Full disclosure: I’m a sucker for a teen soap. I blame Beverly Hills, 90210. Maybe Dawson’s Creek. Also anything John Hughes touched in the 1980s. (Though those definitely became problematic faves as I grew up.) I understand that very few, if any, teen dramas would fit squarely into the category we now call Prestige TV, but not everything can be The Crown—and on the nights when unending news cycles have everyone on edge, there’s something comforting about settling in with some gossip girls and pretty little liars.
Yet, none of this defines my love of Riverdale. It ticks off the requisite Teen Soap boxes—cheerleaders, local mysteries, high school sex, coiffed dudes with 8-pack abs are all accounted for—but that’s not why it’s a joy. The show, which returns for its third season on The CW tonight, fills up my DVR because Riverdale is goddamn ridiculous.
Before we get into why it’s ridiculous, a primer: Riverdale is based on the Archie Comics universe of yore. At least, it’s based on the characters; just like the comics, it’s been modernized. (It was adapted by Roberto Aguirre-Sacasa, who previously worked on Glee and Big Love and who, as chief creative officer of Archie Comics, was instrumental to that company’s resurgence over the past five years.) The Riverdale of Riverdale is a town where Veronica Lodge (Camila Mendez) uses her powers for good; Jughead Jones (Cole Sprouse) is a sleuth who runs a biker gang; Betty Cooper (Lili Reinhart) is a badass; and Cheryl Blossom (Madelaine Petsch) repeatedly takes on her twisted rich family and dates another woman in Jughead’s biker gang. Archie (K.J. Apa) is still kind of a goody-goody, but he also starts a vigilante group and at the start of Season 3 is about to stand trial for murder. Because he was set up. By Hiram Lodge, father of Veronica—the girl he’s sexing. (Yet, even those aren’t the reasons Riverdale is ridiculous. They’re a start, but we haven’t gotten into the fact the show has already dealt with two killers, and a addiction epidemic driven by a new street drug known as “Jingle Jangle,” which everyone talks about like it’s a magic combination of speed and molly served in a Pixy Stix straw.)
Broadly, the things that make Riverdale great-dumb fall into that most common of tropes: Teenagers Who Act Like 30-Year-Olds. Remember decades ago on 90210 when Dylan was able to just get his inheritance and live alone before graduating high school and no one really questioned it? It’s like that, but now Archie dates a teacher and his dad is actually Luke Perry. (His mom is Molly Ringwald, so that makes sense.) Yes, in this world, teenagers can get the family fortune and use it to buy dive bars out from under their parents, like Veronica did to Hiram. (Girl, you won’t be legally allowed to drink for a full three years, how are you getting a liquor license?) They also report on local crime and government like they’re the team from Spotlight and take out axe-wielding nut-jobs with a bow and arrow. They run things when their parents go off to jail/prison. They get involved with mayoral elections despite not being able to vote. They hold, like, one protest and their principal does what they say. They, again, run biker gangs and settle old scores. They even expose corruption in their own families.
But all this ridiculousness also signifies Riverdale’s wish-fulfillment. It’s a show about young people who have brains. The original Archie comics presented a candy-coated world that from time to time projected images of idyllic adolescence, wherein the big decision to be made was Betty or Veronica? In Riverdale, though, Betty and Veronica realize that fighting over men is anti-feminist, and Cheryl Blossom’s lesbianism isn’t just embraced, it’s celebrated as easily the most likable thing about her. That’s not to say Riverdale has never been problematic; it has. But since it was already decided that it was going to be a CW high drama hormone-fest from the start, at least it’s one that has some substance.
Back when the show launched in early 2017, Jackson McHenry at Vulture wrote a piece titled, rightly, “11 LInes From the Riverdale Pilot I Refuse to Believe Teens Would Say in Real Life.” Amongst those 11 lines was this one from Veronica Lodge: “Can’t we just liberate ourselves from the tired dichotomy of jock/artist. Can’t we, in this post-James Franco world, be all things at once?” McHenry was right; that line is ridiculous. But with Riverdale, it’s a ridiculousness that’s a lot of fun to escape into.