Riverdale, like its teenage inhabitants, is a delightfully soapy show with a bit of identity crisis. Is it a drama about a once wholesome town forced to face the harsh reality that it apparently chose not to evolve and must now pay the price as the darkness of the outside world encroaches? Is it a series about the melodramatic, interconnected lives of several families? Or is it, in my favorite but least likely scenario, a show about a terrifying world in which attractive people are forced to sing really bad covers once a week in order to please a sinister puppet master? What is it? Because after a season and a half, I still don't know the answer.
In Wednesday's midseason finale, Betty (Lili Reinhart) and Archie (KJ Apa) solved Season 2's overarching mystery involving the serial killer known as the Black Hood, revealing the high school janitor to be the person targeting the town's sinners. His motive for murder was that once upon a time he identified the wrong man in his own family's murders and was apparently trying to set things right by killing even more people. (Don't try to make sense of it, because it barely made sense inside the show's own wonky logic.) At the end of the episode, the CW drama hinted this wasn't actually the end though, at least not for what the Black Hood represented. You see, Betty was unable to burn the black mask she received from the Black Hood, implying that Dark Betty, she of the Maple Syrup Hot Tub Incident, was making a triumphant return.
What the first half of this season revealed — or perhaps it would be more accurate to say doubled down on given the overarching narrative of the show's first season — is that Riverdale hasn't quite learned to balance a well-plotted murder mystery with intriguing, well-rounded narratives for its individual characters. And honestly, it shouldn't have to try to be that show; Riverdale does not need a dead body to be successful.
Although the murder of Jason Blossom may have initially helped the series to find a home — showrunner Roberto Aguirre-Sacasa revealed during the Television Critics Association winter press tour earlier this year that network executives wanted something edgier than his original pitch, which was a simple coming-of-age story — the series is stronger when it's focusing on family drama and the power dynamics of the town of Riverdale. Even though super-producer Greg Berlanti, who is also an executive producer on the series, told Aguirre-Sacasa that it needed a dead body during the early development process, the deaths never seem to matter in the long run because the main four are never in any real danger. Perhaps more importantly, there's enough going on outside the series' scenery chewing mysteries — mother/daughter fights! a girl band! angsty weirdos writing the next great American novel! — to drive and support the narrative at this point.
If Riverdale focuses on fleshing out existing characters and storylines, digging deeper and more thoughtfully into big issues (like class warfare and queerness), and leaning into the family secrets, it can produce a large chunk of the drama moving forward.
There are so many unanswered questions outside of the central whodunit in Riverdale worth building a show around. For example: How will Jughead's (Cole Sprouse) relationship with his dad (played by Skeet Ulrich) change now that he respects the life his father led as a South Side Serpent? Will Cheryl (Madelaine Petsch) snap and murder her mother? That has always been an extremely controlling relationship, but now that the kid, rather than the parent, is in control, it could end in a bigger disaster than burning down the Blossom estate. And what exactly are the Lodges doing behind closed doors? Are they setting their own daughter up as a patsy for criminal endeavors? Each of these are rife with tension and more than enough to keep viewers glued to their screens every time a new development comes their way.
There's also interesting coming-of-age issues that the series briefly explored through Kevin (Casey Cott). Despite being the only openly gay teen in Riverdale, the writers dropped both of his romantic storylines because of, you guessed it, murderers. While Kevin is certainly more than his sexuality, there is still plenty of room to explore the difficulties that come with being the only queer kid in a suburban town. The show's never been better than when he dragged Betty for judging his sexual proclivities, and fans connected so deeply with that moment that it'd be a shame to not explore it more. He deserves more than to just be a perpetual fifth wheel.
The other big issue in Riverdale is obviously the brewing class war between the North and South sides, and the dual identity of Alice Cooper (Madchen Amick) is the perfect place to dredge up this mysterious history. Her Serpent past and the decision to run from it and cover it up with pastel cardigans and freshly baked gingerbread cookies is one of the more interesting developments of the entire series. When will that former connection rear its ugly head for real? I'm guessing FP (Ulrich) will play a huge role in this, and if there's a deliciously uncomfortable parallel between Alice/FP and Betty/Jughead then that's an even better way to explore class tension. Will Bughead be the star-crossed lovers who finally unite Riverdale against an outside threat?
And as for that outside threat — as the show continually turns to murderers, it's missing the biggest and best villains of all. The series has only skimmed the surface of the secretive and potentially criminal affairs of the insane family that is the incredibly wealthy Lodges. The sandbox the Lodges are playing in is so vastly different than those the rest of the townspeople exist in that their stories easily stand apart from, say, the Andrews' ongoing financial troubles, Betty running an exposé in the high school paper or even Cheryl's newfound obsession with Josie (Ashleigh Murray). Forget the murderers, Hiram (Mark Conseulos) and Hermione Lodge (Marisol Nichols) are compelling nightmares on their own, and it's about time the writers really let them loose.
This is all to say that there's something to be said about the simplicity of a small town like Riverdale and the various stories it can produce with the right tools. Television used to be full of family dramas that rarely needed the kinds of narrative hooks that executives currently think series need to catch viewers' attention. The crowded landscape has expanded and evolved, and such hooks have certainly been necessary on occasion, but the coming-of-age story that Aguirre-Sacasa originally pitched might actually have worked just fine, because there are so few series like that being offered at the moment.
The CW was built from the remnants of The WB, but it's been a long time since it actually resembled the teen-centric network that gave us beloved shows like Dawson's Creek and Everwood. While there's no need to completely reboot Riverdale and turn it into Riverdale Lite, it might be time to play up the nostalgia factor in more ways than one and simply update the teen/family drama for 2017. All the pieces, though sometimes problematic, are already in place — the series' retro aesthetic, the class divide, and the story of the boy from the wrong side of the tracks falling for the good girl with a secret wild side are all well established. The writers now just need the opportunity to be able to take advantage of the groundwork that has already been laid and really dig into those stories.
At the very least, they should give us more of Alice in all her Serpent glory.
Riverdale airs Wednesdays at 8/7c on The CW.
(Full disclosure: TV Guide is owned by CBS, one of The CW's parent companies.)