At the time of writing this blog post, the third episode of season five of Riverdale has aired; its 79th episode overall. This might seem a weird time for me to lay down some thoughts about the series, given that I normally finish a series completely or, if reviewing an ongoing series, write a review after the most recent series has ended. But there’s method to the madness, Dear Reader, let me explain…
Riverdale has been following the lives of the Archie Comics characters, Archie Andrews, Jughead Jones, Veronica Lodge, and Betty Cooper, as they make their way through high school. In the 79th episode they graduated. Archie was joining the army. The rest were off to college. A little storyline was tied onto the end of the episode whereby they would meet a year later. This meeting never happens – only Jughead shows – and his narration says they wouldn’t meet for another six years.
So presumably when we pick up in episode 80, the characters will be playing as six to seven years older; playing MUCH closer to the real-life ages of the actors involved. In some cases spot-on, and in other cases still not far enough – Cole ‘Jughead’ Sprouse is 28, and Camila ‘Veronica’ Mendes is 26.
With that out of the way, let’s re-wind to when I was a kid. I really enjoyed the Archie comic books. I have vivid memories of my mother buying many for me at a secondhand bookstore in the city I still live in. The comics, and even the store, are long gone. But my memories of reading the comics are vivid. To the degree that in one issue, Jughead was showing how to make a free meal at Pop’s Diner. Part of this involved taking a glass of water and someone’s unused jam, stirring it together and having a sort of strawberry drink. I tried this as a six-year-old, and it didn’t work. I was utterly crestfallen.
Now let’s zip forward to 2016. I had heard that an ‘Archie’ TV series was coming and that it would be a little dark and edgy. I’d lost track with the comic books long ago, but knew there were now modern interpretations of the characters that had moved with the times. Jughead, for example, was now asexual in the comics. Would he be asexual on the TV show? I had no idea if I would like the series or not and when it debuted in January of 2017, I actually didn’t tune in. It wasn’t any sort of protest, I simply had a lot on and, without salivating to see the show, decided to catch up with it at a later date.
A month or two in, an old work colleague – a guy, a little older than myself – declared that Riverdale was excellent, “guilty pleasure” TV. I put a lot of stock in what this guy says, and the guilty pleasure part intrigued me. Was the series not taking itself seriously? Was it a bit bonkers? I knew it had some former big name TV stars – Luke Perry, Mädchen Amick – playing parents on the show. Did he mean that? And what about the dark and edgy stuff I’d been hearing? Finally I was at the tipping point of being curious enough about the series to actually make some time and watch the show for myself.
And the result was… I really liked it. In fact, I ate it up. Riverdale presented a dark, misty sort of landscape. Jughead’s narration drew me in. The fact a mystery was at hand – and anyone who reads this blog will know I enjoy mystery shows – was actually surprising, but extremely welcome, to me. I instantly understood why my old work mate had given it the thumbs up in general. It was good.
Over the next four years until the present day, I have to be fair and say that the show hasn’t always been this way. You know how some TV shows, “jump the shark”? Well, Riverdale has jumped the shark, then gone back to do it again and again and again over time. It’s that kind of show. And, unlike a show that jumps the shark to only crash and burn within a series because it’s lost the plot, this is one where a jump the shark episode will be instantly followed the next week by something so funny, or charming, or just well-written, that you wonder if you’re watching the same show. This was jarring the first few times it happened but, over time, has painted a picture of a series that’s unafraid to do what it wants, when it wants, and who cares what the consequences are. It’s actually quite thrilling in that sense.
So why watch Riverdale? This will differ for so many people. Obviously the romances between Archie/Veronica and Betty/Jughead appeal to many. Not me. I couldn’t care less if any of them were dating at all. In fact, I think one of the most interesting relationships in the series – which is telegraphed almost from the start – is the way Archie and Betty grew up as best friends. Yet this aspect of the characters has hardly ever been explored. At times it’s almost like the writers have forgotten about it. Also Betty-related, she’s shown to be an ace mechanic early in the series, yet this is hardly ever used, either. I was delighted in episode 79, however, to see her at the wheel of Archie’s ‘jalopy’ chasing after the Army bus that Archie’s left town on; it just felt fitting that Archie’s best friend – and the ace mechanic – would be in possession of, and driving, his vehicle. Someone remembered!
None of which answers why I continue to watch Riverdale. For me, it’s the characters. I’m particularly intrigued by Jughead who, despite those comics portraying him as asexual, is in a near-constant bonkfest with Betty throughout the series. It helps that Jughead also narrates many episodes so, to me, Riverdale feels like a story he’s telling. I see him as hugely central to the plot. He’s also tended to have the more believable storylines versus, say, Veronica running an illegal ‘speakeasy’ under Pops, or Archie becoming a fighter in an underground boxing ring while doing time in juvenile detention.
Where this goes in the next episode, when the characters will have finished college and been working for a year or two – or in Archie’s case, fighting a war that got mentioned in episode 79 – is anyone’s guess. Will it go completely off the rails and no longer be like itself? Will it take itself too seriously? Or will it feel like nothing much has changed at all, and the characters are back in their hometown, doing hometown things, and not even looking that different, given no time has actually gone by – in real life – between the two phases of the series? It’s got me intrigued and thus I wanted to write this now, in between what might feel like one era, and another, of Riverdale. All I know for sure is it will surprise.