Riverdale, The CW’s sexy broody Archie Comics TV show, knows exactly where it came from.
It knows the legacy of Archie Comics, and it knows the legacy of the teen soap operas that came before it. And it makes sure its audience knows just how in on the joke it is, with its hyper-referential casting — Archie’s parents are 90210’s Luke Perry and John Hughes’s beloved Molly Ringwald — and its winking dialogue, with Veronica Lodge insulting Cheryl Blossom by calling her “a stock character from a ’90s teen movie.”
But its legacy is clearest in the piles upon piles of teen soap tropes it lovingly amasses and fetishizes and tweaks just a little. Riverdale is built out of all the shows that came before it, all the Dawson’s Creeks and Veronica Marses, and it appears to have learned from what the fan bases of those shows complained about. That’s both a good thing and a bad thing.
Riverdale has zeroed in on all the most compelling elements of its predecessors, and all the course corrections they made that fans loved, and all of the issues they never fixed that fans wished they had, and implemented all of them, more or less at once. It’s as though Dawson’s Creek decided to jettison the Joey/Dawson romance after three episodes and turned its focus to Joey and Pacey, or as though Veronica Mars decided not to kill Lilly Kane after all and murder that snoozer Duncan instead.
But Riverdale is making all those course corrections and changes much faster than its predecessors did, because it has the benefit of their experience. Which means that some of the changes it’s making don’t feel entirely earned.
Essentially, Riverdale broke its Day One premise on Day Two. That’s a much less exciting and compelling move than breaking it three years in. It makes an audience wonder why the show didn’t just begin with the Day Two premise in the first place.
By starting out at the point that other shows took multiple seasons to reach, Riverdale may have cut its own legs out from under itself.
The best part of Dawson’s Creek is watching the show decide that it’s not actually about Dawson
If you ask a Dawson’s Creek fan what the best plot line of the series is, they will most likely point you to season three of six, when Joey (Katie Holmes) and Pacey (Joshua Jackson), Dawson’s two best friends, fell in love. It was compelling storytelling, a long and satisfying slow-burn love story that let two actors with natural chemistry play off each other (depressingly, it’s probably the best showcase poor Katie Holmes ever landed in her career). But it was also a plot line that radically reshaped the show’s structure.
Dawson’s Creek was originally built around Dawson (James Van Der Beek), a character series creator Kevin Williamson readily admits he based on himself. Like the protagonists of most male-led teen soaps, Dawson was unfailingly wholesome and morally upright. His moral compass was so pure and true that he would often sit his parents down to tell them how disappointed he was with their behavior, at which point his parents would usually cry and agree that he was right.
He was, for the most part, an incredibly dull character, and where he was not boring, he was aggressively self-righteous.
Far more interesting were Dawson’s Creek’s supporting characters: Joey, the intellectual tomboy who pulsed with a vague, amorphous anger at everything on the planet in general and whatever she was currently looking at in particular (drink every time “you have literally no idea why Joey is mad,” advises one Dawson’s Creek drinking game), and Pacey, whose wisecracking exterior masked deep wells of self-loathing. (Michelle Williams’s Jen, meanwhile, was tragically wasted.) They weren’t exactly complex, but they were fun and compelling. They had a spark. Certainly they were more interesting to watch than that dull, smug, stick-in the-mud Dawson.
So in season three, the show changed its focus. Gradually, slowly, it pushed Dawson to the sidelines. Somewhere between the time he broke up with Joey in the first episode of that season and the time he found out she was dating Pacey toward the end of it, Dawson’s perspective stopped being the default point of view in every scene he was in. We started seeing the world through Joey’s eyes instead.
By the end of season three, Joey was the show’s protagonist. She drove the plot. Pacey was the romantic male lead. Dawson was just sort of … there.
Since Dawson’s Creek, most male-led teen soaps have followed the same path: Start out focusing on the male protagonist, and then after a while let the driven, compelling girls take over the plot and the protagonist’s charismatic and sarcastic best friend take over the romantic storylines. MTV’s Teen Wolf started out focusing on sweet-natured, not-that-bright teen wolf Scott McCall, but its most recent season was built around school genius Lydia’s quest to be reunited with Scott’s best friend Stiles. The OC was originally built around Ryan Atwood, but at a certain point, Seth and Summer took over the show.
Riverdale decided very quickly that it’s not about Archie. That might not be a good thing.
Riverdale went through the Dawson’s Creek transition at lightning speed. It spent its very first episode paying lip service to the idea that Archie Andrews (K.J. Apa) would be the center of the show, the morally upright protagonist around whom all else would revolve. Then almost immediately, Archie was banished to the show’s dullest side plots, having torrid and boring affairs with teachers and worrying about how he’s good at both sports and music. (Incidentally, being good at both sports and music was Zac Efron’s entire character arc in the High School Musical franchise.)
Meanwhile, Betty (Lili Reinhart) and Veronica (Camila Mendes) devoted themselves to investigating murder (Betty) and their parents’ shady financial dealings (Veronica). Betty got together with Jughead (Cole Sprouse) — revamped from the comics’ burger-obsessed asexual into a broodingly sarcastic writer — and shippers immediately dubbed the pair Bughead and started filling Tumblr with fanfiction and GIF sets and analysis devoted to their romance.
