It was a day like any other. I went about my business, a writer lost in the maddening juggle of shows and movies, looking for some sort of hope or meaning. I was in search of something—maybe escape, maybe some sort of light at the end of a dark, lonely tunnel.
Then, suddenly, there it was … not a light, a TV Show—a show so wild, so gothic and earnest that it went straight through camp into full blown operatic madness. I couldn’t look away. I tuned in to the bonkers midseason finale of a show I’ve watched and laughed at for years, but the laughter wasn’t there this time; it was just joy.
I’d found some hope in this crazy world, and I found it in a little town called Riverdale.
Alright, I’m done channeling Jughead, but purple prose aside, I’m here to talk about a show that I wasn’t expecting to become a highlight of my television week. Somewhere between the nuns involved in testing hallucinogenic drugs based on pop rocks and a gorgeous queer woman shooting people with arrows for funsies, Riverdale stopped being a guilty pleasure for me and became a show I genuinely love and admire.
And I love it for the reason I love a lot of shows: it’s completely off the rails, and it knows it.
Riverdale is a new sort of meta noir, so elevated and timeless that it’s transformative. I’ll admit I’ve never read the Archie comics, but I don’t think the main run had a lot of murder, or cults, or breakouts from gay conversion convents, and that’s fine. Real life doesn’t have juvenile detention prisons named after infamous young murderers, where wardens force their charges into boxing matches. Riverdale doesn’t care at all about being true to anything but its own aesthetic, and because of that, it doesn’t care about limits.
The shows that I really love are the ones that have creativity bursting from every frame. I love shows like Supernatural that can send their characters into a cartoon for an episode, or The Magicians, where a musical number out of nowhere is the least weird thing onscreen. Or, well, the entirety of Legends of Tomorrow for the last two seasons. I admire shows that have fun, and most shows in that vein give a bit of a wink when they get into especially bizarre territory. The thing that makes Riverdale extra special is the absolute sincerity that they put onscreen along with the absurdity.
The prime example of this is season three’s best episode so far, the one that I think really hooked me in: “The Midnight Club.” This episode, where we saw the youngsters in the cast playing their parents in the ’90s, worked on so many levels. It was a homage to The Breakfast Club, and it was a showcase for actors like KJ Apa, Cole Sprouse, and Madelaine Petsch, who did awesome jobs channeling their adult counterparts.
On a recent visit to the set, Marisol Nichols, who plays the present-day version of Hermione Lodge, gushed about what fun it was for her to see her onscreen daughter Camilla Mendes play high school Hermione: “I love that. I loved Cami playing me as a daughter. It was actually really great … I think they did an amazing job. Like from what I’ve understood, that’s like one of the fan favorite episodes ever. It was really fun. It was really fun.”
It was fun, and that’s why it worked. And, in a feat for a meta/stunt episode, it also advanced the season plot—about an evil version on Dungeons and Dragons that’s somehow connected with the local mob—in an interesting way. On paper, a lot, if not all, of what I just wrote shouldn’t work, but somehow, on Riverdale, it does.
So why is that? I think it’s because the cast and crew, though they are aware of how out-of-this-world pretty much everything about this show is, treat the story and their work in it with the utmost seriousness and respect.
I’m not just talking about the writers and the actors, but the directors, production designers, and cinematographers. Riverdale is one of the most beautiful shows on television, thanks to the work of director of photography Brendan Uegama. It looks like a different world, from the colors to the costumes (and yes, the people), and it’s consistently a treat for the eyes.
I bow down before showrunner Roberto Aguirre-Scasca, who, between Riverdale and The Chilling Adventure of Sabrina, has created a timeless, heightened reality where things like teens casually living in burned out mansions, hanging out with demons, and torturing people with maple syrup seem plausible and just part of the texture of that world.
It also helps that Riverdale is under no pressure to be realistic, “serious” entertainment. It’s not a coincidence that so many of the balls-to-the-wall bananas shows that I deeply, deeply love are on “less serious” networks like The CW and SyFy. When the establishment doesn’t care about you—meaning the old school, stuffy tastemakers that give out awards—creators and networks have the freedom to just do whatever. They don’t have to worry about being serious or having that sort of grimdark gravitas that “elevates” high art.
When you’re on the CW, you can have fun, and as a viewer, it’s okay to do that, too. Not everything we watch needs to be Mad Men or whatever prestige drama is getting all the attention these days. With the world as crappy as it is, it’s more than okay to get into something silly, campy, and madcap—it’s necessary.
We all need some dessert in our balanced media diet, and just like I’ve stopped stressing over my daily dose of chocolate, I’m not beating myself up anymore for loving Riverdale. Because seriously, when a show gives you iconic lines like “I’d recognize those abs anywhere,” how can you not love it, just a little bit?
(featured image: Dean Buscher/The CW)
Jessica Mason is a writer and lawyer living in Portland, Oregon passionate about corgis, fandom, and awesome girls. Follow her on Twitter at @FangirlingJess.
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