Riverdale premiered last year like a redheaded beacon in a sea of bland sexy teen soap dramas.
It was based on the Archie comics series but had literally nothing in common with it besides character names. Archie had more abs than personality. Veronica spoke in more gay inside jokes than a drag queen. One of the Suite Life of Zach and Cody brothers was now the moody Jughead. The hero we didn’t know we needed walked into our lives and her name was Cheryl Blossom. Gay teens kissed!
I loved it.
It was shamelessly scandalous—who had money on the Archie TV show featuring incest in its central mystery?—and shamefully sexy. It was The CW’s most popular drama since Gossip Girl, with its stars on magazine covers and headlining panels at fan conventions, and for good reason. It hooked us once with the Archie comics conceit, then hooked us twice with a riveting central mystery that gave the season its twisty narrative arc, then hooked us over and over again with Archie’s shirtlessness and Veronica’s bon mots.
“LOL guys I think I love Riverdale” was a popular confession among TV critics and, um, adults. The season ended with a major twist. They shot Dylan McKay! Excuse me, Fred Andrews! Were they really going to kill off our beloved Luke Perry? There were few shows were we more excited to see ramp it up in Season 2. Thursday night’s premiere, however, seemed to actually dial it back.
Don’t get me wrong. The show is still a whole lot of fun. There are still the characters we fell in love with last season and there are still KJ Apa’s rippling muscles to drool over. The young performers are all bonafide breakout stars—Lili Reinhardt (Betty) and Camila Mendes (Veronica) are obsession worthy—and the cinematography still has that Pleasantville-swathed-in-dark-grey aesthetic that we swoon over. But after a debut season that barreled to the finish line, its follow-up opens with a false start.
Not only was the cliffhanger handled with a jaw-dropping lack of suspense—obviously Archie’s dad was going to survive—but the extent and the absurdity with which it drew the resolution out, replete with flash-forward dream sequences, was a yawn.
More, while Jason Blossom’s gorgeously gruesome death launched last season with a bang, this season’s central mystery with so little clarity that we’re not honestly sure what it is, and certainly aren’t invested. Are we going to be finding out who mugged Fred Andrews? Is there a serial killer on the loose? Is the killer connected to Mark Consuelos’ sexy-as-hell Hirum Lodge? Will we ever care about Jughead’s connection to the Serpents?
The episode lacked the fizzle and quippiness that made Riverdale one of the most meme’d and Tumblr’d series of last year. Even the melodrama seemed muted—with the exception of the delicious introduction of Consuelos’ character.
That’s always been one of the show’s strengths. For all the fan fever over Riverdale’s central Scooby gang, it’s the adults who have always been the best characters. Madchen Amick is a hoot as Betty’s mom. Marisol Nichols is fabulousness incarnate as the gloriously named Hermione Lodge. Hell, they cast Molly Ringwald to play Archie’s mom even though the tweens who watch the show probably have no idea why that’s so fantastic.
It will be interesting to see how the fresh-new-thing buzz that Riverdale rode last year will amplify or decrease over Season 2. As was written about on the occasion of its anniversary, Gossip Girl, probably Riverdale’s closest spiritual cousin, rapidly devolved from brand-new obsession to the show that was more fun to talk about than it is to watch. Will Riverdale suffer the same fate?
The CW used to be insulated by its status as a haven for a certain kind of teen fandom, but now even Netflix has broken into the teen soap space, and to blockbuster success with 13 Reasons Why. Archie’s gotta keep up!
It’s interesting that we still so closely associate The CW with shows like Riverdale and predecessors like Gossip Girl. The CW’s strength in recent years has actually moved away almost completely from the kinds of teen soap it made its name on, be it as The CW or before as The WB. You could play Paula Cole’s “I Don’t Want to Wait” Dawson’s Creek theme song in front of any slew of shows, from Everwood to The Vampire Diaries to Gossip Girl and you might not be confused because the series, and countless shorter-lived teen dramas like them, are such tonal kindred spirits.
At least up until Riverdale ignited the zeitgeist, those series were no longer what the network did best. They were what it did worst. Instead, it excelled when introducing series that completely change the formula on what broadcast TV dares to produce and lean into the genre (perhaps returning to its very first lesson, learned from Buffy the Vampire Slayer).
Crazy Ex-Girlfriend is a musical romantic comedy that tackles mental illness and the female psyche through song. Jane the Virgin is a telenovela, and the shining example of diversity on TV. And a look at the network’s wardrobe budget for spandex reveals an embrace of superheroes and comic book franchises—Flash, Arrow, Supergirl among them—that would have Dawson Leery scoffing in disbelief.
In that vein, what made Season 1 of Riverdale so watchable was less that it was a sexy teen soap, but that it was, in essence, a compelling mystery.
The real lead character of the show, if you think about it, isn’t even Archie. It’s Jughead, who narrates the series as he writes articles chronicling his investigation into the town’s crimes. Based on Thursday’s installment, Jughead, it’s time to punch some of that writing up.