‘Riverdale’ is Too Much, and That’s Why I Love It
I can’t stop talking about one moment in this season of Riverdale, the CW’s teenage answer to the sprawling, ensemble-cast soap operas of old. The blonde, beautiful girl next door Betty Cooper (Lili Reinhart) has long preferred mystery, murder, and serial killers to football games and pep rallies. When we first meet her in the pilot, she holds back her anger by digging her nails into the palm of her hand hard enough to draw blood. Since then, she’s been more welcoming to “Dark Betty,” as she’s dubbed herself, joining a gang and crowning herself Riverdale’s lead detective.
So it’s no surprise that this season she enlists in something called Junior FBI classes, led by Charles, a character who is both her half-brother and brother-in-law thanks to some intergenerational love affairs. In their first class, Betty picks killer after killer out of a lineup just by looking at their photos. She just gets the mind of a psychopathic murderer. Because, as Riverdale reveals in a blurry, slow-motion flashback to last season, Betty has the serial killer genes.
It is an incredibly over-the-top moment—and a diagnosis that science does not substantiate—in a show that’s full of over-the-top moments. My boyfriend gave up on Riverdale in season three, because “it’s just too much!” But “too much” is the precise reason I can’t stop watching.
Given my age, I’m more an expert in Riverdale than the original Archie comics. Beginning in the 1940s, the series’ first run (through June 2015) published more than 600 peeks into life with Archie Andrews: love triangles with Betty and Veronica, marrying one of the members of Riverdale rock band Josie and the Pussycats, and milkshakes at the local diner Pop’s with his best pal Jughead. That’s in addition to the Life with Archie series, which I haven’t read but which allegedly features longer, more dramatic stories, perhaps closer to the action in Riverdale.
The TV series has brought a renewed interest in the comics, as well as the entire Archie canon. There are now many more neon-based graphic novels focused on Archie, Jughead and Riverdale, as well as my personal favorite, Afterlife with Archie, in which Archie must save the town after a zombie bites Jughead. The darker, more supernatural-focused stories often cross over with the reimagined Sabrina the Teenage Witch series, set a town away in Greendale, which has also been made into an incredible and dramatic Netflix show, The Chilling Adventures of Sabrina.
The national Riverdale obsession is clearly very strong. After a very solid 13-episode first season, made far better with strong performances from the teens’ very famous parents (RIP Luke Perry), 2.34 million people tuned into the season two premiere and watched actual live television on the CW. The show averages a million live viewers every Wednesday night. Considering the show’s audience is mostly teenage and college-age women, I’d argue that’s huge. Except for sports, I, a nearly college-age woman, have only watched live television once in 2019, and that was the Little Mermaid Live on ABC, which I watched with my mother.
Camp with Archie
So, what’s all the fuss about? The first season of Riverdale is a little wild—when we meet Archie (KJ Apa), for instance, he’s in the throes of an affair with the school music teacher—but it’s well plotted, tight, and incredibly addicting. The later seasons admittedly go off the rails, and it’s how we end up here: Archie starts a crew of masked crime-fighters. Riverdale’s cheerleading squad has all-black uniforms on-hand for funerals. Chad Michael Murray plays a cult leader. Papa Poutine has a son named Small Fry. This universe’s drug of choice is Jingle Jangle, an ode to the original Archie incarnation and also something every actor has to utter with a straight face. Betty pole dances for a gang initiation while mostly singing “Mad World.” (A reminder: these characters are in high school!)
But these are actually examples of the show’s ability to stick to its central tenet: camp. The idea of being “too much,” absurd, outrageous, over-the-top, playful but ambitious, out-of-date to the point of amusement, high meets popular culture, “camp” is really just an art-world word for the drama I look for in all my media. I like big risks and even bigger reactions by very beautiful people, ridiculous moments that the shows still treat with full seriousness.
And I cannot stress this enough: Riverdale commits, executing its plentiful soapy tropes with complete sincerity. Twins, faked deaths and serial killers abound, and fans love a good cliffhanger ending. Like the Hatfields and the McCoys, our teen heroes have parents with shared histories, which only cements the small-town drama infiltrating their lives. It gives a much older, more storied feel to the intergenerational conflict. A really fun and well-executed episode in season three flashes back to 1980s Riverdale, where the teen cast plays their parents’ characters in a very Breakfast Club Saturday detention, and fans see just how long serial killers have plagued their little town.
But what keeps Riverdale from being, I don’t know, Dallas, is its commitment to the past, giving every scene a vintage feel without sacrificing any iPhones. Winking at the past is baked into camp, and given the wholesome nostalgia of the Archie comics, Riverdale is well-positioned to draw on its roots. It’s why everyone is fine with weird names like Jughead Jones (Cole Sprouse) and Ethel Muggs (Shannon Purser, aka Barb in Stranger Things) and why nearly every older actor was made famous by something nostalgic, cherished, and good.
Mädchen Amick (Alice Cooper) was Shelly Johnson in Twin Peaks, Mark Consuelos has been the king of All My Children since I’ve been alive, and Archie’s parents, Luke Perry and Molly Ringwald, need no introduction. Skeet Ulrich (Scream, The Craft) plays Jughead’s dad—a duo I would support in literally any scenario—and there’s a great scene in season three where the town thinks he might be the murderer, and he creepily climbs through Betty’s window, because you’re like, “He’s that guy from Scream who climbed through Neve Campbell’s window!” And it’s perfect!
But Riverdale turns nostalgia into darkness, changes a good-natured moment into something sinister. A particularly cherished first-season scene comes during grumpy Jughead’s very lovely birthday party. Betty, a main character in most of my favorite wild Riverdale moments, sings a very Marilyn Monroe a capella rendition of “Happy Birthday”—one that in another show would be positively romantic. But this is Riverdale; and so Betty is spooky, very unself-aware and “haunting” according to Jughead.
It’s a great little moment that gets at the heart of what makes the show so beloved: Riverdale is the witchy, tarot- and serial killer-obsessed, Phoebe Bridgers character we’ve all seen on Instagram in show form. It’s mainstream enough, while embodying all of the outrageous, often horrific, things we wish we did in high school, starring people who look incredible while doing it. (Pun intended; there are Shondaland-level sex scenes.) Or maybe I’m projecting. Let’s just say you’re much stronger than I if you can learn of a teenage gang run by King Skeet Ulrich and not die to be a part of it.
If I have one complaint, it’s all the musical numbers. At least once an episode, someone breaks out into a theatre-kid version of “Jailhouse Rock” during a football game at the local juvie, and I uncomfortably scroll through Instagram until it’s over. And I get it: singing is extra. But for some reason that’s where I draw the line.
For every other moment, though, I’m 100 percent committed. As Jughead extremely earnestly declares himself a “weirdo” in the same birthday episode where Betty sings, I feel his angst in my soul.
“In case you haven’t noticed,” he laments in the scene that was instantly a meme, “I’m weird. I’m a weirdo. I don’t fit in. And I don’t want to fit in. Have you ever seen me without this stupid hat on? That’s weird.”
But I’m not that weird or different; I, along with a million or so other people, deeply love a teenage noir soap opera that airs on TV that you can watch with an antenna. And if you’re reading this, Jughead Jones, I’m absolutely available to join your gang.