When it first aired in 2017, Riverdale was a sensation. But, as Netflix looks to wrap up the teen drama next year, the series has developed a reputation for being fodder for cringy memes.
To be fair, that take isn’t wholly unearned. The show has dragged on a bit and some arbitrary elements and themes have popped up as the series has gone on.
Many viewers have also grown tired of the show’s reliance on an overused hero premise, melodramatic plot twists, its somewhat goofy stabs at darker themes and the heavy-handed attempts to add complexity to characters.
Despite all this, Riverdale is still a good show and it’s important to remember what drew so many to the series when it first debuted. Even if some of it is still a bit cringe.
The Archie series has been a staple of comic book shelves since the character was first introduced in 1941. For eight decades, the books were largely simple comedy stories about likeable freckled goof Archie and his never-ending love triangle with girl-next-door Betty and glamorous, uptown girl Veronica. They weren’t the most original works, but they were good for a laugh. Still, 80 years is a long time to keep doing the same thing.
That’s where Roberto Aguirre-Sacasa comes in. The writer was chosen to helm an experiment for the Archie Comics brand with 2013’s Afterlife with Archie, a series where the usual cast is thrown into a horrific zombie apocalypse. The book’s dark, gruesome story delighted readers and led to Aguirre-Sacasa being named chief creative officer at Archie Comics. One of the main moves he made after receiving that prominent position was to develop Riverdale.
In that sense, Riverdale was just the shot in the arm the brand needed. The series starts off as a Twin Peaks small-town murder mystery mixed with some Pretty Little Liars high school drama. It uses the same basic templates of the Archie Comics characters but adapts them to a different genre of story, one with much darker elements and a gothic aesthetic.
The shining example of this is fan favourite character Jughead. Cole Sprouse’s version of the character draws from the same well-off character traits – he loves food, lazing around at Pop’s Diner, and wants to maintain a bit of distance from the usual romantic drama – but twists them to fit the new tone. This Jughead starts out as the omniscient third-person narrator of the show, investigating crimes around their town, a fiercely independent loner who wants to do things his own way. To me, Jughead has always been the star of the series. His arc is distinct from the other characters and shows the struggles of being creative.
This re-working and expansion of characters work for more minor roles too, such as that of Fred Andrews, played by the late Luke Perry). Like the comics, he is equally likeable, kind, and compassionate, and he shares a close relationship with his son Archie. But hints of more serious topics also crop up in the show – Fred marries his high school sweetheart, as in the comics, but they later split – giving added texture to the character.
Some of the other characters from the expanded Archie-verse, like Josie and Pussy Cats, the Blossoms and Sabrina the Teenage Witch all become part of the show too and are fun inclusions for fans of the original series.
Another major success is how they handle the comics’ titular character, Archie. KJ Apa’s version is a hero who’s easy to root for and his love for the town and dedication to making it a better place is inspiring. He never gives up and strives to persevere against any threat to Riverdale, whether it’s against Mr Lodge’s political corruption or (in later seasons) an evil warlock. Though he slips into stereotypes at times, such as gaining super-strength, he still stands up for fairness and justice and is willing to pursue them even if it means breaking the law. The extended runtime of the show helps his character a lot too. Though his initial storylines aren’t the most exciting, he grows into the role of a central character and his arcs solidify him as a young man rooted in his ethics and values.
Two characters who benefit less from the show stretching out and exploring more fantastical elements are Betty and Veronica. The two are stuck with two of the more clichéd storylines in the show, both revolving around their fathers, and ultimately are some of the weaker leads because of it. Veronica is forced to confront the love-hate relationship she has with Mr Lodge and has to work outside of the law to take him down. On the way, she gets blood on her hands, but the story doesn’t come together properly to her final position as a strong, corporate woman. Betty’s character starts off at a more interesting point – unlike the girl-next-door of the comics, she is dealing with serious issues like repressed anger. Her character arc with her father also has a fascinating dimension, but both of these ideas end up with mixed results. It feels as if trying to shoehorn a moral complexity and sense of sadism into the character hasn’t made her as layered and complex as the writers were hoping for.
Perhaps the most ridiculed turn for the series was the inclusion of supernatural elements in later seasons, but Riverdale has always been about being entertaining and taking narrative risks. And while these elements are pretty superfluous to the overall storyline, it was definitely fun, providing a good laugh by incorporating such out-there elements. And, even in these silly moments, there were some redeeming character bits. Cheryl Blossom, one of the first characters we see on the show, gets to shine in this arc, discovering her unique powers and how she can use them. It may have been better to spin off this part of the show into a different series, but her character is distinct and fun in the context of the show and is a fun twist on the original comics.
As a whole, Riverdale has made some mistakes that have kept it from maintaining the standard of appointment television it had in its early seasons. But the show has always made big swings, trying to do things that are unusual, inventive, and exciting. Some of these attempts have failed, but others have succeeded. And through it all, the show has managed to keep relatable aspects to its most important characters - Jughead's struggle to find his creative voice, Archie's desire to protect something his father loved, Betty's fortitude in overcoming her family’s dark secrets, and Veronica's attempts to fight her father’s legacy.
The final season of the show will come to Netflix in 2023. It’ll undoubtedly take some wild shots to try and end the series with a high. Even if there are some misses, I’m excited to see how it wraps up.
This article is a part of Stripe, bdnews24.com's special publication with a focus on culture and society from a youth perspective.