In season one, episode one, Veronica Lodge (Camila Mendes), the new girl, walks into the strangely nice lounge for a public school and claims to her new friends, “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?”
No, Veronica Lodge, you cannot, especially when you exist in a show like Riverdale that simultaneously memorializes egregious teen drama attributes and rejects the quality adaptations the genre has accumulated over time.
“Riverdale” attempts to liberate itself from the “tired dichotomy” of indie and teen drama but proves that, in fact, no, a show cannot be “all things at once” (except if it includes James Franco).
Commonplace in many television dramas is the over-characterization of the protagonists. Characters become caricatures of themselves, traits become comically overshown, and thus, their actions become predictable and mundane. Veronica Lodge, the formerly mean popular girl who’s seen the error of her ways, has now moved to a different town where she hopes to leave her cruelty behind. Archie Andrews (K.J. Apa), the jock who wants to also pursue music, struggles to balance his two passions. Both of these can be seen in countless television shows and films featuring teenagers. The recurrence of these characters seen in media over the decades makes no action from them surprising.
Is it surprising to see Archie pursue a toxic relationship with his music teacher? With the pressures of pleasing his sports-loving father and the repressed passion he’s had to hide, it’s no surprise that Archie’s subconscious would lead him to act in this way. Is it surprising that Veronica kisses Betty (Lili Reinhart) in order to grasp the attention of the head cheerleader, Cheryl Blossom (Madelaine Petsch)? No, because Veronica is the girl with a past track record of risk-taking and a thirst for danger. Veronica and Archie’s decisions are completely predictable, most of which is because of their overtly simplistic, exaggerated and previously seen personalities.
The faulty characters are also due to poor application of the source material. The “Archie Comics,” first published in the 1940s, followed the misadventures of Archie, the lovable jock, and Jughead, the nerd with a large appetite, as they traversed through the challenges of high school. These stories were universal, fun and lighthearted.
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As a television adaptation, “Riverdale” takes these classic, buoyant stories and darkens them, leaving only a personification of the characters behind and an almost total annihilation of the original plot themes. Certain characters are nothing but shells of their former selves, notably Ms. Grundy (Sarah Habel). In the comics, she was known as the lovable elderly teacher always on the lookout for mischief. But in “Riverdale,” she causes the mischief rather than thwarting it, throwing off a beloved character dynamic between her original character and the original teenagers. Her storyline, along with others in the show, destroys the original innocence of the comic series.
The attempt to modernize the cherished comics is not altogether a poor idea. The comics themselves have adapted over time (“Archie Comics” introduced the first gay male character with a solo series in 2011), but they’ve also continued to maintain the tone of the original series. “Riverdale” darkens the tone but still attempts to grasp on some of the more lighthearted traits (Pop’s diner, Veronica’s old-fashioned pearls, etc.). This results in a show that misunderstands its source material and facilitates confusion with fans of the comic books. In this way, “Riverdale” continues the precedent of many teen dramas, developing a story based off of pre-written work — but does so poorly.
The show’s attempted modernization forgoes one very important characteristic of today: feminism. “Riverdale” has so many female characters and the potential to make them powerful role models, but instead portrays powerful women as evil. Cheryl Blossom, whose troubles include her brother’s murder and abusive parents, has the capability to be a really great antihero, a character audience’s hate to love.
But the show also needs a protagonist to balance her out, a woman equally as strong with a firm sense of morality. That should be Betty Cooper. The one time Betty attempts to stand up for her sister and other women, she almost murders a man because she doesn’t understand how to control her power. This could be a great storyline of women learning how to be powerful responsibly, but this is the only instance, at least in season one, where Betty attempts to take charge.
It’s important for popular shows to tackle issues like shaming women for their sexuality, but the show does so by making women out to be psychotic.
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Many teen dramas today have no problem promoting female equality and strong women. It hasn’t always been this way but other shows have improved, so why does “Riverdale” have such a hard time? It could be because of the ambiguous time period or maybe its because their female characters just aren’t written capably and originally. Season 2 has moved in the right direction but there is still room for improvement.
The show’s take on a modern teen drama under-develops everything teen dramas get right and over exaggerates everything they get wrong. Despite all this, it still remains an incredibly popular show with a large fanbase. It’s impossible to deny the edgy appeal of a small town murder mystery, even if it is unoriginal. Frankly, the show should stop pretending to be bringing something new and accept its place as one of the many teenage dramas on television. Then can it attempt to reverse its flaws generated by rejecting the institutional genre.
Towards the end of season one, Jughead Jones (Cole Sprouse) rebels against his stereotypical high school party claiming, “I don’t fit in. And I don’t want to fit in”. Well unfortunately for Jughead Jones, “Riverdale” does fit in, and where it doesn’t, it is flawed.