Riverdale: The Ultimate Frenemy

Photo courtesy of Netflix

Photo courtesy of Netflix

By Grace Gay


Riverdale premiered its second season Wed. October 11, and yet again, no one was surprised to spend an hour feeling annoyed, lost, and vaguely amused.

The last season of everyone’s favorite dark version of Scooby-Doo, set in a world with only neon lighting, ended with the murderer of Jason Blossom finally being revealed. No one was surprised to discover the culprit, nor was anyone truly worried about the stakes of the cliffhanger ending. This episode, just as inconsistently paced as the rest of the show, opened the new season with the barest thread of ‘conflict’ in the form of a lost wallet and friends comforting each other.

We all have that one frenemy, and Riverdale is the ultimate frenemy. From the grab bag of plots, the weird emotional beats, and the slight incestuous undertones, everything about it serves to frustrate viewers into wanting to throw the nearest object at their screen.

The main critiques of Riverdale are that no one can act and it’s poorly executed, even if the intentions are good (ie the episode “Body Double” about slut-shaming, which was its heart in the right place but fumbles around with its delivery). Many of the episodes remind me of the structureless episodes of Buffy (though a much less intelligent version). It feels half-executed, like a draft of something that could actually be engaging. 

There’s little subtlety in the writing - the show is written in a nowhere land of honesty, where people say what they’re feeling and do things clumsily. The plots, the emotional beats are always less complex than expected. The creators pretend there’s this grand, intricate mystery within the plot and the characters. It’s a way of writing that banks completely on emotions, relies on the presumption of an emotional connection with the characters *because reasons*, without doing the work to develop that, as if by casting attractive people, they think they can hit all the normal notes without evoking emotion.

This only contributes further to a larger, general problem: inconsistent tone. The most marked example of this is how Jason Blossom’s sister, Cheryl, is written.

Cheryl, red-haired, red-lipped, dewy-eyed, cast as a spoiled, odd girl never fit right in the beginning of the show. Everything about her, from her character design to her flawless makeup to her duality and instability screams that she is a villain. But throughout the first season, she was cast as a mean girl level antagonist, not the true Cersei Lannister type of bad that she exudes.

The most complex, argument inspiring, and ultimately just fun characters are always villainesses: Cersei, Bellatrix Lestrange, Harley Quinn, Anna Karenina.

The potential villainess within Cheryl was wasted through the whole first season. There’s nothing wrong in showing her humanity- seeing Cheryl heartbroken over the death of her brother, struggling in what is the most traumatic time in her life is powerful. But it’s framed in such a way that she is lost as a character, subdued in her sadness. The thing is, you don’t need to be a ‘good guy’ to have humanity.

Now, maybe Cheryl is characterized well. She’s lost, doesn’t know who she is, and in emotional hell. She’s pushed to the villainy of the season one finale where she set fire to her family home. In this recent episode, it was revealed her mother was gravely injured in this fire, and we see Cheryl threaten her as she lies in the hospital. And that level of intense, entertaining villainy can make this upcoming season, not to mention the entire series. Just let Cheryl be the villain she was meant to be.

The truly troublesome effect of tonal disparity in characterization ends up wasting the potential in the characters and in their relationships.The best moments in the season premiere are where Archie is supported by his friends. You can see the growth of their relationships, especially his with Betty, so clearly in this episode.

Those kinds of scenes, those relationships, have made Riverdale a favorite of many, and why people keep returning. I’m hoping for the characters to be justified by their own narrative, for their ideas and wants to stop being stepped on by clumsily executed Days of Our Lives plots.

Because a well-executed plot with character relationships that feel genuine? That’s Buffy level.

Steven Norwalk