When it was announced last summer that the upcoming season of Riverdale would be its last, I was — to say the least — heartbroken. Here was a show that was seemingly endless, sprawling across not just six seasons — each of them 19 to 22 episodes a piece — but also a multitude of timelines, approximately 15 main characters, and a countless number of romances, musical numbers, wars, mysteries, and deaths (and some resurrections!). Its Wikipedia page has amassed 209 references and is 23 double-sided pages when you try to print it out. According to IMDb, it has had 51 directors and 28 writers; its cast list was too long to count. Like it or not — and most people are in the ‘not’ category, I’ve learned — Riverdale is a show that has worked hard to become iconic if nothing else. Only an iconic show, after all, could spark as much Twitter debate as Riverdale has, or spawn so much YouTube content which itself ranges from ultra-genuine fancams of the show’s various romances to cringe compilations of the show’s unceasing deluge of bizarre, embarrassing, and lazy creative choices to even, yes, one mediocre SNL skit. Now, we stand just two days away from Riverdale’s last-ever season premiere, with the first episode of Season Seven set to release on Wednesday, March 29. At long last, it will all be over.
Most people are astounded when I let them know I am an earnest fan of Riverdale. I am neither a teenager nor a wine-drunk, soap-addicted divorcée: in fact, my critical thinking skills are (I’d like to think) pretty well-intact, if not over-developed, and the amount of time I spend with TV regardless of that fact is pretty minimal (to be clear, I am not against teenagers or wine-drunk divorcées. We simply reside in quite different demographics). What I do have, however, is an unhealthy, almost primordial need to analyze and pick apart through all of the vast amounts of cultural offal that America produces — its boundless excesses of postmodern schlock. And boy, does Riverdale offer schlock. Buckets of it.
To give you an idea of what I’m talking about, here are my top five favorite Riverdale moments, in full earnestness:
- (This one’s a doozy, but I think it communicates most clearly just how insane this TV series is willing to get.) Season Six sees a whole three different iterations of Jughead interact with each other on-screen: parallel-universe bunker Jughead (who is trapped, essentially, in a spacetime prison and doomed to keep generating new plotlines or else his home universe, Rivervale, which is a parallel universe to our known Riverdale, will run out of imagination, which it uses as some strange form of quantum power to keep itself intact), parallel-universe above-ground Jughead (who is the normal version of Jughead in Rivervale and keeps up appearances topside while his double slaves away at the typewriter down below), and regular Jughead (who is simply traversing parallel universes, no big deal). If you haven’t seen the show — and honestly, even if you have — you probably don’t really understand what’s going on here. But surely you can at least appreciate the sheer madness of it all?
- Season Four’s musical episode is Hedwig and the Angry Inch. I just really like Hedwig, and I’m astounded that they went there. And hey, Cole Sprouse finally sings onscreen. It also contains one of the first references the show makes to the original comic books it spawned from, marking one of its first descents into a blatant meta-reference.
- When the hippie self-help cult in Season Three turns out to be a literal organ farm; hence its title, “The Farm.” It’s just so sickeningly weird.
- When they not only introduce, with no ounce of levity, the legitimate presence of the Christian heaven and hell (complete with Lucifer himself and guardian angels. Sadly they have not had the courage yet to create an onscreen presence for God), but also keep them up as significant players in the storyline for over a season, and counting. In case you were wondering, by the way, Heaven looks like a 1950s diner — a slightly different version of the Pop’s Diner that exists within the actual town of Riverdale — where all of the deceased read comics and sip on milkshakes.
- Season Four, Episode 16 becomes a real-time, locked-room mystery in its last thirty minutes, combining two of my favorite pop culture tropes. It’s also just kind of an explanation of the whole season’s plot, which the showrunners must have deemed too complicated otherwise, which I personally find hilarious.
… And that doesn’t even include some of the show’s more iconic plotlines, such as the whole “Gryphons and Gargoyles” business (a D&D knockoff that is actually a Kool-aid poison drinking cult), the weird “Mothman” moment that I struggle to remember the resolution of, a drug called “Jingle Jangle” that is eaten like pixie dust out of straws, Cheryl being a magical lesbian, Archie going to war and likening it to football, the crossover introduction of Sabrina from Sabrina the Teenage Witch, the superpowers arc, any of the Serpents and Ghoulies bullshit, the ghost diner, or the American Psycho episode. Or the Carrie episode, too. Any of the musical episodes. There’s something in there for anyone to love, really.
