Tue
Oct 10 2017 3:00pm

Riverdale: How Setting Saved the Story and Stole the Show

Major Season 1 Spoilers Below!

Few critics would expect the smartest television show of the year to be a CW offering based on the Archie comics. Not only is the CW's reimagined Riverdale surprisingly clever, but it deserves far more critical acclaim and discourse than its modest success would suggest. Riverdale has two key strengths: the show demonstrates that it understands the need for a TV show to have a greater meaning, and it avoids the pitfalls of many “gritty reboots” by darkening the setting rather than the characters.

Exploring the Narrative Structure:

An overlooked aspect of great television is that it must stand for something. Traditionally, television does not need to have an overarching meaning for it to be enjoyable. A show doesn't need to explore themes or ask probing questions. Far from it. Some of the most popular shows have been freeform, lacking a coherent narrative statement throughout their entire run. However, in the age of binge-watching and “prestige television,” shows have become increasingly serialized—and the nature of it seems to demand a more coherent narrative structure. 

Riverdale lays out its narrative structure as early as the first episode. This is accomplished through the clever use of Jughead Jones as a framing device. He is writing about the disappearance of Jason Blossom, but his interest is not in Jason. In fact, I very much doubt Jughead ever had much fondness for him. Instead, Jughead asks if his town, Riverdale, is a place of safety, a nice place, or a place of evil. How has this town changed by this one brutal murder? 

This narrative trick is a lot harder to pull off than it seems. The showrunners are asking the audience to care about the town in a way that goes beyond simply accepting it as the setting for the story. They are asking them to be invested in the town's soul. This is no easy task, but it is brilliant. 

The characters we fell in love with in the Archie comics are wholesome and spirited. Their adventures have been read by generations. It would be difficult for the audience to suspend their disbelief if these familiar figures turned into antiheroes whose moral struggles dragged the story into the sinister, intriguing world the creators evidently envisioned.

In fact, many characters—such as Veronica—actually receive upgrades to their moral compass. Very few of our heroes are truly tempted by evil. That isn’t to say that evil doesn’t exist among the recurring characters. Jughead's dad, FP, struggles with alcoholism and loyalty to his gang, the Southside Serpents, at the expense of his son, but he is by no means a main character.

Many recent antihero narratives have struggled because they fail to understand their near-theological appeal. While we enjoy the antihero’s action sequences, at the same time, we legitimately fear for and mourn the loss of their very humanity throughout the shows' runs. Viewers want Walter White to mend his ways; they want Tony Soprano to find his redemption. 

In Riverdale, Archie and the rest of the main cast are not seriously tempted. Instead, the town itself is portrayed as being in moral danger.

Place as Character: Riverdale as the Antihero

Who will save Riverdale’s soul? 

This very question is peppered throughout the first season, but there are a few scenes that make it explicit. One scene in the 10th episode features an interaction between Jughead and his semi-estranged father, FP. FP asks, “Why are you writing about the Blossom kid murder? Who do you think did it?” 

This conversation is, of course, skirting along the edges of the fourth wall. The murder mystery in Riverdale is genuinely compelling, and the writers likely hoped the murder mystery would generate exactly the kind of buzz and speculation it did among viewers who imagine themselves as armchair sleuths. 

On another, less-clever show, Jughead might have run through the case for each potential suspect, letting the writers encourage, or even engage, fan speculation. Instead, Riverdale’s Jughead has a more interesting answer: “I don't think the question is whodunit,” he tells us. “I think it's whether Riverdale is a place of goodness or darkness.” 

This is a sly wink from the writers. Enjoy the murder mystery, they are instructing the audience. Debate the suspects. Look for your answers. But the “whodunnit” is not what’s really important in Riverdale.

Eventually, it is revealed that Jason Blossom was murdered by his own father to cover up his family's dealings in heroin. This isn’t necessarily portrayed as sad for Jason Blossom—even in death, poor Jason isn’t a real presence on the show; nor is his pain, although real, the emotional core of the story. Other than his sister and fiancée, very few characters were emotionally affected by Jason Blossom's death. Rather, they saw the brutal murder as a jolt to everything they thought they knew about their hometown. 

The characters finally crack the case through the discovery of a thumb drive that shows Clifford Blossom shooting his son on video. The viewer does not see what’s on the video initially. Partially, this is to make for a great commercial break, but the camera also shows their horrified reactions. The cast looks away, covering their eyes, gasps, and retches.

Death, the show suggests, is a part of life, but this is no normal, ordinary death. Knowing that not only was Jason Blossom callously tortured and killed but his own father was the culprit—and for no higher motive than greed—is an even more horrifying shock to their worldview and the larger community. 

