s no such thing as fan fiction too far-fetched. There are no limits to the demands fans can make when the show disappoints them. For example, my friend Claire Carusillo demanded yesterday on Man Repeller that the writers of Riverdale walk back the season 1 portrayal of Chuck Clayton, one of the few black characters in the classic Archie Comics. The CW interpretation of Chuck (played by Jordan Calloway) has nothing to do with the original character — a nice, quiet artist boy who draws a lot of loving portraits of his girlfriend Nancy. On the show, he’s a sexual harasser who says the word “bitch” all the time, and physically injures the fandom’s precious Jughead Jones.
“The decision to go off-plot to reduce one of the few characters of color to a damaging sketch of himself is unforgivable and they need to fix it,” Claire wrote. “How? I don’t care! Reveal that Chuck is actually his evil cousin, or that Betty boiling him alive was a hallucination she had after her secret anti-psychotic medication interacted with something she drank. Stranger things have happened in Riverdale: for example, Cheryl wearing a wedding dress and driving gloves to her brother’s funeral.”
All possibilities are equally probable on this show about the utter randomness of the universe and utter beauty of beautiful people, which means it’s never too late to go back and fix something stupid. What an incredible idea for modern entertainment, to leave miles of wiggle room to respond to feedback. What an incredible comfort — in the age of peak prestige TV — to have just one show that’s not interested in “earning” anything, and instead just does absolutely whatever. What an incredible fantasy, to imagine a world in which your boyfriend can end up with a free motorcycle and cool jacket overnight, and suddenly become dreamier than he was before. Nothing is impossible or even improbable in Riverdale, and that’s what makes it such a lovely place.
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