Alright, LISTEN UP. This watch-through took me WAY longer than it needed to, so I’m not going to waste time on this intro. I watched Riverdale Season 2. It’s not very good. It had some flashes of brilliance. It reached its peak of intensity and excitement towards the end. I almost liked it towards the end. It’s still excruciating. Let’s dive in.
WARNING: Spoilers ahead because who gives a shit.
When we last left our heroes Archie’s dad was just shot by what we thought was simply a burglar who ends up being someone much more insidious. We know this because Archie saw something in his eyes. Moving on. The rest of the first half of the season centers around this figure, known as the Black Hood (even though it’s CLEARLY a ski mask), terrorizing the town through various violent acts and attempted murders. Archikins and company go full Mystery Incorporated to try to track down and stop this masked hooded deviant and to be frank, I didn’t mind this story that much even though less than three weeks later I can’t remember anything except stupid one-liners, classic cinema references no teenager will get, terrible off-brand company names, nonsensical character arcs and oh wait that’s right this show still sucks. Oh, Archie did organize a vigilante community night watch called “The Red Circle” or “The Red Monty” or something that put out a very homoerotic video threat to the Black Hood. If all that is not enough to convey how frustrating the first half was, let me say I was ACTIVELY CHEERING FOR THE BAD GUY. His quest to “rid the town of sinners” seemed justified to me not because Riverdale residents are terrible, but because they’re boring (and terrible). There didn’t seem to be a shred of nuance or dimension that was added to characters and that’s hard to tolerate after a while. The one thing propelling me on was the mystery of who the Black Hood was, and when it was revealed midway through that he was the school janitor who suffered some traumatic events as a child it was an underwhelming result. I will say, him using Betty as a confidant was effective and did give Lili Reinhart a chance to show some depth.
The second half has an even weaker start with scattered subplots, shady business dealings, Betty’s estranged camboy “brother” arriving, and the widow blossom becoming a . . . er . . . courtesan? The political intrigue of the second season does pick up with the tensions mounting up between the Northside and Southside, but Archie’s dedication to Hiram Lodge, despite his role in the conflict, never gains traction and remains uneven. Their master and apprentice relationship never feel justified because Archie’s loyal dedication feels unreciprocated: the only thing tying them is their shared loyalty to Veronica. Speaking of, the writing of the female characters this season is akin to butchery. Cheryl remains inconsistent as always, going from matricidal control freak to sympathetic oppressed gay icon, to vengeful adult hating archer (thank god she has a hunting cape). Veronica’s scheming along with her ever shady parents goes on way too long, until suddenly when it doesn’t fit her interests (something about a casino). She promptly shows her support for her mom’s mayoral opponent, Fred Andrews, by sleeping with his son. And while Betty did have some bright moments with the Black Hood plotline, her back and forth about her darkness or whatever is never more than a couple inches deep and never convincing. If anything it just plays as a reason to give Betty some out of place over sexual femme fatale scenes (the pole dance scene is the very definition of exploitative). Furthermore, Betty continually flip-flops between motivations. She shuns Veronica because her father’s a jerk only to reconcile with her later (at Archie’s behest) because Veronica can’t help it she’s related to a skeezball. She gives up Chic to the Black Hood, only to sob about his possible death an episode later. Consequence has never been a high priority in this show, but their characters not having the foresight to even contemplate it is lazy and does not create believable tension.
So what are the saving graces, if any? First, Cole Sprouse still kicks ass as Jughead. His skepticism and broodiness is never one note and almost a meta acknowledgment of how bonkers all the goings on are. Luke Perry, Skeet Ulrich, and shockingly Madchen Amick all have great presence this season, especially Amick who transforms from stringent drill sergeant to a mom just trying to do what’s best for her kids. And the prevailing subplot of a town split in two along socio-economic boundaries has so many parallels to modern America it made it the most compelling thing to watch. When Riverdale exploded into riots in the penultimate episode I couldn’t help think about the images and events that occurred in my native St. Louis following Michael Brown’s tragic death. It seems this conflict will continue into next season as Hiram’s Legion of Doom featuring Penelope and Claudius Blossom, that creepy leader of the Ghoulies, the new puppet Sheriff, and Penny Peabody work to put in their for-profit prison, traffic drugs through it, and further marginalize the Southside.
This would actually be an interesting conflict worth watching Archie and the gang tackle, if not for the prevailing theme of teenagers aggressively asserting their agency against any semblance of authority or higher guidance. As a teacher, I love to see teenagers be self-starters and show initiative, but Riverdale takes it to a whole other level (at one point Veronica buys Pop’s for a million bucks, you know, like teens are prone to do). It becomes increasingly infuriating when it’s coupled with an unearned obstinacy towards adults. I imagine the show wants the teens to seem like heroes courageous enough to stand up to their, erm, parents, but to me it only ever came off as arrogant petulance.
I should probably be more withholding of my opinion, as I never really consumed other offerings in this genre, like Beverly Hills: 90210, Dawson’s Creek, or The O.C., but I feel like my exposure to the pinnacle of all teen soap operas, Friday Night Lights, gives me credibility. In the very first episode of that show, you are introduced to teenagers in high school Texas football culture. They’re popular, they’re athletic, they’re sexual, they are practically the center of their little small town America universe. Everyone’s attention and focus are on them and everyone’s sense of pride is reliant on them. But they’ve been in the limelight and at the top of the ladder for so long, so nothing could disrupt that. Until life happens and the quarterback in the first game of the season experiences a career ending and life altering injury, throwing not just that character, but everyone who shared an ounce of atmosphere with him into freefall. That’s consequence. Compelling tension and drama are created when protagonists strive for greatness, strive to assert their will on the world, and then FAIL, only to realize that maybe there was nothing they could have done to change the outcome. The sudden vulnerability jumpstarts genuine self – exploration, which then can eventually develop into a meaningful triumph. A lack of consequence, a lack of stakes, and you just have drama for drama’s sake.
I’ll still watch Sabrina, though.
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