This list, I hope, encapsulates well enough what I find so fascinating about Riverdale, and why its endless stores of abnormality were such a comfort to me as I devoured season after season. It’s a show that is seemingly boundless in the things it will try, a perfect demonstration of the “throw some shit at the wall and see what sticks” methodology. Yet there is a strange organization to the chaos, as well; perhaps its the bafflingly profound self-awareness it carries, which comments continuously on the show’s own status as shit-on-wall, or the bizarre, yet strangely successful through-lines (high school, religion, small-town murder, romance, to name a few) that the show keeps returning to. It’s no wonder I was totally riveted for the show’s entire runtime, all 78 hours of all 117 episodes of it. At this point, honestly, I’m more surprised by the fact that no one else seems to be as enraptured with the show’s ballsy esotericism as I am than the fact that I, so outside of the show’s seeming target demographic yet also so in it at the same time, am so captivated by this hot mess of a TV show.
After all, how could anyone not find something to love about Riverdale: it sports just about every single audience-attracting plotline you could imagine. Though initially it may only wear the trappings of a high school drama, and all of the fan-bait that would promise — steamy teenage romance, catty dialogue, musical moments, and choreographed dance numbers, to name a few — it soon branches out to capture a multitude of target demographics. It’s sure to hold onto its younger audience by staying woke, converting Veronica into a Hispanic woman and gradually expanding its LGBTQ representation from Kevin, who starts off as just a walking stereotype of the tragically closeted, musical-loving gay teen, to a whole suite of queer folks who have their own, queer-centric storylines (despite this, however, there is not a single transgender character in the entire show, which I can’t help but note).
As for the rest of Riverdale’s political leanings, the show’s writers are remarkably adept at keeping it as ambivalent as possible. There is both a “good” gang (The Serpents) and a “bad” gang (The Ghoulies), allowing one to carry all the virtues of a non-elitist lower class, and the true community it forges, and the other to carry all of the social ills associated with the ne’er-do-wells who don’t reside in million-dollar homes (namely, drugs, crime, and violence). Similarly, there are both good rich people (Cheryl Blossom, Mayor McCoy) and bad rich people (Cheryl Blossom’s family, Percival Pickens), as well as a confusing third category of rich people whose moral standing seems to shift depending on what the show’s season demands (mainly Hiram Lodge and somewhat Alice Cooper). The rich people and the not-rich people are often at odds with each other, but the conflict always settles in a perfect “true middle” where the audience can be comfortably left rooting for whatever faction they feel most akin to. Furthermore, there are surprising statements made on crime, community unity, gentrification, the humanity of homelessness, and unionization, especially in the show’s later seasons, yet the majority of the show still occurs within beautifully-lit, suburban homes, if not literal mansions; those surprising statements are also predictably made in the weakest and least offensive ways possible. The show leans left to be sure, but for the number of controversial topics it alludes to, it skillfully makes very little actual argument. In a universe where villains can be redeemed by just a few lines of dialogue, and no social issue seems to have any actual, long-ranging consequences, it’s difficult to see its politics as anything but empty posturing. It’s the perfect way to attract a wide variety of viewers while offending as few of them as possible.
As for other venues for audience pandering, the show eventually reaches for it all: sex, violence, choreography, and just about every visual attraction you could possibly imagine throwing at an audience. The amount of musical influence in the show grows and wanes and changes, and eventually, pretty much the whole main cast performs on screen at least once, not just Kevin and Josie (Riverdale’s own in-universe pop star), with choreography and production design of increasing complexity (lights, back-up dancers, costume changes). Then there’s a weird moment around Season Four where the writers suddenly allow the adult characters of the show (as in, the parents of the high schoolers who this high-school drama is supposedly about) to have romantic storylines as well, unlocking a new avenue for uncomfortable make-out scenes that surely must be aimed at a new, older demographic. Similarly, in its most recent seasons, the show has taken to — as mentioned above —establishing Christianity as one of the laws of its universe, while flaunting it quite a bit, too, with onscreen representations of Lucifer, Archangel Raphael, a sorcerer who gains his powers from a pact with the Devil, the Holy Grail, and a countless number of other sacred artifacts. You’d think most of the Bible-thumpers would get scared off by how constantly the show makes its money by objectifying lesbianism for the screen (which is to say that Cheryl has to carry an almost painful amount of steamy make-out scenes), but who else would the inclusion of a literal battle between heaven and hell be aimed toward?
