Opinion: Riverdale – A Study in Rebranding

When Riverdale was first announced, a lot of people were scratching their heads. Giving the iconic and very innocent Archie comics the classic CW treatment seemed like a match made in cancellation hell. And yet, the first episode was met with surprise — not because of how bad it was, but because of what a strong stylistic choice it made and how well it worked. 
For those not in the know, Riverdale is an adaptation of the Archie universe, but with a twist. Jason Blossom, a resident of the town of Riverdale, disappears and is later found dead with a bullet hole in his skull. At the same time, Veronica Lodge comes into town and Archie has a brief affair with his music teacher, Miss Grundy, even though his best friend Betty Cooper is in love with him. And writing it all down as a novel is Jughead Jones, you know, the super serious character from the comics. It reads like a bad pulp novel, or a trashy, torrid fanfiction. 
And yet.
Look, reader, I am not one to watch the kind of overly dramatic schlock that the CW puts out. Sure, the Green Arrow verse stuff is solidly written, but mostly everything else is geared very specifically to the sensibilities to teens and young adults, and Supernatural was great…six seasons ago. However, Riverdale somehow managed to get its hooks in a whole new audience, mostly people who came on to view the insanity and laugh at its inability to stay true to the source material. So why do they stay? I think, in part, it’s because it doesn’t stick to the source material — it tries new things, it creates new identities, it reimagines and restructures a story that hasn’t really changed much in the last few decades. 
I’m not here to say that the Archie comics are outdated or lack cultural relevance because they’re not and they don’t, but I do think there’s something to be said for franchise adaptability. Now that we have more screens to look out, with more outlets producing content than ever before, they have to keep up with a certain level of demand. And if that level includes sexy adults-playing-teens and trying to be edgy with “taboo” topics, then by God they’re going to do their best to keep up.
It’s true, the show deals with teen homelessness, slut shaming, gangs, inappropriate student-teacher relationships, racism, social media, and more in ways that vary from gentle subtly to a brick-to-the-face style of bluntness. Still, that fact the subtlety exists at all in a CW show is already like winning a gold medal. It also doesn’t help that Archie as a comic has no subtlety, and very little grey moral grounding. 

The show this program reminds me the most of is, weirdly enough, Twin Peaks. The bright colors, the weird events, the small town setting, some weird sexual undertones, not to mention finding a body in a body of water, the diner as a central meeting place, how it meanders to weird subplots — it all fits into that same weird niche. And we, for some reason, follow a group of teens around even though the adults tend to be more interesting and nuanced, if only because they were the focus of the comics. As the season progress, it manages to keep that same vibe, which is impressive.

The show is weakest in terms of the dialogue and character. Cheryl Blossom is the most apparent example of this — she comes off at this air-headed, overly vicious mean girl with some very sparsely added emotional baggage. There doesn’t feel like there’s a real character hiding in there, it just feels like a totally superficial portrayal. Veronica, Jughead, and Betty seem the most fleshed out, with complex motivations, hidden resentments, and generally reacting to events like a normal person would, though sometimes with some cheesy dialogue. Archie himself, however, tends to be a big bag of bland — wanting to be a jock and an artist, only really caught up in his own personal pursuits and having the rest of the characters doing the plot-heavy work. That said, I don’t think the acting itself is bad, but that’s a discussion for when I review this first season. 


There’s also the very disturbing aspect that I think might actually hurt it in the long run, because I foresee this being a larger narrative problem. Nothing seems to be taken too seriously. I mean, sure, the murder is taken very seriously, but a sexual predatory being allowed to leave the city without any real consequences, a teenaged girl’s body autonomy and parental rights are ignored and she has to flee, all of which takes 2 episodes, forging signatures, perjury, breaking and entering, shady money dealings, etc. Here’s the problem — when you have these big, dramatic plot points that don’t eventually led up to anything or set up stakes that have no payoff, the world just feels kind of superficial and thoughtless.

So, as an exercise in re-branding, does this work? Well, yes and no. Reviews have been generally positive, if somewhat middling, and ratings having been fair, putting it within the average range of a CW show but not beating out any of the highly popular Arrowverse shows. In this way, you can say it’s a success because it didn’t fail — so far, the ratings are holding pretty consistently and it is likely to be renewed. However, I think it’s a success in the sense that it did what it wanted to do — recreate the image of Archie and in the process, grab new fans, and if the online fan communities count as a solid metric, it’s done that quite well. Sure, it’s silly, a little melodramatic, and could use some help in the plot department, but it’s solid, more solid than its premise would imply. All I can say is I’ll be waiting up to the bitter end.

About The Author

Sara Roncero-Menendez

A reporter by trade, Sara is a lover of horror, sci-fi, and all things pop culture. From indies to classics to even the strangest schlock, all movies and TV shows are fair game. She believes Batman is the most fascinating superhero, and that Silent Hill is one of the best horror franchises ever made (as long as you don't count the movies). Fun Fact: The only movie Sara will not rewatch is The Room -- once was more than enough.