Riverdale is the latest installment in a trend of TV shows about a small town and the one crime that changes everyone’s lives. Riverdale distinguishes itself from other similar shows (such as Broadchurch and Top of the Lake) by revolving principally around a cast of high school students, rather than adults.
The cast of characters is based on those from the Archie comics, although I confess that I don’t see more than a superficial resemblance. Certainly, KJ Apa, who plays Archie, looks like the character from the comics come to life. So, too, do Lili Reinhart and Camila Mendes resemble Betty and Veronica respectively. In this respect, the list goes on: the casting was done exceedingly well.
As with any teen-driven mystery, the adults must prove themselves useless for the teens to have a reason to investigate—and in Riverdale, they go above and beyond. Betty’s sister and Cheryl’s brother have been dating, and both sets of parents are utterly wrapped up in their generations-old feud. Veronica’s father is in jail for shady business practices, and her mother is trying to revive the business to be legal, but without necessarily informing those whom she is involving in her plans. Other adults include the music teacher sleeping with Archie, the gangsters, the sheriff who finds fewer answers than the high school students investigating the same cases, and Archie’s caring father who also appears to be the only adult in possession of common sense.
Near the end of the season, this situation is lampshaded by two adult characters who have been trying to sneak information about the cases through the sheriff and end up at a high school party, who remark that they ought to have been paying more attention to the teens, who clearly are in possession of far more facts than any of the adults. Unlikely though the situation may seem, it does create a Lord of the Flies-esque dynamic as the teens try to take charge of the investigation and the crimes surrounding their lives as though the adults are absent.
However, in terms of the writing, the comics hold this story back. I’m not a huge fan of the comics, and I only have the most basic understanding of the premise from the comic strip in the newspaper when I was a child. I do know, however, that it tends to be a lighthearted, romantic comedy sort of story. At a glance, the idea of taking these same characters and putting them into a serious situation sounds like it could be intriguing. Unfortunately, the execution left much to be desired.
At the start of the season, the mystery is juxtaposed with the romantic drama and relationships, in which the teens have far more investment. The tragedy that has occurred only directly affects Cheryl, the sister of the presumed-deceased individual, and so she parades her grief around school: seemingly just another element in her arsenal of ways to make school life revolve around herself. As the story unfolds around them, more characters become directly or indirectly embroiled in the tragedy, and we learn more about Cheryl’s thoughts and background, humanizing her. It is a strong premise with a very strong beginning.
Later in the season, as more and more details of the mystery are becoming clear, as more and more hidden motivations are reaching the surface, the characters continue to treat revelations with the same sort of gravity usually reserved for dramas like Gossip Girl. When Archie’s father learns that the music teacher is sleeping with his son, he expresses no thoughts or emotions on the subject. He simply allows a teenager to dictate what is to come: that the teacher is to leave town and never return. She leaves and is never seen again (so far). Even during the finale, as dramatic revelation after dramatic revelation is coming to light, the characters remain principally invested in their relationships and romances.
In summary, this show has a strange tone that I can’t say I’ve seen anywhere before. It has all the thrill of a thriller show, but the drama and gravity of a romantic drama show. For myself, I found it unsatisfying. There seemed to be too few repercussions for those who had broken the law or wronged someone. There seemed to be an equal amount of anger when one girl kissed a boy another girl liked as when a mother sends her daughter to be institutionalize and isolated from the world for the crime of being pregnant, or when a teacher is sleeping with a student. Blame was frequently misplaced, but frequently treated as though that were not a problem: as if there is shared culpability in merely being related to a criminal.
Yet the thriller part of it remains fascinating to me, though I do see many faults in the show. I very much like the hints of the many secrets being kept by the older generation (though evidence so far suggests to me that most of these revelations will be disappointing), the ever-changing relationship dynamics of the teens as they learn more about each other and the town in which they live, and the mysteries at the center of the show.
I would choose to watch Broadchurch or Top of the Lake over Riverdale any day. However, there aren’t nearly enough shows in this genre, so I welcome the addition of another contender. For any fan of the Archie comics who also likes the small-town thriller genre, this will hit the spot. For viewers such as myself, it is a passably entertaining show.