Indeed, in its final seasons, the show becomes most strongly defined by two central elements: the aforementioned rivalry between heaven and hell, which is the central dramatic tension of the entirety of Season Six and is foreshadowed earlier in the series as well, and the show’s roots as a steamy high-school drama. These two elements seem wholly incongruous; in fact, I couldn’t resist placing them in opposition with each other just a few sentences ago. There is, however, more in common between these two elements than one might think, a phenomenon made evident by other pieces of popular media like Stephenie Meyer’s Mormon romance, Twilight, or any number of strangely sexually charged Bible movies. The truth of the matter is that two of America’s largest, yet also mutually exclusive demographics (the Bible-carrying high-school teen is a force to be reckoned with, but also a waning member of the American landscape) happen to have one essential thing in common: chastely repressed sexual desire.
Being able to channel that desire not only reveals a goldmine of viewership, but it also produces a fascinating, very specific type of kitsch that has the potential to be the foundational stuff of cult postmodern filmmaking. Indeed, as these two elements are brought more and more strongly to the fore, Riverdale starts to lean increasingly into its postmodern flair, growing it alongside the show’s accumulation of viewers and seasons.
It was this transformation into total postmodern chaos that initially drew me most towards Riverdale, and it was this transformation that I dutifully charted the progress of. Like any good researcher, I took notes from the very beginning, and the results speak for themselves. For the first two seasons, I somehow didn’t put down a single note, not for any of the 35 episodes, or approximately 1400 minutes, or 23.3333 hours of pure content that I watched through. Season Three (22 episodes, 880 minutes, 14.6667 hours) then received a whole two notes, while Season Four (19 episodes, 760 minutes, 12.6667 hours) got five, Season Five (again 19, 760, and 12.6667) nine, and Season Six (a return to 22, 880, and 14.6667) thirteen. The findings are obvious: as the show progresses, it becomes more and more postmodern and, subsequently, much more interesting.
Furthermore, in the quality of the notes themselves, there was a clearer, more precise turn to be identified. Sure, I put down two notes for Season Three, but the content of them — a comment on a jarring discussion of “ships” and “endgame” within the world of the TV series and a pointed remark on the fascinator Veronica wears during a film noir episode — was lacking, to the say the least, especially when compared to some of the notes I generated later on in the series (you remember the “Top Five” list above, I hope). In Season Four, however, my notes open with a monumental address, in which the writers finally speak through Jughead’s dialogue: “Pulp is not an insult to me” (Season Four, Episode Three).
Pithy though it may be, that quote marks precisely when Riverdale finally understands and admits to what it is, freeing it to fully embrace itself. Seeing as Jughead, who narrates the show via his writing and is also its most postmodern character regardless, what with the strange branding of his iconic crown hat, love of cinematic reference, and general self-aware gloom, is a pretty clear stand-in for the show’s creators, I find it impossible to take that quote as anything but a self-aware jab/defense on the part of the writers towards the boundless ridicule their show receives. It’s open meta-level self-reference, and quite apt meta-level self-reference, at that
From there, the floodgates open. The show increasingly abandons all narrative logic in favor of the audience-pleasing attractions alluded to above, the romances and dance numbers, and gruesome crimes. It destabilizes all of the traditional foundations of plot, from cohesive character arcs to even the basic functioning of space and time themselves. Character urges and moralities change at will, new traits and powers are found and abandoned with incredible speed, and new “rules” for the setting, be they religious, supernatural, or superhuman, can be introduced with no explanation. Time travel, quantum mechanics, superpowers, and various sources of magic all collide with each other in dangerous combinations onscreen, resulting in time loops, parallel universes (hello, three different Jugheads), shadow realms, fictional self-awareness (there exist, within the universe of the show, a series of comic books that describe all of the events that happen onscreen, just like in real life), and no small number of paradoxes. The writers end up boxing themselves into so many corners (and, quite remarkably, successfully avoiding almost all of them. At a certain point, a solid 15% of the show’s dialogue has to be dedicated solely towards explaining away plot holes, and it’s an incredibly efficient 15%) that eventually they practically just admit defeat: “Don’t look at me, I’m terrible with time paradoxes. But maybe that’s just how things roll in Rivervale” proclaims Tabitha in Season Six, Episode 21, after bending time in four or so different ways in quick succession.
