Three seasons in and Riverdale is still going strong. Despite its branding as guilty-pleasure TV, critics have been kind the show, a teenage-noir reboot of the Archie comic books. It’s been called “daring” and “addictive” but also “odd.” That’s fair enough. Faithful fans of the comics might be perplexed or even alarmed given how many scenes open with Archie working out shirtless and, you know, all the murder. From the get-go, it’s clear that Riverdale isn’t the Archie Americans will remember reading in the grocery store check-out line.
Show creator Roberto Aguirre-Sacasa has turned a piece of classic Americana on its head. Though Riverdale retains the retro feel of the comics, it explores the darker aspects of contemporary small-town America. Still, the result is more true crime meets Gossip Girl than Leave it to Beaver. The show’s charm lies as much in its self-awareness as the over-the-top storytelling and tendency to riff on American pop-culture. It’s a tricky balance. Luckily, the leads have all the acting chops they need to pull it off.
The show opens with narrator Jughead Jones writing a book about the events of the summer before his sophomore year. True to the source material, girl-next-door Betty Cooper pines after Archie Andrews, albeit secretly. Oblivious, Archie is drawn to sophisticated new-girl Veronica Lodge. Veronica and Betty become fast friends, completing the classic love triangle and frenemy-ship of the Archie comics. That’s where the similarities end. As Jughead explains, the idyllic town of Riverdale is still reeling from the apparent drowning of Jason Blossom, twin brother of queen bee Cheryl Blossom and heir-apparent to the family’s maple syrup empire.
Archie and his pals head back to Riverdale High, hoping to get back to normal—whatever that is. Veronica's move to Riverdale, it turns out, is the result of her mobster father's incarceration. Jughead works to distance himself from his father’s legacy as an alcoholic and leader of biker gang the Southside Serpents. Betty's sister Polly is spirited-away by their parents. Cheryl might be hiding something about her brother’s death. And Betty and Jughead are determined to get to the bottom of it all. You know, normal teenager stuff.
Betty’s plot to teach her sexist classmate a lesson, which ends up awakening her inner dominatrix, Dark Betty.
Jugheads narration in episode 9, which begins “Thicker than blood, more precious than oil. Riverdale's big business is maple syrup…” Somebody, publish this kid already.
Life gets even more complicated for Archie and friends in Season 2 when a killer calling himself The Black Hood launches an assault on Riverdale. Jughead’s father, F.P. Jones, is in prison, framed for the murder of Jason Blossom. A popular, dangerous drug called Jingle-jangle (try saying that with a straight face) is becoming an epidemic. Everything the town of Riverdale stands for is under threat.
Desperate to keep his friends and family safe, Archie forms a vigilante gang (as one does). Jughead is in foster care and enrolls at Southside High School, home to the underage members of the Serpents. Betty continues her sleuthing, becoming ensnared in the Black Hood’s plot. When Archie starts working for her father, Veronica tries to reconcile her family’s unsavory endeavors with her own morals. And tensions run high—well, higher—as Archie’s father and Veronica’s mother run against each other to become mayor.
The full-on musical episode culminating in a high school production of Carrie, The Musical that goes more Phantom of the Opera than Glee.
Veronica’s Catholic Confirmation, attended by her entire extended family, complete with Godfather references, a cheek-pinching abuelita, and a musical performance by the guest of honor.
Archie and friends are in for a wild ride. Archie is on trial for murder and Veronica is fighting to prove his innocence. A Scientology-esque collective called “The Farm” has moved to Riverdale and into Betty’s living room. And if that isn’t enough drama for one season, Jughead discovers the bodies of two classmates in the woods, victims of a ritualistic suicide pact gone wrong. And Riverdale High is turned upside down when a table-top game—hilariously called “Griffins and Gargoyles”—spreads through the school like mono.
There’s a theory that the bonkers storytelling and shifts in style is less the result of actual events and more of Jughead’s attempts to discover his personal writing aesthetic. The only way the plot of this show could get any more outrageous is if it turned out to have a supernatural or paranormal element, a la The X-Files. Is this a set-up for a Chilling Adventures of Sabrina crossover? Is the Gargoyle King a vengeful demon? We can’t wait to find out.
Riverdale’s love of pop-culture references really shines this season, particularly when the main characters play their parents in a John Hughes-inspired episode. Never before has there been such perfect parent-child casting in a CW show.