Even without seeing more than an out-of-context clip or gif, it seems like everyone has an opinion on the CW’s Riverdale—and they’re mostly negative. This isn't new behavior, of course. It’s a cycle that has been repeated over and over again with shows of similar aesthetics. Any time a trailer drops for something geared toward teen audiences, starring teens or appealing strictly to a female demographic flurries of responses fill social media timelines parroting some version of the expression, “this looks like a CW show.” For whatever reason, referencing Riverdale or the CW is used as shorthand for “bad,” and it shouldn’t be.
For the uninitiated, Riverdale is a modernized retelling of the squeaky-clean Archie comics first published in 1942. Archie Andrews, Betty Cooper, Veronica Lodge, Jughead Jones, Cheryl Blossom, and all of the rest of the inhabitants of Riverdale are now dealing with issues bigger than which girl Archie was going to take to the beach party like wealthy murder mysteries, students having affairs with teachers, organized crime, incest, shirtless vigilante justice, blowing up houses, public execution, masked slashers, cults, drug smuggling, and organ harvesting (sometimes set to song). It’s no surprise that the series is one of Netflix’s globally most-watched shows.
Unlike the majority of current popular teen-centered series’ like 13 Reasons Why, Love, Victor, Trinkets, etc. Riverdale is not trying to be a moral compass for its viewers. Instead, the show is embracing the roots of melodramatic teen shows like Gossip Girl or Pretty Little Liars and amplifying the ridiculousness with a healthy dose of Twin Peaks-esque surrealism and soap opera theatrics. Riverdale knows exactly what kind of hot mess it is, and it’s weird that so many other people not only don’t realize it, but criticize the show for leaning into its absurdity.
There are constant meta-in jokes, like Jughead imagining a world where the show looks more like the All-American comic book series or the admittance that the show is essentially a walking meme with Jughead’s now iconic “In case you haven’t noticed, I’m weird. I’m a weirdo. I don’t fit in and I don’t wanna fit in. Have you ever seen me without this stupid hat on? That’s weird,” speech. If Riverdale was going for realism, it would just be Degrassi: Next Generation with a new coat of paint and some references to an old comic-book series--but it’s not. It’s swinging for the fences and leaving behind any semblance of reality in favor of celebrating camp and schlock.
In a purely visual sense, Riverdale is one of the most ambitious looking shows on television. The show is constantly playing with color theory depending on what mood or genre inspires the episode, the lighting feels like Argento by way of LED TikTok filters, and the camerawork is always on point. Brendan Uegama, won a Leo Award in 2018 for his cinematography, and it shows. Every frame of Riverdale is intentionally stylized, even taking inspiration from the bold saturation and contrast in colors from the comic book Archie After Dark. It just seems odd to use “looks like Riverdale” in place of calling something “bad,” when the show is incredibly aesthetically pleasing.
As for the writing, there is truly nothing like Riverdale. The storylines are constantly pushing the boundaries of creativity, and the dialogue ranges from cringe-worthy to absolutely iconic. Jughead provides permanently self-aware deprecation like, “sardonic humor is just my way of relating to the world.” Archie Andrews’ offers lovable airhead retorts like saying “that means you haven't known the triumphs and defeats, the epic highs and lows of high school football,” to someone in prison who dropped out of school in 4th grade to run drugs in support of their Nana. Cheryl Blossom consistently delivers gnarly roasts like calling people “catatonic bimbos” or “living mannequins.” Veronica effortlessly weaves humblebrags and brand names into any situation, and Betty stays closest to reality by delivering the deep and meaningful quips gif’d and Tumblr’d the world over--even if she’s also the character who once did a pole-dance strip tease to a cover of her singing Gary Jules’ version of “Mad World.”
Riverdale is surely not a show that’s going to appeal to everyone, and the brilliance of it is that it was never trying to be. It’s telling that one of the biggest pop-culture punching bags is incredibly popular with women and the LGBTQ+ community, but that’s a bigger discussion for another day. But in a world where mass-marketed films and television shows are becoming more and more diluted in order to appeal to the widest net possible, it’s “cuckoo bananas” to see a show for teens that couldn’t give a single milkshake covered care about whether or not you like it.
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