Although, really, we should have guessed this had started with the Blossoms. When their Blossom mansion, Thornhill, is initially introduced, it exudes menace in an almost comically Gothic way. However, despite the campiness of the rich family living in a creepy, isolated, and haunted mansion where they do Terrible Things, Thornhill seems to be a genuinely bad place. In fact, Thornhill is an infection site for Riverdale. All the evil that's spreading through the town—heroin addiction, increased crime, murder, a loss of innocence—comes from this place, a cancer on the once-good, once-beloved town.

In the final episode, Betty Cooper makes this connection between the Blossoms and Riverdale even more explicit:

“Riverdale's the people. Jughead Jones is Riverdale. He's the very soul of Riverdale. Archie Andrews and Veronica Lodge are Riverdale. Kevin Keller is Riverdale. But the truth is, Clifford Blossom was also Riverdale. ...We're at a crossroads.” 

Community can be wonderful, Betty suggests, but it can also be corrupting.

The surrealism of the show is one of the more fun aspects of viewing it, but it's also surprisingly grounded at times, which is why Betty's “we” is much more expansive than it seems. Riverdale was created in the comics to be a generic, American Midwestern town—like the ones our parents, the government, and the media raised us to love even if we've never been south of Pennsylvania. While Riverdale is not a political show, we no longer love these all-American Midwestern towns in the same way. Now, especially with the opioid epidemic, these towns are increasingly thought of as despairing, dangerous, and even infected. Riverdale's moral crisis draws in the viewer because even if we've never been to Riverdale, we've been to a place like it, and we want to feel safe there. The characters on Riverdale feel this disturbance even more acutely.

In an act of desperation, Cheryl Blossom burns down Thornhill mansion. She tells her mother “it's the only way we can be cleansed.”

While on a less-capable show this would simply be an indication of Cheryl's descent into madness or pyromania, the show's atmosphere almost makes this seem like a good idea when looked at in a certain light. After all, if Thornhill brought in the drugs that affected the town, if it has been the site of murders and badness, couldn't its vanishing from the landscape bring the town some release? Isn’t infection sometimes cured by amputation?

Alas, the shooting of one of the few unequivocally good adults on Riverdale—Archie's father, portrayed movingly by Luke Perry—in the town's beloved diner seems to suggest this gesture was in vain, that the town’s malady has spread into its bloodstream. As Jughead tells us through his voiceover narration, “This was the exact second that last bit of Riverdale's innocence died.”

The showrunners have promised an even darker return. I hope for great things from the Season 2 of Riverdale because this well-but-quietly-received season of television did something in Season 1 that few shows manage to do in even a hundred episodes. It made us care about a place, it promoted an antihero narrative without betraying our essential faith in the main characters' goodness, and it answered its own central question.

Riverdale is a dark place that has lost its innocence. It is a town where father kills son, where the drive for profit poisons our relationship with family and friends, and where no space is safe or sacred from the violence that surrounds it. And while, of course, the show wouldn't be as thoroughly enjoyable as it is were this not true, the viewer does mourn the loss of our wholesome working-class town.

While we'll all tune in to watch the darkness take it away from us, as viewers we do hope Riverdale can someday be ”cleansed" of its evil. And in that way, the soul of the town is still at stake going forward into Season 2.

 


Erin Lavitt is a proud AmeriCorps alumnus, state university graduate, and master of arts candidate. She writes novels, essays, bad poetry and is the proud owner of a long-haired cat named Simba who thinks he is a golden retriever.

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3 comments
1. E.K. Senter
"Midwestern"? The comics Riverdale is clearly set in the northeast. There are a jillion stories where they surf at the beach, visit New York, etc. I can't say your other points convinced me in regards to the show being much more than the standard enjoyable teen soap that it is, but that's something.
Adam Wagner
2. AdamCWagner88
@E.K. Senter: Actually, the comic version of Riverdale isn't set in any specific location. There have been several conflicting details of Riverdale that have placed it anywhere from the Midwest to the Eastern Seaboard to wherever. I think Erin's point is that it is supposed to feel like a generic town, which is often portrayed as being vanilla/safe, leading to her point of comparison about the current ethos of these towns and communities and how the show portrays the drugs and danger often present.
3. E. K. Senter
@AdamCWagner88: Regarding that Wikipedia entry--If Riverdale was ever shown near a desert, it was as a one-off joke. The norms are a four-season area with mountains, beaches, lakes, rivers, farmland and woodland, and specific parts of New York and Massachussetts mentioned as close by. The Archie company is hazy about the location so that all readers can identify with Riverdale, but it's obviously the northeast; all Archie scholars agree on that. And John Goldwater only said he based the characters on people he knew in the Midwest, not that Riverdale was set there. (Putting aside the fact that Bob Montana is generally regarded as the true creator of the characters.) Comics Riverdale was also shown as fraught with danger and criminals (if not as much sex) so it's not like there's anything revelatory about the tv version. It's just good campy fun.
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