Cast & creators panel at SDCC 2017

Peter Edgar

Like several teen heartthrob telenovelas before it, Riverdale is back for a third season. The series’ first and second series are available on Netflix, and the CW, its network, uploads each new episode of its third season to its website.

Riverdale is a loose adaptation of Archie Comics, which have been in print since the 1940s. Its characters have been the subject of anything from high school prom-posals to FSC students’ Halloween costumes and big-little reveals.

The show, which began in 2016, mimics the dark, murder- and teen sex-filled auras of other serials like Freeform’s Pretty Little Liars. It also features the foreshadowing- question-asking narrator (Jughead Jones, played by Cole Sprouse) and virally attractive parents like Gossip Girl and, somehow, the musical numbers of Glee.

Riverdale has, predictably, come under similar criticism as other teen dramas. The series depends largely on loosely coherent plot points, actors much older than the ages of the actual characters (season three begins their junior year) and their sexualization.

One place the show has been simultaneously praised and challenged is in issues of diversity. Casting in the show represents Latin American, African American, Asian American, Native American and LGBTQ+ communities, but some viewers and media outlets
have questioned whether the amount of character development given to each group
is enough.

To Riverdale’s credit, the manner in which the relationships between Betty and Jughead or Archie and Veronica is portrayed is distinctly, if unrealistically, positive. Though each couple has an occasional spat, within another episode friendships are restored and everyone’s
forgiven the others’ faults, even if it was kissing another member of the friend group or covering up a murder.

Sometimes, too, Riverdale is strange. Product placement is usually straightforward, as when Veronica buys Archie a new set of Adidas sneakers or when a character’s Instagram story is front and center on-screen. Other times, brand names are skewed, like someone’s “Share-BnB” or when Cheryl foregoes Pop’s Chocklit Shoppe (described as “the heart of Riverdale”) for “TGI Thursdays.”

What’s really strange is this season. From here on out, reader, there’ll be spoilers.

In the wake of the Betty’s father being a murder, Mrs. Cooper, Betty’s mom, urges Betty to see a therapist instead of self-medicating.

The latest episodes continue to allude heavily or draw directly from other TV shows: a Riverdale version of Stranger Things’s Dungeons and Dragons, Gryphons and Gargoyles, becomes a central plot point and leads to an Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt-like bunker. The person that Mrs. Cooper recommends Betty speak to is a member of a cult-like organization called “The Farm.”

By these means, Riverdale has turned the corner from a “meddling kids unmasks the villain” beat to something much darker, blatantly suggesting at supernatural forces that aren’t as easily beaten by a group of teen sleuths. In the same vein, Riverdale is joined by another Archie Comics series this October, just in time for Halloween—The Chilling Adventures of Sabrina, based on the comic line Sabrina the Teenage Witch, on Netflix.

Sabrina could be rightly dubbed both a revamp and a spin-off. In 1996, ABC aired Sabrina the Teenage Witch; it ran for seven seasons. Sabrina opens with the title character deciding whether she will go through with what her family expects of her: to sign the “Book of the Beast” on her sixteenth birthday. In essence, her journey reflects a conversion experience,
the decision of one to become a member of a church: except the church isn’t one of God’s, but one of Satan’s.

The show takes a distinctly supernatural twist to the teen drama: instead of gangs and serial killers, the dangers are witches, goblins, the “Dark Lord’ (Satan) and curses. Both season three of Riverdale and the first few episodes of Sabrina feel groundbreaking in a way.

Both breached the boundaries of what is “normal” for teen entertainment, approaching it from two perspectives. In Riverdale, animism and cult ritual is a dark, imposing evil, and in Sabrina, witchcraft is just another step in a teen figuring out who they are as a person. Both put the viewer in a deeply uncomfortable place, and appeal to the parts of us that relish in the discomfort.

At the same time, viewers may want to stop and evaluate what media they’re consuming. What is Riverdale worth? How about Sabrina? Both have almost hour-long episodes and serve as a distraction from more immediate horrors: shootings across the United States, drug epidemics, massive student debt, and voter suppression.

Having reached the end of the spooky season, this might be one more supernatural show too many.


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