Twenty years ago, Roberto Aguirre–Sacasa, a former Glee writer who would go on to become the Riverdale showrunner, received a cease–and–desist order from Archie Comics the night before the world premiere of his adapted play, Archie’s Weird Fantasy. Archie Comics forced Aguirre–Sacasa to change his characters' names, distancing them from the pre–existing IP, as the company thought that portraying Archie as gay, which Aguirre–Sacasa intended to do, would “dilute and tarnish his image.” So the team bit the bullet, changed the names, and premiered Weird Comic Book Fantasy instead of Archie’s Weird Fantasy, following the grown–up lives of Tapeworm (Jughead), Monica (Veronica), Rosie (Betty), and an out–of–the–closet Buddy (Archie). Oh, and also the play included AIDS, the Leopold and Loeb case, and a meta–commentary on the head of EC comics. Is it any wonder Aguirre–Sacasa’s Riverdale would end up going in the myriad of increasingly fantastical directions?
It’s hard to talk about how Riverdale is a camp masterpiece without intimate knowledge of the show. I’ve watched every episode, but those who haven’t can look at my handy companion guide recap (and maybe this Cosmo dictionary of Riverdalian terms)—I am more than aware that many people fell off when season two took a turn for the crazier (not the worse, never the worse). But if even the showrunner and the lead actors making it clear that Riverdale is supposed to be absurd, campy, and full of commentary can’t convince you, hopefully I can change your mind.
And absurd, campy, and full of commentary it is. Cheryl Blossom’s cuckoo bananas dialogue alone is enough to out–loud say what the fuck at your laptop screen, and I can’t count how many times I’ve seen Cole Sprouse’s iconic “weirdo” monologue floating around the internet. But the writing’s craziness isn’t an accident. Riverdale takes tropes, turns them up to eleven, and then subverts them. The Cooper family, with their serial killer patriarch, literally lives on Elm street. Betty calls herself the nightmare from next door. It’s not a coincidence that the genre that Riverdale pays the most homage to is horror. The white, middle–class, suburban myth of the “simpler time” that the early Archie comics present, with its delineated gender roles and oppressive heterosexuality—that’s horror.
Case in point is Betty. She’s the girl next door, she knows it, and she hates it. Her perfect family is an illusion from the start—her sister Polly has been sent away to a church to hide her teenage pregnancy from (unknowingly) sleeping with her cousin. Off the bat, we’re critiquing WASPy cultures of silence that not only demean but actively harm women in the pursuit of the appearance of perfection. Betty’s family falls apart in season two with her father becoming a serial killer, reflecting the 70s serial killer spike; suburbia isn’t the safe place it pretends to be. In season three, Betty’s mom, Alice, falls prey to a cult—think well–off white woman wellness MLMs.
Season three, actually, is one of the best seasons to look at in terms of Riverdale’s critique of the myth of suburbia. It’s easy to laugh at the absurd premise: a roleplaying game called Gryphons & Gargoyles has essentially become the hot new thing in Riverdale, and it’s leading to satanic ritual sacrifice, cult abuse, and drug usage—which is exactly what people in the 80s thought Dungeons & Dragons would lead to. Riverdale satirizes the Satanic Panic and the Reagan–era War On Drugs, by heightening that the dangerous white suburbia culture actually ended up harming those already seen as less–than by society. Just because Riverdale approaches this from a more camp angle than, say, Stranger Things does, doesn’t mean that it’s any less of a wholehearted, intentional, and coherent critique. In any case, it’s more effective: the camp quality aptly points to the pure silliness of a moral panic, while the horror references illustrate the very real damage that moral panic can cause.
Riverdale gets even more direct with its central critique in season seven, when the gang literally gets transported back to the 50s. They don looks pulled straight from the pages of the comics, deliver lines riddled with absurd slang from the days of yore, and face another very real moral panic about comic books. But instead of reveling in the fantasy of “simpler times” the way old Archie comics do, the gang all collectively rebel against conservative values and make it very clear that those decades were nearly impossible to live in if you didn’t conform.
