Riverdale wrapped up its sometimes messy freshman season Thursday with some bewildering choices that shifted from the core strengths of the show. There's a way to give the show more "pep" in Season 2, but before we get to that, a little recap.
After solving Jason Blossom's murder in the penultimate episode, the show used the finale to focus on the fallout from the realization that this previously sleepy town is on the edge of something dark; while simultaneously blowing up the core characters' lives in order to send them in new directions during the already-ordered second season.
To recap: Cheryl (Madelaine Petsch) first tries to kill herself so she can be with Jason, and when that doesn't work she sets fire to her home Thornhill so the Blossoms can rise from the ashes like the phoenixes she wishes them to be. Archie (KJ Apa) and Veronica (Camila Mendes) officially start dating, but the afterglow is ruined when, the morning after they have sex, Fred (Luke Perry) is shot in what appears to be an attempted robbery at Pop's Chock'lit Shoppe but is, according to Jughead's (Cole Sprouse) narration, "anything but random."
Meanwhile, Betty (Lili Reinhart) is threatened for publishing a story in the school paper about F.P (Skeet Ulrich) being framed, then later discovers she has a long-lost brother as a result of her mother becoming pregnant in high school. And Jughead moves to the South Side to live with a foster family once F.P. refuses to roll on his gang, the Serpents. He enrolls at South Side High (how is Riverdale big enough to have two high schools?), where he says he belongs, and then willingly becomes a Serpent.
In many ways the hour is par for the course for Riverdale, a series that — despite starting off strong — has struggled to balance many moving parts over the course of its 13-episode first season. With a Twin Peaks-like set up, some moody lighting and a beautiful retro aesthetic, Riverdale was in prime position to break out, to be a hit that could potentially usher in a new wave of classic teen soaps on the young-skewing CW, a network that has otherwise aged up with its viewers. But the adaptation of the popular Archie comics ultimately couldn't deliver on what it promised in the premiere, frequently losing the plot and straying too far from what should have been a solid backbone for the series: the murder mystery.
So, what went wrong?
In its first season, Riverdale's soapier elements — Archie's affair with Ms. Grundy, Cheryl's mean girl schtick, Betty and Jughead's blossoming romance, and Archie's musical aspirations — took priority for long stretches of time. As a result the Jason Blossom murder investigation eventually stalled until it almost felt like an afterthought. Balancing an overarching murder mystery with the hallmarks of teen drama is tough, but it can be done: if Riverdale had done its homework, it'd have known to follow the path of Veronica Mars, in which the investigation into Lilly Kane's murder was perfectly balanced with the series' myriad other complex storylines.
In the late teen drama, it is Veronica's (no relation) deep connection to Lilly that ultimately allowed the series the freedom to explore other storylines. That's something none of Riverdale's four main characters, least of all their red-headed leader, had with Jason. Through flashbacks and Veronica's ongoing investigation, Lilly became a part of the show's main narrative, and viewers understood her and her relationships with the show's main characters. We could empathize with their ensuing pain.
The same cannot be said for Riverdale, where Jason was merely a name, and the only character shown to be personally affected by his murder was his twin sister Cheryl. Even after 13 episodes, Cheryl remains little more than an outline of a grieving sister, having given up her only other defining characteristic: her status as the queen bee of Riverdale High.
If the series had allowed us time to get to know Jason before he was murdered by his own father, or if we spent time after the fact getting to know him via flashbacks — the actor playing Jason never even spoke in his few scenes — it would have provided a more solid foundation that allowed the series to take detours to explore other areas.
Beyond Jughead using the murder to support his story about the town's loss of innocence, everything else was pretty superficial. Betty attempted to solve Jason's murder for her pregnant sister's sake, Ronnie only cared once she thought her father might be involved somehow, and Archie, well, he sort of just tagged along with his friends once it was clear the gunshot he heard the morning of July 4 — the morning he was banging Ms. Grundy by the river — wasn't the one that killed Jason. It never appeared as if anyone was truly invested in Jason or what his murder really meant moving forward.
How to fix Season 2
Well, first you have to ask: can Riverdale be fixed? It's hard to say at this point. "The Sweet Hereafter" was a chaotic coda to a messy season. It was so obsessed with setting up soapy new storylines and portraying Archie as a hero that very few things felt real beyond the heartwarming father/son relationships between Archie and Fred, and Jughead and F.P.
With Jason's murder now solved, the series is standing on the precipice, staring over at the darkness below (to crib some potential narration from Jughead). The second season is going to need a strong backbone, and the simple threat of darkness is too opaque, too immaterial. Will the shooting of Fred Andrews carry us through all of Season 2? Will there be a real investigation into the heroin Clifford was importing into town? Or will there be a different mystery? Whatever happens, the series needs to find a way to weave the show's various elements together to form a balanced story if it wants a chance at true success.
There are aspects of Riverdale that do already work, like the aforementioned father and son relationships. With F.P. going to prison for his role in covering up Jason's murder, the bulk of the weight will likely land on Archie and Fred. The final scene of the season, in which Fred is shot in the chest, hints that more drama will be coming for the Andrews boys next season, and the show would be wise to lean into that thread as hard as the show was attempting to lean away from the stereotypical love triangle arc this season.
Now, the inclination to avoid the central love triangle that has dictated the narrative of the Archie comics for years is natural and understandable. It's even admirable in a way, as this love triangle — at least as most people probably view it — is the product of an era long gone by. Riverdale definitely exists in the present based on its pop culture references, but it still wants to maintain a connection to the past, whether it's through the '50s retro aesthetics or Jughead's nostalgia for more innocent times. It's possible that focusing on the love triangle could reduce Betty and Veronica to little more than stereotypes if handled poorly, but the love triangle is a cornerstone of Archie's story — not to mention a trademark of teen dramas — and the way the series handled it by essentially ignoring it did more harm than good, especially in light of Archie's reactions toward Betty in the finale.
If Archie was ever going to look longingly at his best friend and question his feelings for her, the natural time to do so would have been at the outset of her relationship with Jughead, not as he is embarking on his third relationship of the season. His actions felt felt shoe-horned here (and that's because they were — at the behest of executive producer Greg Berlanti). The desire to focus on other areas of Archie's life is correct: Riverdale should absolutely be about more than just which girl Archie is dating. But the way the show approached this particular aspect of canon was baffling, to say the least. The show's second season should attack the triangle more aggressively, while still allowing for other storylines to properly take shape and develop.
Still, even if the show makes these changes, there's no guarantee the viewers will be there. Perhaps if the plotting of this particular story had been better, perhaps if we didn't lose so much time to Archie's music, perhaps if the characters spent less time talking about acting and actually doing it, we'd have more faith in the series and what Season 2 holds. But after 13 episodes, Riverdale still doesn't have a clear idea what kind of show it wants to be; so it's desperately trying to be all of them at once.
Let's put a little more pep in the "town with pep" when it returns this Fall.
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