Back in 2016, when I first heard that the CW was planning a ~dark and edgy~ adaption of the Archie Comics, I was skeptical at best.
The Archie Comics are known for being a wholesome, long-running series about all-American teenagers doing all-American teenage things. Turning that into a dark teen drama seemed like a wild and potentially terrible idea (which Cole Sprouse totally thought as well, btw).
And yet, despite all expectations, a few episodes in, I (along with the show’s growing fanbase) quickly found myself looking forward to new episodes week after week.
Against all odds, dark Archie… kind of worked.
Two seasons and several weird storylines later, Riverdale is, unfortunately, starting to look like the bizarre mess it sounded like on paper.
What happened here exactly? What made season 1, despite fewer episodes and a smaller fanbase, such a better season of television? As usual, the devil is in the details.
1. Let’s Hear it For the Girls (or, On the Importance of Female Friendship)
While I wouldn’t necessarily laud Riverdale season 1 as the great new hope of feminism, there is definitely something to be said about the female characters and their season 1 interactions.
One of the most important and dynamic relationships of season 1 was the friendship between Betty and Veronica. As you may or may not remember, this relationship was a lot.
Right from episode 1, Veronica is absolutely determined to be Betty’s friend. She urges Betty to see her self-worth, demands that Cheryl allow her a spot on the River Vixens, and encourages her to go after Archie, in spite of her own interest in him.
By episode 2, when she and Betty have a falling out, Veronica is heartbroken. She tells Archie in one scene,
“It’s like, there was this train heading to the rest of my life. And I just…missed it.”
Depictions of strong, non-toxic female friendships are still something that we need more of on television. The depth of Betty and Veronica’s friendship was one of the biggest highlights of season 1, and sadly, the relationship has steadily become less and less prominent in seasons 2 and 3.
2. Missing: Josie and the Pussycats
Josie and the Pussycats deserve a section all their own here, because honestly. WHAT HAPPENED THERE? Three interesting, badass black women in an all-girl band, who routinely checked Archie on his white male privilege? Talk about Black Girl Magic.
Josie was funny, cool, and above all the nonsense. Val was charming, sweet, and oh yeah, literally had an entire relationship with Archie that the writers completely forgot existed by season 2. And remember Josie’s whole storyline about struggling with her dad not supporting her music?
Yeah, I guess the writers forgot about that too.
3. Here, Queer and Ready to Party… or Not
While the newest seasons have given us the often sidelined Choni relationship and only periodically seem to remember that Kevin Keller exists, season 1 had quite a lot of queerness going for it. The relationship between Kevin and Joaquin, for instance, was a central part of the overall plot, with Joaquin eventually telling Kevin where to find the video that unraveled the season-long murder mystery.
Aside from the clear romance between Kevin and Joaquin, there were also so many hints at potential queer relationships between other characters, that were ultimately dashed in later seasons.
Episode 1 gave us the infamous Betty and Veronica kiss, a moment that, while pretty much pure fan service for the audience, was played relatively straight (sorry) in the context of the show. Veronica doesn’t seem remotely uncomfortable about kissing another girl. When they kiss, the background music swells like it’s the ending scene of a rom-com. Combined with Veronica’s immediate devotion to Betty after they meet, the show could have very easily used this moment to establish Veronica as having a cute crush on her new friend.
By season 2 however, this potentially queer moment is reduced to a piece of sexy trivia for Betty to tell her boyfriend. Oh hey there male gaze, we’d missed you.
And speaking of Jughead, I still haven’t forgotten about the way Riverdale decided to erase his asexuality from the comics.
In early season 1, the potential for it was definitely there. Jughead started off as a snarky outsider whose main interests included sleuthing, writing his slightly pretentious novel, and pining hopelessly for his former friendship with Archie.
When he and Betty got together halfway through season 1, the writers had the opportunity to explore something very rarely seen on television: a relationship involving an asexual person, or possibly even an asexual coming out story.
Instead, as the seasons progressed, this became less and less of a reality, with Bughead becoming more and more of a sexual relationship.
While Veronica and Jughead are probably the most obvious examples of characters who very easily could have ended up being LGBT+, there were definitely other characters with great queer subtext. FP Jones is one example that comes to mind.
Between his convoluted past with Fred Andrews, and that one time in episode 10 where he… kind of just… watched Kevin and Joaquin make out (seriously, re-watch the episode and give me a heterosexual explanation for that scene), FP definitely had the potential to be a rare example of an older, bisexual male character. But of course, by season 3, all of this subtext has pretty much disappeared.
Choni is great when they actually get screen time, but how great would it have been if all of these potentially queer main characters had also made it into seasons 2 and 3?
4. The Power of a Good Story
While the strong female friendships, diverse women, and queer themes played a big part in making Riverdale season 1 such a standout, the other big part of it was that the show was just generally better.
Season 1 was a well-thought-out murder mystery full of exciting misdirects and confusing clues, that all eventually came to the shocking and satisfying reveal that Clifford Blossom murdered his own son. Season 2 was… kind of a mob story, with a weird serial killer, who was sort of bad at actually killing people, and who turned out to be yet another killer dad. Season 3 is a game of murderous Dungeons and Dragons, and also Archie gets mauled by a bear.
Season 1 knew exactly what it wanted to be and the kind of story that it wanted to tell. Seasons 2 and 3 feel more like the writers are throwing darts at a board full of tropes and going “Yeah okay, let’s do that.” It’s basically the difference between clashing patterns as a fashion statement and clashing patterns because you only had five minutes to get dressed in the morning.
With season 3 halfway over, it’s hard to tell if Riverdale can recapture the anachronistic television magic that was season 1. The third season has definitely had its moments, but overall the show is going to have to really work hard if they want to bring that spark back.
In the meantime, I’ll just be here, re-watching season 1 on Netflix, in between looking up Choni recaps.