A few years ago, Riverdale was one of the most popular teen shows on network television. It made huge stars out of its lead actors, became loved and hated by many for its ridiculous storylines and generally memeable moments. Then the show fell apart, the wild plotlines made less and less sense, and it escalated to a level of cringe and confusion that made it harder and harder to follow. Now, it’s one of those shows that you might play in the background when it eventually makes its way to Netflix months after its airdate on the CW.
But in Season 5, the main characters not only graduate high school, but the show also launches into a seven–year time jump, the main characters now in their mid–20s, having all parted ways for college and now living wholly separate lives. And it might be just the revival the show needs in its second act.
While Riverdale was initially setting itself up to follow characters through college—Betty and Jughead setting their sights on Yale, Archie struggling to get enough credits to graduate, Veronica grappling with leaving Archie—the show then pivoted, forgetting the college years altogether. So many shows end at high school and glamorize the idea of going to college; Riverdale skips it entirely, treating it as a forgettable, unimportant period rather than something pivotal and transformative. It’s a means to an end: to get a career, to get through, to get a job, to build a life, and to escape a small town. The characters go to the schools of their dreams and end up back in their small town anyway.
Archie is a discharged Army sergeant, reeling from the aftermath of a botched mission. Veronica’s trapped in a loveless and controlling marriage, not unlike her ever–dysfunctional relationship with her father. Betty’s an FBI agent at Quantico dealing with the trauma of being held hostage while in pursuit of a serial killer. And Jughead’s a washed–up writer with a drinking problem struggling to write his next masterpiece after the brief success of his first novel. They all converge back in Riverdale where they’re reunited with the rest of the cast who have stayed in town and have been privy to its slow decay. This isn’t a story about what happens to the characters after they leave. It’s about the town that pulls them back to its nightmares of buried collective trauma again and again. Speaking to Entertainment Weekly, creator Roberto Aguirre–Sacasa said that “college is a less appealing version of high school stories.” Grown–up Riverdale says it’s not a high school show. Maybe it never was.
The time jump has given the show into a totally new tone, still equally dark, but also more mature: sex scenes no longer feel so awkward, the grown–up issues the show dealt with no longer feel so misplaced, and the show is diving into deep commentary about the effects of late–stage capitalism on rural America, the faltering American education system, and the financial challenges of small–town American life.
So, is it the future, the present, or neither? Hard to say—Riverdale has always situated itself in this strange liminal space between surrealism and non–existent parallel universe. With plotlines centered around aliens, serial killer genes, and unqualified twenty–somethings running a high school, enjoying Riverdale requires a certain willing suspension of disbelief. But if you let yourself indulge in its ridiculousness, it’s actually quite good. The best way to watch Riverdale is not to lament its insanity, but to indulge in it, invest yourself in the complexity of the characters, and let the show pull you through its pretentious and grandiose melodrama.
Riverdale is also inching closer and closer to the paranormal undertones that it’s always hovered around but never quite embraced. Rather than shying away from the show’s off–kilter strangeness, it’s leaned into it instead. It’s daring, becoming more reminiscent of its sister show in the Archie Comics universe, Netflix’s The Chilling Adventures of Sabrina (sometimes known as CHAOS). There have been subtle CHAOS–related Easter eggs and references throughout Riverdale’s run, and the appearance of Adeline Rudolph (who plays one of the weird sisters in CHAOS) as Cheryl’s new love interest in Riverdale cements a wayward connection between the two shows.
Riverdale always tried to touch on political issues—there was gang violence, poverty, homophobia, homelessness. It always pitched itself as a political, modern take on the classic innocence of the Archie Comics. But the time jump asks its audience to consider what happens to the teen show after its characters leave. It is a strange meditation on the idea of community and absolute loyalty to a place, packed with Americana, kitsch, and off–kilter references to mainstream modern pop culture, mentioning Andy Cohen and The Real Housewives franchise in one scene, and portraying obscure allusions to vintage cinema icons like Alfred Hitchcock and Douglas Sirk in the next.
The dialogue is predictable as always, the outfits perfectly jewel–toned, the characters thoroughly manicured to fit the comic–esque stereotype each of them inhabits. They are always caricatures, but that’s the beauty of the show—it lays out archetypes and cartoonish expectations for its characters, then gives them the space to subvert their own meta–fictional boxes. Our beloved characters can’t escape Riverdale, but watching them certainly provides a dark and ridiculous escape from our own reality. The characters always lamented their hometown escape, but it seems that in leaving Riverdale they all faced their own traumas, which they’re now bringing back with them.
Riverdale has always been figuring itself out: the novelty that comes with a live–action teen mystery show based on a beloved Boomer–era comic strip was never a perfect translation. Riverdale always battled the caricatures laid out by the comics, but in some ways that tension was the best part. Jughead ditched the beanie; Betty took down her ponytail. The show is subverting its own kitschy tokens that once seemed to be the only thing holding it together. And it’s working. The enigmatic quality of each of Riverdale’s characters beyond their comic–strip personas is and always has been the show’s central intrigue.
Riverdale is growing up, still in all of its campy, kitschy, ’50s–esque glory, but slowly returning to the small–town Americana and murder mystery plotlines that recalled its comic strip roots and made it so watchable in its early–season prime. As serious as it is at times, Riverdale is not meant to be taken seriously. It is still, all and all, a teen show, even if its central characters aren’t teens anymore.