In a classic episode of the popular 90s sitcom Seinfeld — “The Pitch,” the main protagonists, Jerry Seinfeld and George Costanza present their concept of “a show about nothing” to the bemused executives at NBC.
In a memorable sequence, George, pitching the idea to the network, deters Jerry from trying to bring context into the ‘nothingness.’ George argues with the executives about his proposed premise, ‘a show about nothing;’ no plot, no stories. When an executive asks, “Why am I watching it?” George exclaims, “because it’s on TV!” The network executives express their skepticism; but George refuses to compromise.
While Seinfeld itself claimed to be a show about ‘nothing,’ it grew to be regarded as one of the greatest and most influential sitcoms of all time. It appears ‘The pitch’ may have appealed to the makers of Riverdale, who have set about attempting to prove George right. If something is on TV, or now, on OTT platforms — people will watch it!
Much Ado About Nothing?
To give credit to the creators, a lot does happen on Riverdale, a teen mystery-drama series based on the characters of Archie Comics. However, the story is utterly disjointed and lacking coherence, and the characters are inconsistent. So preposterous is the plot and storyline of this teen fantasy-mystery series that there is a sense of incredulity as to what ludicrous turn the so-called ‘story’ may take. Opinions about the show have been polarised among netizens, with die-hard, dedicated fans calling it “intriguing,” and “enthralling,” with “many interesting sub plots and creative situations;” while others call the show “so bad” that they want to gouge their “eyeballs out with a spoon” and several lists having being drawn to rate the ridiculousness of the storyline.
But like everything that elicits visceral reactions, Riverdale, too, has garnered millions of viewers, who, depending on their motivation, watch either for its alluring or bizarre appeal. Confirmation and news of the upcoming fifth season, therefore, has elicited a range of reactions.
Yet, even its die-hard fans cannot defend Riverdale’s strangeness. While there is a superficial overall narrative arc, things like narrative cohesion, logic and lucidity take a backseat to production quality, a slick and good-looking cast and seemingly crisp dialogue. While many viewers scratch their heads or laugh in disbelief, the show seems utterly honest to itself, and devoted to the strange things it is creating. In a strange way, it has a clear understanding of what appeals to its viewers.
Adapted for TV by comic book and screen writer Roberto Aguirre-Sacasa, Riverdale’s ensemble cast take on the characters of Archie Comics. KJ Apa plays Archie Andrews, Lili Reinhart is Betty Cooper, Camila Mendes is Veronica Lodge, and Cole Sprouse plays show narrator and one of four leads, Jughead Jone
While the basic physical elements of the characters are taken from the comic series, the similarities end there. This Riverdale is dark, murky and peculiar—so far the premise is interesting. However, as the plot develops, what emerges is an over-the-top plot involving serial killings, drug-led gang wars, disturbing Christian homes for ‘troubled youths,’ teenager-led gang wars, underage gambling, incestuous relationships, shady business dealings, corruption, creepy cults, absolutely bizarre board games, Mafioso-like criminal families, the list goes on…
All this would be fine, were there reasonable logic behind it; but it is almost as if the show has taken the liberty of using anything that has seemed interesting from different stories and plots, without bothering with the lucidity of a plot or narrative.
Season 1 starts as the main characters, a group of high school students, are shocked at the death of their classmate, Jason Blossom. The story begins with regular high-school romances, heartbreaks, West Side Story like class divides, pregnancies out of wedlock, small town gossip and protective parenting. These are interspersed with late-night dance parties, school bands (Josie and the Pussycats from the original comics), football games and cheerleader squads give the show the appearance of a stereotypical high school drama. But soon, the murder mystery in this small suburban American town turns into an awkward and perverse saga of age-old family enmities, business and incestuous relationships. Even this far, the plot is somewhat plausible, although awkwardly executed.
Inconsistent Characterization, Incoherent Plot
As the story progresses, however, Riverdale turns into a bizarre account of hooded serial killers, creepy phone stalkers, clueless vigilante teen rings, and unnatural and contrived gang wars and drug cartels involving the local mafia boss. All of this would be fine, again, if it had some narrative coherence. This is where the randomness of the characters and the story starts to aggravate. Betty has a strange dark side, which would be fine if it were to show the frustrations of a stifled young adult caught between protective parents, their own sense of responsibility and general unfairness of life. But here, it seems to have been inserted just to give this goody-two-shoes character some raunchy costumes.
Similarly, when Veronica, semi-estranged from her father, starts running a speakeasy, making rum from her grandma’s recipe to compete with him, it is just random and makes no sense. Furthermore, the mayor’s daughter sings at this teenage-run Speakeasy, and half the town seems to frequent it.
Jughead’s character is just bizarre. He switches between a sensitive chronicle writer–who hates his family’s gangster roots and is upset at being thrown out of a road trip by his best friend–to becoming the leader of Southside Serpents. He continues to write, and is offered a place in an elite but ominous boarding school for his Yale-level writing potential and yet takes on Mafioso-businessmen and drug-lords in violent gang led wars.
And Archie Andrews himself suddenly transforms from a good-natured handsome sportsman and musician, to a bizarre vigilante and mafia henchman, without batting an eyelid.
Similarly, the plot moves from simple teen squabbles, a scary serial killer to sinister Christian homes for ‘troubled youth,’ small town affairs to brothels led by the town’s most strict parent, simple car races flagged off by the town’s teen prima donna to baseless rioting.
But it is in season 3 and 4 that all hell breaks loose. A completely inexplicable, secretive (historic) fantasy board game called Gryphons and Gargoyles (a la Dungeons and Dragons) make an appearance and everyone is hooked. With this, the plot loses any semblance of sanity.
The students are addicted to this bizarre game with absolutely random rules; parents are secretive and hold even more embarrassingly secret meetings about it; and everyone in the small town has a history associated with it. Funny, monstrous, tree-like creatures are worshipped, nuns turn out to be agents for an organ-harvesting business led by a mysterious sect called the Farm who are drugging students, boxing matches are betted upon in a juvenile detention center (reminiscent of Shawshank Redemption), secret trenches are discovered and more people die and come back alive and everyone starts collapsing with seizures. Betty has Hannibal Lecter like conversations with her convicted father. A neighbouring ghost town (The Leftovers) is brought in where everyone is stoned and all men have become bonded labourers of Veronica’s dad, the mafia businessman, who cannot beat stupid teens! Through some more strange twists and turns, Archie escapes to Canada and fights a grizzly. Yeah, that’s pretty normal.
A show that could have become a gripping teen slasher, or dealt with teen angst (13 reasons Why) turns into an incredulous and unbelievable mishmash of various genres, tropes and plots. It is almost as if, along the way, the makers forgot that Riverdale was not an animated fantasy but a show about real, live people. Yet, its next season is awaited with curiosity—justifying Josie’s song from Season 3 Anything Goes.