Before the end of its first season, Riverdale was already officially a show where the girls drive the plot, the ostensible protagonist’s male best friend drives the romance, and the protagonist is just kinda there. It went through the transition that Dawson’s Creek spent three seasons on in less than 13 episodes.
In a lot of ways, that’s a good thing: Who wants to spend three seasons focusing on a boring character and wasting the fun ones on subplots? But it also means losing the fun of watching the show redirect itself.
A big part of the pleasure of Dawson’s Creek’s third season was that it felt as though you were rooting for the underdog. According to the laws of television, it seemed inevitable that Joey and Dawson would eventually end up together — that was, after all, the premise of the show — but wouldn’t it be great to see her with someone else for a while? Wouldn’t it be great to watch Joey and Pacey come into their own instead of living under Dawson’s shadow?
Season three of Dawson’s Creek wasn’t just great because it featured a well-crafted, well-acted love story. It was great because watching it felt like getting away with something. You were watching a show break its own premise right in front of your very eyes, and that was thrilling. Would it really have been that satisfying to watch Joey and Pacey get together halfway through the first season?
If Riverdale were any other show, it would have killed Polly instead of Jason Blossom. It’s both good and bad that it didn’t.
To the extent that Riverdale had a plot in its first season, it was about a group of plucky teens coming together to solve the murder of one of their own. That’s a classic formula that isn’t confined to the teen soap — Twin Peaks practically invented it — and it has a pretty standard victim trope.
The murdered teen is usually a mysterious, ostensibly wholesome white blonde girl with sexy secrets: Twin Peaks had Laura Palmer, the homecoming queen who moonlighted at a brothel; Veronica Mars had Lilly Kane, the brash and charismatic head of the pep squad who was secretly sleeping with her boyfriend’s abusive father; Pretty Little Liars has Alison DiLaurentis, the Queen Bee mean girl who is secretly sleeping with the boyfriend of her friend’s older sister.
It’s a reliably compelling trope, but it has some pretty gross undertones: A lot of its emotional power seems to stem from a desire to both luxuriate in and control the sexuality of adolescent girls. (If she’s dead, she can’t seduce you!) And usually, it means relegating a deeply compelling character to the sidelines of flashbacks and dream sequences, and leaving duller characters in play in the present. Who wouldn’t want a version of Twin Peaks where Laura Palmer got to be active instead of sad, over-emoting Bobby, or a version of Veronica Mars that kept Lilly around instead of Duncan? Pretty Little Liars liked Alison so much that it brought her back to life halfway through the show.
So Riverdale started out ahead of the game. It, too, has a blonde girl who appears to be wholesome but has a sexually charged secret: Polly Cooper, Betty’s sister, is in love with and pregnant by Jason Blossom, who — spoilers! — turned out to be her third cousin.
But Riverdale didn’t kill Polly. It killed Jason Blossom instead.
On one level, that was a productive choice. The audience doesn’t have to feel grossed out about whether or not it’s getting its kicks from punishing teenage girls for having sex. We don’t have to deal with Jason in the present — and thank goodness, because he seems like a pretty boring character. And as a bonus, the move gives more prominence not only to Polly but to Cheryl, Jason’s delightfully nuts Grand Guignol twin sister.
However, it also means that Riverdale’s first central mystery was built around a character who has no apparent personality. Only two characters (Polly and Cheryl) are all that invested in him, and none of the core four — Archie, Betty, Veronica, and Jughead — have much reason to care about him or his death.
The show wants us to care about why Jason Blossom was murdered, but it’s hard to work up any emotion at all around Jason aside from wondering whether his red wig is supposed to look that fake and whether he and Cheryl really were committing twincest.
In other words, it’s hard to love Jason, where it was almost impossible not to love Lilly Kane. It’s hard to find him interesting, but Laura Palmer was so fascinating she got her own spinoff. Riverdale would probably have been a more consistent show if it had sacrificed a more interesting character to the demands of the plot — even if that character was a pretty blonde girl.
Riverdale solved the problems of the shows that came before it. So where does it have to go from here?
If it’s season one and you’ve already put Joey and Pacey together, and you’ve solved a murder absolutely no one cares about but you’ve still got your Lilly Kane alive and onscreen, where do you go from there? What’s left for the audience to root for?
That’s the dilemma Riverdale finds itself faced with as heads into its sophomore season. The show has its romances in place and it’s settled its lackluster murder plot, but it seems to have left itself few compelling avenues to explore in season two. It gave teen soap fans what they’ve spent years clamoring for, but it also closed off potential narrative paths and drained the story of tension.
If it’s not very, very careful, Riverdale might find itself making the biggest and deadliest mistake a teen soap can make: coming out of the gate strong and vibrant and buzzy, and then burning out in season one and limping along as a shadow of its former self until it’s finally put out of its misery. That’s what happened to The O.C. and to Gossip Girl, and even, to an extent, to Veronica Mars. It’s a future that seems dangerously plausible for Riverdale.
To avoid that fate, Riverdale will need to generate new narratives and new tensions out of the tropes it has already resolved. It will have to prove that it knows its teen soap narrative structure even better than it has already demonstrated it has. It’ll have to figure out what to do with a sidelined Archie, and find new ways to keep reinventing the iconic love triangle it’s already blown up and reconfigured.
If any intellectual property can handle the challenge, it’s Archie Comics, which has survived since 1942 by continually reinventing itself. What remains to be seen is whether Riverdale the TV show is as nimble and enduring as its source material.