Hit or Sh**: The CW’s RIVERDALE
In this Crossfader series, our intricate and complex rating system will tell you definitively whether new television pilots are worth your valuable time. We call it: HIT OR SH**.
On the day my brother was born, my dad bought me two Spider-Man comics as a consolation prize for no longer being the head honcho around the Seraydarian household. I didn’t really know how to read, but I liked the pictures. Not having the intimate grasp on pop culture history that I do now, I foolishly failed to realize that this was the goddamned ‘90s, a notoriously gritty era in comic book history. Upon asking my mother to read them to me, I had them promptly ripped out of my grasp and was informed that they were too grown-up for me (I think one of them involved a traumatic subplot of Mary Jane having a miscarriage.) I was then given two Archie comics as a consolation prize for my consolation prize. My life was changed.
From the ages of four to ten, the allowance I got each week went right into the Archie comic books that populated the checkout counters of my local grocery store. They taught me how to read, gave me an early understanding of story and character, and introduced me to my first fandom, in addition to featuring issues that had Betty and Veronica in swimsuits and gave me some funny feelings I hadn’t experienced before. In short, I grew up on Archie comics, and they will always have a special place in my heart. As such, you can imagine my trepidation when the early promotional images for RIVERDALE were released…
I, uh, hoo, is it…hot in here?
RIVERDALE is a gritty reboot that almost borders on EMERALD CITY territory. Although the bizarre comparisons to TWIN PEAKS that have surfaced are mostly incorrect, the pilot does open on the suspicious death of Jason Blossom (Trevor Stines), who was involved in a canoeing accident with his sister, Cheryl (Madelaine Petsch). His death hangs like a specter over the halls of Riverdale High, especially on local heartthrob Archie Andrews (K.J. Apa). And why? Because Archie was busy being statutory raped (oh, sorry, busy “tapping some cougar ass”) by his music teacher, Geraldine Grundy (Sarah Habel), on the day Jason died, their little tete-a-tete having been interrupted by gunshots that might be linked to Jason’s death.
Of course, Archie can’t be too torn up by Miss Grundy’s desire to break things off considering the circumstances, because he has to continually figure out ways to gently turn down the advances of his best friend, Betty Cooper (Lili Reinhart), while pursuing the foxy Veronica Lodge (Camila Mendes), who has just arrived in town on the coattails of a massive embezzlement conspiracy involving her father. Oh, and the burger-loving Jughead Jones (Cole Sprouse) we all know and love is now an amateur investigative journalist writing about all of this on his laptop while glowering at the camera through the neon lighting of the ol’ hangout The Chock’lit Shoppe.
Rather than immediately point out all of the pilot’s fallacies, I’d like to first commend it for crafting a very specific type of milieu that doesn’t get seen much these days. Especially with the rise of prestige television, networks seems steadfastly dedicated to leaving the early-to-mid aughts behind, but RIVERDALE’s aesthetic and presentation are aggressively ripped from soapy hits of yesteryear such as GOSSIP GIRL and THE O.C. With even The CW itself venturing out into more innovative territory with shows such as CRAZY EX-GIRLFRIEND, it’s a breath of fresh air to come across something so unapologetically indebted to campiness, melodrama, and downright nonsensical silliness as RIVERDALE. Plot elements such as intimations of incest between Cheryl and Jason are as ludicrous as they are juicy, Veronica and Betty ending a duo cheering try-out with an unexpected and entirely unnecessary makeout session will have you cackling in delight, and every time Archie tries to sing and play the guitar an angel dies and falls from Heaven, but damn it all if it isn’t a treat to watch crash and burn.
Every local coffee shop circa 2010
That’s not to say that RIVERDALE is good: to be clear, it’s very, very bad. The dialogue is the most egregious offender. I’ll let the line,“Guys, can’t we just liberate ourselves from the tired dichotomy of jock, artist? Can’t we, in this post-James Franco world, be all things at once?” speak for itself (although it is fun to hear Archie referred to as “Justin Gingerlake”). However, things certainly aren’t aided by the acting, which consists of a neverending string of overreactions and clunky delivery (But, y’know, I think we can admit it would be difficult to convincingly pull off such …prose.) Kevin Keller (Casey Cott), a groundbreaking gay character in the comic series, suffers the most at the hands of this problem, being reduced to an archetypal and flamboyant gay best friend, driven home by Veronica’s continual referrals to him as such.
The only two mildly palatable actors are the criminally underutilized Cole Sprouse and a surprisingly still hot Luke Perry, who plays Archie’s father, Fred. In addition, while nowhere near approaching the unbelievable tastelessness of something like THAT’S MY BOY, there’s no way around the fact that a statutory rape subplot is anything but uncomfortable, especially considering Archie’s nonchalance towards it. While the show does manage to fix the race problem that plagued the comic series, most notably with Josie and the Pussycats being recast as confident black women, the philosophy that underage sex is still socially acceptable as long as the woman is the one who’s of legal age proves that the show isn’t quite as progressive as it may fancy itself.
I’ll never be able to unsee this
Even with all of that considered, the show does hit upon some genuinely competent drama. The frenemy relationship between Betty and Veronica is well realized, and is the most pleasantly nostalgic portion of the pilot. The show makes us believe that they truly do have a mutual respect and value each other’s friendship, even if they do both want to schtup Archie. In fact, since they seem to both understand this fact and still find common ground, it’s actually empowering in a strange sort of reach-around, as they effectively reduce Archie to an object of potential pleasure while still developing their own relationship. That being said, the best moment of the pilot is when Archie hooks up with Veronica after rejecting Betty, as it’s been made clear that Archie and Betty’s attraction is intellectual, while Archie and Veronica’s is physical. But that’s about all that’s traditionally meritable about the show, although resident jock Moose Mason (Cody Kearsley) being recast as someone with a homosexual streak was fun from the perspective of an old fan.
I assure you that I am going to continue to watch the ever-loving shit out of RIVERDALE, although I also can’t really encourage you to do the same. I never really had the opportunity to become enamored with a network soap when I was younger, and the pilot is scratching lots of itches I never knew I had before. This is a show you’ll laugh at instead of with, but I also can’t entirely claim that the show doesn’t know this and massage it to its fullest potential. This is the epitome of a show to turn off your brain and let wash over you in all of its big, dumb glory, and the right audience member will find themselves charmed. This is unadulterated trash, but it’s also entertaining. And in a post-James Franco world, can’t it be all these things at once?
RIVERDALE airs on The CW on Thursdays