With loose ties to ‘Archie’ comics, ‘Riverdale’ is a self-aware and engaging drama for teens and adults alike.
In just the first season of the CW’s Riverdale, we see a father murder his own child, a teacher with a false identity have a passionate affair with a high school student, a man thrown in prison for a crime he didn’t commit, and a vengeful daughter burn her family’s beloved estate to the ground. In the hands of producers who didn’t understand the ridiculous nature of such a melodramatic and implausible tale, the show would’ve been a disaster. After all, the source material — the long-running Archie comics — bears little resemblance to Riverdale in either tone or narrative. But with a straight face, the show gives us subtle hints that it’s in on the joke, and it’s the reason I’ve continued to tune in week after week.
“From a distance, it presents itself like so many other small towns all over the world. Safe. Decent. Innocent,” narrator Jughead Jones says in the opening moments of the series’ first episode. “Get closer, though, and you start seeing the shadows underneath. The name of our town is Riverdale.”
As we’re introduced to Riverdale’s cast of characters, there’s a sense of familiarity for anyone who’s ever read the Archie comics. Archie has his famous red hair. Betty is the peppy “girl next door.” Jughead is never without his crown-shaped beanie. But this familiarity is merely a technique the show uses to lure in curious viewers, ready to reveal its ridiculous and macabre interior. Yes, Jughead still loves eating cheeseburgers, but he’s also dealing with a drug-dealing gang who had a role in an innocent child’s death. I don’t remember reading that in Jughead’s Double Digest.
Protagonist Archie, whose part is somewhat diminished compared to his role in Archie comics, has had the most obvious change, and it’s where Riverdale’s straight-faced silliness is most apparent. No longer the goofy teenager forever longing for the hearts of both Betty and Veronica, Archie is hot and is in an affair with the music teacher Ms. Grundy before the show even begins. In the Archie comics, Grundy was an elderly woman. Nearly everything else about her is the same, including her glasses and her choice of dress, but this is the CW, and Riverdale needs steamy romance from the get-go.
And while the Archie comics typically deal with superfluous events like the prom or a football game, Riverdale simply doesn’t have time for this level of superficiality. There is a murder or robbery in the tiny all-American town nearly every week, and corruption runs through every facet of government. With the exception of Archie’s father, the parents in the show are either completely apathetic or actively evil, and only the students of Riverdale High seem capable of restoring order and uncovering the truth about the town’s seedy underbelly.
The biggest conflict Archie ever faced before was whether or not he wanted to put both ketchup and mustard on his hot dog at the pool’s concession stand. It’s nothing short of ludicrous, but this is completely intentional.
The show’s social media presence displays a level of self-awareness not seen in other dramas, teen or otherwise. Its Twitter account posts GIFs of its most “dramatic” moments with jokes and pseudo-outrage. Jughead actor Cole Sprouse pokes fun at its dead-serious marketing campaigns and the steely-eyed gaze of his own character. When he waxes poetic on morbid topics like the loss of innocence and the injustices we let occur in our own lives, he does so without cracking a joke, but it’s clear he’s ready to burst into laughter at any moment.
That, however, is a release only the audience has the luxury of experiencing, and it’s effective because the characters don’t acknowledge just how absurd each situation is. They tackle every conversation with sincerity, but this is only because the characters’ own jokes would begin to break the fourth wall; we don’t want to laugh with Jughead, but with the writers behind Jughead. For those of us who grew up reading the Archie comics, we’re even given our own series of inside jokes that seem innocuous to outside viewers. A stimulant dubbed “Jingle Jangle” begins making its way through the local high school, putting students’ lives in danger, but “Jingle Jangle” was originally a song performed by Archie’s rock band back in the ’60s animated series. Every time we see a familiar character or element, we know there’s going to be an unexpected twist, whether it’s Betty’s dark alter-ego or Archie’s descent into armed vigilantism.
None of this is to say that the characters in the show aren’t relatable: far from it. They do still feel like their comic counterparts, albeit with more “adult” issues to deal with. Betty is ready to give her best effort in anything she does for her friends, and Veronica’s mysterious, occasionally vindictive persona acts as a fine foil. This characterization is part of what makes the show’s dark humor work so well. The town of Riverdale is filled with loving, kind children who were somehow immune to the evil influence of every adult they ever met. The characters exist as snapshots of the past placed in a modern world with modern issues.
If Riverdale existed just to be mocked and laughed at, I never would’ve kept watching the show. It has become much more than that, blending its satirical take on classic American imagery and character archetypes with relationships we can genuinely care about. And through my howling laughter, I still need to know what happens in the following week’s episode. Jughead is right — get closer to the town and it will reveal not only shadows but a level of self-awareness and character development unlike anything else on television. Riverdale is cheesy. I know it, other viewers know it, and most importantly the creators know it, and by leaning into what critics might otherwise mock, we’re able to appreciate both its lightest and darkest moments.