Riverdale not only traces American history, but also references other media as well. Beyond the obvious touchpoints of teen soaps for both writing and casting (the gang’s parents are largely former teen heartthrobs), horror references abound from the get–go, with the Coopers' house on Elm street and the Blossoms living in what can only be described as Merricat's gothic castle. The first musical episode is Carrie, and it culminates in Cheryl, covered in blood, threatening her abusive mom with fire—a direct reference to Carrie the film, which argues strongly that the most harm can come from a Christian suburban culture that alienates other people like Carrie, who is seen as “weird” by society, or Cheryl, who is a lesbian. Miss Grundy, the pedophilic teacher who preys on Archie in season one, is seen wearing the same sunglasses as displayed on the poster of Kubrick’s Lolita, pointing to the swapped genders of this particular tale of predation. There are truly countless references in Riverdale to other pieces of media that illustrate just how dangerous suburban America can be.
I am aware that I sound like I’m tin–hatting. But I have to direct your attention back to Aguirre–Sacasa’s first Archie–related work. Archie’s Weird Fantasy was an absurdist critique of the Archie comics and the traditional, conservative values they represent. Riverdale is the same, just on a much larger scale. Those headlines you saw weren’t lying to you—the show really did end with the Core Four in a lesbian–centric polyamorous relationship. Riverdale’s Betty Cooper never marries; it’s hard to imagine that the comic version of Betty was even able to make that choice.
I don’t aim to argue that Riverdale is prestige television. The dialogue is corny, the plot is riddled with holes, and the show has some truly insensitive approaches to sensitive topics from time to time. Yet, it’s impossible to argue that Riverdale is a show that doesn’t care. The style is consistently inspired by horror and teen soaps in equal measure, executed with an intention and precision that you just don’t see in long form television these days. I’m always delighted by the use of lighting and color in an age where people seem to think that gritty must equal not being able to see the damn screen. Impactful, harrowing moments are not only visible, but aesthetically striking, even splashed through with neon, red as blood. And the writing may make you feel like you’re on Jingle Jangle, but it’s writing that is self–aware and has been sneaking in progressive politics for seasons.
Finally, it’s frustrating to see Riverdale get panned by people who haven't watched it and have only ever seen fragments of its satirical writing without necessary context. Lili Reinhart (Betty Cooper) herself commented in a bittersweet Vulture exit interview about the frustration she feels towards people mocking the show without watching it. The absurdity of the show is “the whole point,” she says. “When we’re doing our table reads and something ridiculous happens, Roberto [Aguirre–Sacasa] is laughing because he understands the absurdity and campiness.”
And Riverdale has been acknowledged by reviewers more storied than myself as a unique, wild, “familiar with its silliness” since season one, campy masterpiece that has impressively managed to hold on as a seven–season, 22–episode show in a landscape not hospitable to that kind of longevity anymore. Those who post out–of–context clips on social media may not understand that, but influencers aren’t actually critics. If you’re watching this show upset that Betty and Archie aren’t together yet, or that it’s nothing like the comics you and I read as kids, you’re watching it wrong. And Riverdale knows that, and it is making fun of you for it.
Riverdale is a story about suburban violence and the lengths suburbia goes to try and sanitize itself. At its core, it’s the scene of the children bouncing their balls in sync in A Wrinkle in Time. There’s no simpler time, and there never was. The heterogeneity of that imagined “simpler time” is restrictive at best, asphyxiating at worst.
And so is the heterogeneity of the present–day television scene. I find it disappointing when people complain about the sameness of mainstream media and the era of pervasive eight–episode prestige streaming, but then proceed to scoff at the absurdity, longevity, and wholeheartedly campy teen–soapiness of Riverdale. Riverdale is a silly, wonderful, and genuinely well–done (albeit completely insane) critique of its source material. Aguirre–Sacasa was finally able to fulfill his weird fantasy in Riverdale, and for that I am grateful. Goodbye for now, Riverdale. I’ll be rewatching you soon.