“Riverdale demonstrates what progress in media should look like—experimental, well-intentioned, and willing to take risks.”
Episodes Reviewed: Season 1
Creator: Roberto Aguirre-Sacasa 👨🏽🇺🇸
Writers: Comic by Roberto Aguirre-Sacasa 👨🏽🇺🇸, TV scripts by various including POC and women
Reviewed by Li 👩🏻🇺🇸
Riverdale features a bizarre and soapy plot with the strangeness of Twin Peaks, while updating its older roots to target a young, modern demographic. Its best attributes include the diverse cast of likable characters and lovely cinematography that juxtaposes sickly greens against dangerous shades of red and pink to give the series its dark, teen-horror vibe. But unfortunately, it drops off a cliff for me there.
Midway through the season, I was just starting to get invested in the lives of Betty, Veronica, Jughead, and others. But the simplistic dialogue and telenovela dramatics quickly began to subsume the more refreshing, pulp aspects of the show. Boorish writing, a near-pathological focus on relationships, and laughable events that lacked the tongue-in-cheek quality found in earlier episodes presented a tipping point for Riverdale—a fulcrum between a campy, teenage horror dramedy or an unwatchable chore that belongs on daytime television. I hate that the season ends on the latter note.
Does it pass the Bechdel Test? YES
Ladies get plenty of screen time and are represented with brilliant diversity. Not just racial diversity, either; we’re shown a range of age groups, socio-economic backgrounds, personalities, strengths, and vulnerabilities. It’s a relief to watch a program that doesn’t diminish women in screen time or characterization, and I enjoy all the different dynamics on display—mothers with their daughters, burgeoning friendships, frenemies, teammates, platonic friendships with men, and of course, romances.
True to any drama, these relationships are the heartbeat of Riverdale and the show succeeds in portraying the full scope of both positive and negative relationships that individuals accrue throughout their lives.
One of my favorite things about the CW, and about Gen Z overall (7-21 year olds right now) is how they embrace racial diversity with little fanfare. It may have something to do with altered demographics—for example, Gen X’ers (now 38-52 years old) went through school with the country roughly 80% white,* while Gen Z kids (now 7-21 years old) currently see an America that’s only 61% white.**
As a result, shows with young target demographics tend to be more diverse, and Riverdale follows suit with confidence. Specific roles that are strong on Race:
- Veronica Lodge, originally white, is now Latina played by Brazilian actress Camila Mendes
- Reggie Mantle, originally white, is now played by half-Dutch, half-Indonesian actor Ross Butler
- Josie of the Pussycats, originally white, is now black and leads the all-black Pussycats.
- Multiple interracial relationships, treated as the non-events they are
I will note that the complexity of the background characters still need to be developed—in particular, the black men portrayed so far have been the most obvious misstep, which writer Monique Jones touches on in her piece, ‘Riverdale React: So…let’s talk about Chuck Clayton.’ In no 21st century universe will it be comfortable to see a black man in manacles as a white woman steps on him, saying “good boy”. I understand the provocative angle Riverdale was going for, and it usually works, but this was a major overreach.
Kevin Keller is a confident, multi-layered character who happens to be gay. So why did I only score Riverdale with a 3.5/5 in this category? Perhaps I’m being greedy, but simply having a white, male, homosexual character is no longer the groundbreaking role it used to be. I look for diversity in storytelling, and this particular experience has already been covered through a plethora of roles such as Kurt from Glee, Sonny and Will in Days of Our Lives, or entire programs dedicated to this minority group such as HBO’s Looking or Queer as Folk which aired nearly two decades ago.
Meanwhile, we already have the perfect vehicle for examining modern sexuality through Jughead, who is canonically asexual in the comics. Yet in Riverdale, we see him awkwardly smashed together with Betty in a romance that feels rushed and superfluous. Even if I was okay with the casual deletion of an asexual character, there has been no legwork whatsoever in establishing Jughead’s attraction to Betty or vice versa, adding insult to injury. The sad part is, I would actually buy a Betty/Jughead romance if given enough shared scenes, dialogue, chemistry, and time…none which were afforded this onscreen relationship.
Mediaversity Grade: C+ 3.50/5
This show demonstrates what progress in media should look like—experimental, well-intentioned, and willing to take risks. Riverdale infuses the cast with a plethora of ethnicities, many of them in major roles, while gay males are also featured in a positive light. The show gets most of it right and should be applauded for trying, despite its many missteps that can be ascribed to being actually problematic (changing Jughead’s sexuality to straight), generally sophomoric writing (one-dimensional portrayals of black men), or both (Betty’s weird dalliance with BDSM in episode 3).
I sincerely hope this show can veer back towards its excellent hook of being Veronica Mars with the eeriness of Twin Peaks. I think of all the soap operas and The OCs and The Hills that have come before Riverdale, and no matter how wonderfully diverse and likeable the cast is, no amount of overstuffed romances or thinly-established feuds will save it from itself.