All of these shiny new plot mechanics allow for a seemingly infinite amount of fun genre episodes, covering a variety of pop cultural and historical pastiches. Just as the show renders its politics down to surface-level positioning, so too does it simplify significant historical moments like the witch trials, the red scare, and, in its boldest move, even MLK Jr.’s assassination. Each of the main cast dresses up in an innumerable amount of costumes at will, donning the clothing and effects of Puritan settlers, witches, cultists, sixties hippies, pop stars, gang members, 1950s suburbanites, and even their own parents. Meanwhile, the stream of self-conscious allusion and narration is incessant, whether it be the constant in-show betting on the various romantic arcs, openly named “Bughead,” “Varchie,” etc., so as to mimic real-life ship discourse, or Jughead’s tireless narration, or his further meta-commentary via his novels, documentary filmmaking, and comic books, all of which mirror the events of the show itself. From this standpoint, even the show’s essential conceptual standing, as a strange adaptation of one of the blandest, most feel-good pop-cultural artifacts of the ‘50s, begins to smell unmistakably of postmodernism. All of these elements complicate the show greatly and transform it in a way that separates it from most other forms of schlock: rather than simply being trash TV, it is now unmistakably non-narrative, referential, self-aware, surface-level, and pastiche-laden. In a word: postmodern–trash TV.
These two aspects of the show can be difficult to square. On the one hand, it’s unbelievably lazy in how clearly it is simply begging for any audience attention it can get, throwing together shockingly incongruous elements in the attempt to give the show as wide of an appeal as possible. On the other, it seems to be, if not ‘smart,’ then certainly self-aware about it, expending considerable energy to give the show this strange, intellectual twist. As Jughead states, the show is unabashed ‘pulp,’ and unafraid to be so. It acknowledges openly its status as a cheap, syndicated drama seeking attention wherever it can get it, whether it be via a cast of rebooted beloved comic book characters, a convoluted murder mystery plot, musical numbers, gratuitous sex appeal, or politics. Yet it also continuously uses high-brow methods (self-reflexivity via authorial self-insert is not something we typically associate with most TV shows, especially ones of a similar caliber to Riverdale like Grey’s Anatomy or even its more ironic predecessor, Glee) to deliver these admissions of low-brow quality.
Suffice it to close out the argument that the melding of the high- and low-brow, and the tension that creates, is yet another quality that strongly defines the postmodern urge.
I’ll be honest. I don’t know where this leaves Riverdale or where the final season will take us. Sneak peeks of the content to come have left me feeling pretty apprehensive thus far, yet I can still hope for one final blaze of glory for this odd mess of a show. Truly, will the show go down as a trailblazing example of postmodern schlock, which may very well become the standard fare for today’s lowbrow television programming? Or will it simply fade into mediocrity, like any other countless number of CW shows? Will it ever even gain the cult fan following I so think it deserves (if Glee can do it, surely the multiverse-bending Riverdale can), or scrape out any recognition from the critics? Most critical appraisals today fail to see the show as anything but what it pretends to be–a small-town high-school drama. The few that do note its strange complexity are usually too baffled to draw any real conclusions, and I’m afraid I may fall into that camp as well. The only thing I can do is campaign for greater recognition of just how uniquely particular to our time this bizarre piece of Americana is, with all of the irregularity, laziness, brilliance, over-wrought complexity, strange repression, and postmodern schlock of it all.
One thing is for certain: with only one season left to go and very few consequences left to heed, the showrunners could pull off almost anything they’d like (personally, I’m rooting for a Kaufman-esque dive into the inner recesses of Jughead’s mind, something in the vein of Being John Malkovich or Adaptation). I can’t wait to see how far their desires take them.•