When I first started watching Riverdale, I was enthusiastically intrigued to explore this Gothic take on the idyllic American town. Sure it was campy, but that’s usually how these shows are, and if anything it gave me warm reminders of watching Smallville when I was younger. The premise of doing a stylized neon bathed noir featuring the characters from the Archie comics seemed like a fresh re-purposing of a popular franchise. But if you followed my previous reviews my interest devolved into frustration due to unrealistic teenage agency and over-exaggerated plot-lines. I wasn’t planning on doing my summer review of Riverdale. Season 2 was enough to kill any justification for my annual hate-watch. Then I kept seeing tweets about this most recent season like the following (SPOILERS AHEAD U JAGS):
RIVERDALE SEASON 1: Archie plays football but he also wants to write songs!
RIVERDALE SEASON 3: The Gargoyle King has reemerged in order to reclaim his blood debt
— Dana Schwartz (@DanaSchwartzzz) May 2, 2019
The allusion to a larger, more ominous, potentially otherworldly threat was something that I previously alluded to as perhaps being necessary for the show to gain momentum. Even I couldn’t resist a tease like that. Maybe this new baddie will turn Riverdale around?
Narrator: “It did not.”
It turns out I was wrong (listen, it’s happened before). In fact, I’m pretty sure nothing has been more difficult for me in my life than trying to get through Season 3 of Riverdale (I suppose I’ve lead a pretty good life). But what stood out the most to me was not necessarily my growing frustration with the dialogue, or characters, or plot lines, or everything, but how much I longed to go back to Stranger Things, a show that also just released its third season, is also known for its stylized aesthetic, and also has young characters trying to save a typical US suburb filled with mostly unaware adults. Stranger Things succeeds in every way above Riverdale carried by the naturalistic performances of its actors and more cohesive storylines.
In retrospect, Stranger Things does have the advantage of being less serialized. Having a bulk release of all the episodes forces writers to have plot lines that flow more seamlessly. Plotlines drop like flies in Riverdale which leaves the whole story in disarray and leaves viewer just as frazzled. Additionally, the characters on Stranger Things are more enjoyable to watch because of their inherently low status. The D&D party has never had the positive attention of their peers and has always seemed on the fringes of the social circles of Hawkins Middle. This feeling of isolation extends to the adults; Joyce is coping with life in constant fear for her boys but now without the comforting presence of superhero Bob Newby, Hopper is dealing with the fact that he’s all of a sudden not the most important male figure in El’s life, heck, even Mrs. Wheeler is searching for real meaning in her role as a wife and mother. For real, there was more development from Mrs. Wheeler with her reverse Mrs. Robinson scenario with Billy than with any character from Riverdale. Former high school nobles aren’t invulnerable either; Nancy has to face good ol’ fashioned workplace misogyny during her internship at the local paper, and Steve is going through a real existential crisis, partly due to his good looks and charms being rendered ineffective post-graduation, mostly due to his shame over not getting into college. On top of all of that, the protagonists are pitted against each other in hilarious and heartfelt ways. Will has to confront his friends growing out of their old interests faster than him, Mike has to figure out how to win El back while not letting Hopper kill him, Nancy and Jonathan have to come to terms with their different economic backgrounds, and Joyce and Hopper have to deal with what Murray refers to as “sexual feelings”. The characters face multiple real-life struggles from positions that are extremely sympathetic, all while taking on Russians and an inter-dimensional malevolent creature. Having so much interpersonal tension bubbling beneath the surface of the main conflicts make for characters that you want to watch and cheer for. The characters from Riverdale started from a convincing place, but that soon devolved into Archie trying to break out of a prison that’s forcing him to participate in an underground fight club, Veronica trying to financially outmaneuver her father through her underground speakeasy/casino, and Betty trying to take down various corrupted religious-based rehabilitative centers.
Oh, and the Gargoyle King. Listen, it’s still unclear to me who the Gargoyle King is, or what he represents, or how he operates, or why I should care about him in the slightest. But I do know that he comes from the fictional role-playing game “Gryphons and Gargoyles” and somehow utilizes the mania surrounding the game to encourage impressionable teenagers to commit heinous acts under the guise of the game. It’s unclear whether or not the show wanted to play off of the resurgent awareness of tabletop roleplaying games, likely influenced by Strangers Things, and pay homage to the unjustified hysteria games like D&D caused. Regardless, this and other thematic elements expose the show as painfully unaware of its own conflicting messaging. A lot of time spent by the Riverdale gang is commenting on the frenzied nature of those playing the game or those involved with the various religious groups introduced in the show. But the show very rarely aims its critical lens at its own protagonists. The heroes and heroines of Riverdale high form gangs and take on abusive adult structures constantly, but rarely is it approached with a bit of nuance. They’ve held the moral authority from the beginning without any real threat to their sense of identity or understanding of the world. I get it, parents just don’t understand, but the amount of parent versus child conflicts this season is ridiculous (thank God for FP and Fred, also RIP Luke Perry). It becomes hard to root for a character when you are always certain that they will get the upper hand, and it’s even harder when they know this as well. Shoot, the most compelling storyline this show had was Archie being torn between his music and a path that his father believed would be more stable. But that was back in the first season, before G&G, before the Gargoyle King, before juvie and illicit secret fight clubs, before conniving adults vying for control of some candy drug empire, before all of this.
Listen, I get that these shows exist in two different genres and it may be unfair to compare the two. Riverdale is supposed to be bonkers. It’s supposed to be melodramatic. But when characters are either placed in completely unbelievable situations or have become so mind-blowingly unlikable, even a task like a mindless Netflix binge becomes like pulling teeth (it’s worth noting I couldn’t finish this season). Instead, take the highway west, erm, east, erm…where the fuck is Riverdale anyway…just drive down the highway to Hawkins, Indiana, a town plagued by dark psychic forces, but full of real, honest to goodness, genuine people, just trying to figure out why their magnets aren’t working.
Hawkins: 3, Riverdale: 0
…Oh, but The Midnight Club episode is pretty good though.
I feel ya, Joyce.
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