If I were to posit that “Riverdale” is the smartest teen show of our time, I would get more than a few laughs. After all, this is the show with levitating cult babies, mass seizures, a giant monster named the Gargoyle King, and a juvie fight club, all within the span of a few episodes.
The writers are certainly not Hemingway.
But they just might be Shakespeare.
Yes, it’s wild. It’s ridiculous. Most of the storylines are not even related, to the point where characters who are supposed to be best friends barely interact for episodes on end.
In fact, all of the main characters seem like they’re in different TV shows. Jughead is in some kind of private detective noir. Betty is in an actually pretty good CW version of Nancy Drew where she’s also got to deal with family drama and romance. Veronica is in a teen “Dynasty”, or a later season of “Gossip Girl”. Archie is in a different Netflix rom-com every week, playing whatever the hunk is that film – the football star, the singer, the juvie bad boy, the rugged nature scout. Cheryl is in a dark teen musical satire like Heathers or Carrie (very accurate choices for the show’s musicals) – over the top, dramatic to the point of being cartoonish, yet still dark.
And all of them are playing it completely straight.
The show does not require good acting (sorry, Lili Reinhart, your talents are wasted) – it’s driven instead by wild storylines and a strange nostalgic style that seems to drive shows into Halloween costume-level success. It doesn’t even need good friendships – Betty and Veronica and Jughead and Archie rarely have scenes together, unlike the Serena and Blairs and Liars of the previous teen dramas. Relationships are the same – Archie and Veronica’s relationship is entirely based off sex and 1-2 teary phone calls, while Jughead and Betty act more like adult-in-teenage-bodies cop partners than boyfriend and gilfriend. Cheryl and Toni probably have the most substance, actually discussing real issues in their relationship- yet still, they often act more like posing Victoria’s Secret models than an actual couple.
Yet people still care – people ship the hell out of these characters. Why? Because they rely purely on the precedent of teen dramas before them. Good girl meets boy from the wrong side of the track; rich city girl falls for townboy; high school princess falls for the last person you’d expect; we’ve seen it all before. We don’t even need scenes of actual substance between any of them – we’ve got that association to love these couples just because we always do.
Which allows the show to satirize these kinds of relationships – by showing that people will still ship them even with zero substance and increasingly ridiculous situations. Veronica’s father tries to have Archie killed, and then puts him in jail. Jughead brings out a literal dark side in Betty, who dons a dark wig, becomes a cam girl for an episode, and does a striptease to become the “queen” of Jughead’s gang. Cheryl and Toni rob houses for fun, then create their own all-girl, school-sanctioned gang, then both get involved in a cult. Somehow, we still find a way to see these relationships as real.
It’s not just relationships, either. There a million tropes that are satirized – to get information, Betty and Jughead continuously meet the creepiest coroner I’ve ever seen, who is such an over-the-top character that if he had been on similarly soapy mystery Pretty Little Liars, people would’ve thought it was too much. Veronica is clearly the “boss bitch” character – the show pushes this even further by making her the literal owner of multiple businesses as a high schooler. Cheryl is the mean girl with a heart of gold, and she has some of the most over the top lines I have ever heard in my life.
Yet it’s like we hardly notice – because we’ve come to expect nothing less.
Don’t even get me started on the adults – besides for Fred Andrews, a bona fide good father (who we will miss dearly), they are the most ridiculous characters I have ever seen. The show takes the “parents are the enemy trope” and puts it over the top. Hal is a serial killer. Alice is a cult leader’s wife who gives away Betty’s college money (although it later turns out she’s actually pretending and is an FBI informant). FP runs a gang of literal teenagers with names like “Sweet Pea” and “Fangs,” along with his own son Jughead. Penelope is yet another serial killer, and also happens to run a brothel. Hiram Lodge is a drug kingpin and murderer. Again, we accept it all without question.
This brings us to the true genius of the show – it may be a satire, but it’s still attracting the very same fans of the exact shows it satirizes. It does their tropes so well that it can’t help but not – riding on the success of these earlier teen dramas, it doesn’t even need to be earnest or trying to say something or even emotionally resonant. It just needs to be interesting. And it’s made itself immune to the critique many of its precedents faced – by training the audience to expect the ridiculously implausible, nothing it does is seen as too far-fetched. It’s impossible to jump the shark, because the very universe they’ve created jumps the shark, and has from the start. Next season, Archie could be manning a spaceship next while Dilton Doyle’s ghost diffuses a bomb hidden in Hal’s casket, and nobody would bat an eye.
Shakespearean dramas were also seen as soapy and low-class in their time. Shakespeare made up ridiculous insults and words that would not sound out of place coming from Cheryl’s mouth. Half the adults were murderous. Young lovers did completely unrealistic and foolish things in the name of “true love” that actually had very little substance. And look how his stories appreciated today.
Okay, maybe it’s a stretch. But one thing’s for sure – “Riverdale” is much smarter than anyone gives it credit for. The writers are very well-versed in their subject matter and their audience, and they’re mocking us and what we’re willing to accept. But they’re doing so without any sort of judgement or real goal – we’re all just having fun together. And there is something so refreshing about something that has no agenda but fun in today’s world.
I don’t know about you, but I can’t wait to see what happens next.