The finale to Riverdale’s first season proved that the CW series is exactly what the viewing public needs right now. In a world that feels increasingly like the beginning of a post-apocalyptic drama, Riverdale provides escapist TV that is simultaneously absolutely bananas, yet grounded in reality. It’s the perfect campy “Oh, my God” television show we need to survive this nightmare hell dimension we’ve somehow found ourselves in.
Archie Comics has long published grocery store fluff. Since the 1940s, Archie’s been popular reading for a reason — you can pick up a Betty & Veronica double digest, Archie’s Pals ‘n’ Gals or classic Archie and instantly know where you are, thanks to the comics’ familiar character archetypes and simple plots. You don’t need to have read every Archie comic ever in order to keep up with continuity — all you need to know is that it’s about America’s favorite teenager in a small town where Cheryl Blossom wearing a bikini to the beach is a scandal. In Riverdale, life is simple.
But simple doesn’t cut it anymore. In 2015, Archie saw his comic book world rebooted by Mark Waid and Fiona Staples, with a new look and focus. Nostalgia was no longer enough, the publisher decided; readers needed more than just a love triangle and milkshakes at Pop’s. In the pages of his new series, Betty and Archie break up, for real, modern reasons (I’m not going to spoil it for you — read the comic, it’s excellent). Jughead owns his asexuality. Continuity finally matters. In short, Archie got real.
Real is scary, though. It feels like the news gets more absurd every day, as tragedies and political scandals come one after another after another. Real is recognizing that the world is slowly turning into The Handmaid’s Tale, a series I still haven’t watched because I’m honestly afraid I’ll recognize too much of our current world in that misogynist dystopia.
Scripted television (and any story, really) has always been escapism, and that’s not a bad thing. It gives us an hour to breathe and think about something other than how messed up our lives might be. It teaches us empathy. It reminds us that the world is not black and white, and more importantly that things will usually turn out okay. Archie Comics were escapist fantasies in which a klutzy dork somehow managed to make not one but two amazing women fall in love with him. In the terrifying hellscape we now inhabit, though, they’re too foreign. We know nothing is that simple and easy, so we can’t fully throw ourselves into the story. That’s where Riverdale comes in.
Riverdale is Twin Peaks, The OC, Gossip Girl, The Breakfast Club and The Virgin Suicides. It’s all this and more. It takes what you know about the town with pep and its denizens, and twists it around. Betty in Riverdale is my childhood Barbie doll, with perfect hair and perfect pink lips — after I ran her over with the Barbie car. Riverdale has Alice Cooper wishing someone would burn in hell in the first five minutes of the first episode. Archie bangs Ms. Grundy. Veronica threatens Cheryl with a reckoning like she’s stepping straight out of the Bible. There are literal snakes in the Southside Serpents bar. This show is as bananas as bananas can be, but it still has an element of naturalism that keeps it from being too wacky. It’s just wacky enough that I can find that escapism I need.
Riverdale keeps from going too off-the-wall by maintaining some semblance of the real world. Josie and the Pussycats explain white privilege and racism to Archie. Veronica becomes a victim of slut-shaming. Kevin Keller and his dad talk about how much it can suck for cute gay guys to find a boyfriend in small town America. Archie’s still dealing with his parents’ divorce, and pretty poorly at that. Jughead was homeless, living in the drive-in and then in the high school before Archie and Fred Andrews took him in. The problems of the real world still exist in Riverdale, they’re just overshadowed by decades-long blood feuds, the neo-Victorian horror of Thornhill, twincest and regular-old incest. And those real-world problems can get solved! The girls band together to fight back against misogyny and the tragedy of teen male masculinity, Kevin dates a cute guy in a leather jacket before he takes off for San Junipero, and Riverdale’s Scooby Gang solves a freaking murder. This is the kind of hope we need right now.
It’s amazing that Riverdale’s main plots are so absurd that Betty Cooper making the most adolescent statement about her and Archie having found the people they’ll be with for the rest of their lives was the shocking scene that made my friend text me while he was watching the finale. By making the rest of the show so over the top and campy, those bits of normalcy when Archie and Veronica make out, or Jughead eats a burger, those are our moments of escapism. The show treats its core murder investigation with the same importance as Jughead being forced to attend a different school, so much so that Archie and crew literally run down the halls trying to get to their friend as soon as they hear the news.
— Camila Mendes (@CamilaMendes) May 12, 2017
Riverdale is exciting and wild and wonderful. It lets me live out my misandrist fantasies through Dark Betty stomping on Chuck Clayton’s head, and reminds me that teenagers just want to have fun and drink milkshakes. It knows the stakes are high, in the show, in our lives, and provides us with ways to escape life and ways to deal with it. If you’ve got your friends, a booth at the diner, and a burger on your plate, things are going to be OK.