RIVERDALE? River-fail. And that’s just a mere taste of the level of teeth-clenching cringe you can expect from the script.
Based on the renowned Archie Comics franchise which began in 1939, Riverdale (The CW, exclusive international broadcast rights to Netflix) follows small town life after golden boy Jason Blossom mysteriously disappears, leaving a bereaved twin sister and a whole host of unsolved questions.
I started my Riverdale binge the way anyone should – downloading episodes from Netflix to tide me over on a long car journey. And I’ll be honest – Riverdale was my chosen escapade because of Cole Sprouse and Cole Sprouse alone. If you, like me, grew up hooked on reruns of The Suite Life of Zack and Cody, you may empathise with my curiosity at his return to have another stab at acting.I don’t say “stab” lightly, but all in all, Sprouse’s portrayal of loner teen and show’s narrator Jughead is still as good as it gets. The rest of the cast boasts dull characters and Hollyoaks-style throaty breathing and melodramatic frowning, but the most painful scenes are mostly owing to clunky scripting. Lili Reinhart and Camila Mendes spout sugary-sweet and predictable dialogue as female protagonists and frenemies Betty and Veronica. Jughead is more interesting, but appears half as frequently as Archie (unsurprising, owing to the title of the show’s inspiration, but still frustrating).
I’ll be fair: my thirteen-year-old self would have been transfixed: reminiscent of Twilight for its abrupt romances and small-town mystery-horror vibes, 90210 for its lip gloss and cat fights, and High School Musical for its peck-flexing male lead in an eternal conflict between heart/head, music/sport… It’s perhaps a sure fire hit for tweens. But it’s simply a big soupy mess of teen television. It is Gossip Girl without an edge (if Gossip Girl had an edge?), it is Revenge, Glee, John Tucker Must Die, or Pretty Little Liars a few years too late. If the target audience was meant to be adult, I’d be wary – they’re missing the mark.
…It’s missed in more ways than one. Clichés roll in faster than you can say “Jason Blossom was found dead in Sweetwater River” (which actually isn’t very fast if you’re drawling like Sprouse). The girls are ‘girly’ and heartbroken. Everyone is well dressed. A new kid moves from New York and stirs up the social hierarchy. Everyone is slim built with prominent cheekbones and eyelashes ready to knock someone clean over. There are appropriate heterosexual love triangles, and each character angsts politely around the others. You needn’t try hard to literally guess the next line: corkers like, “I know what we have together!” to “Coach says I could make captain of the football team!” to “If you’re really my friend, you’ll let it go” made me roll my eyes right out of my head.
That said, there is some effort to be “modern” and relevant. At times Riverdale seems self-aware, perhaps realising the dangers of being based on a longstanding comic. The series is unashamed of being a direct and obvious product of 2017 – including a surreal mention of Netflix, for example – and does try to chime in a voice or two of social progress. One episode tackles slut shaming and online harassment (“buy her two plane tickets back to NY – one for her, one for her eyebrows”), and another one deals briefly with suicide.
However, other moments remain grating. Archie patiently and ever-so-graciously listens to singer Josie’s reasoning as to why he can’t write her songs.
“This isn’t L.A. or New York. This is Riverdale. And people’s minds are opening up, but do you have any idea how much hate mail my mom got when she was elected mayor? Do you know why we’re called the Pussycats? Because we have to claw our way into the same rooms that you can just waltz into. So if you think that you can just write my experience…”Yet minutes later he suggests a new lyric which goes into the final cut of their song, heralded as a resounding improvement to the track. LGBT+ representation is almost non-existent, aside from Kevin Keller, Gay Best Friend, and there are no POC in lead roles.
Reasonable drama and mild horror retains attention, but a stilted use of flashbacks leads to information pile ups, and ultimately a lack of tension. Besides, it’s difficult to feel the eerie mystery of a murder when you’re just sure Archie (KJ Apa) is about to burst into song like a 2017 Troy Bolton. Basketball, soccer, same difference.Yes, the end of the fourth episode almost had me in tears, but that emotion may have been caused by built up frustration – from the huge waste of lip products piled onto Cheryl Blossom (Madelaine Petsch)’s mouth. If they were going for classic, they’ve landed with dated, and so many moments warrant mouthing “What? Why?!” All the pop culture references in the world can’t save them there.
A confession: although I have a headache from the number of eye rolls provoked in the first five episodes, I am indeed persevering until I find out who killed Jason Blossom. Overall, I came for Cole Sprouse, and I shall stay for Jughead – but truthfully? That’s about it.