Riverdale is Burning

Riverdale makes no excuses for its excess. The CW’s much hyphenated, gorgeously shot murder-mystery-slash-steamy-teen-drama-slash-mob-war-meets-occasional-musical leaves no cinematic, literary, or pop-cultural reference unturned. Its characters are references in themselves, drawn from the Archie Comics. Each episode is named after a famous movie—often genre fare or noir, but arthouse flicks like There Will Be Blood are thrown in for good measure. Its characters may date from the 1940s, but their dialogue is shameless post-Buffy, post-Juno quip-speak.

For example, when we first meet Veronica Lodge—the raven-haired, reformed rich bitch who just moved to town—she announces that she is “Riverdale’s own Blue Jasmine,” even though that comment makes little sense in context. She is the daughter of a silky, omnipotent man with mafia ties who is (briefly) jailed, but she is not the architect of his downfall. Camila Mendes as Veronica seems determined to make herself sexy by spitting out allusion after allusion, willing herself into vixenhood not through gesture, embodiment, or overall affect but through witticisms and put-downs that are just broad enough to be appreciated by most of the audience. If I had a bitcoin for every time she or her mother mouthed, “Well, it’s not the Met ball,” I’d be richer than the Lodges. At least Veronica does prove, beyond the shadow of a doubt, why you need to wear a push-up bra when rescuing someone from an asylum run by scary nuns who dabble in conversion theory.

But then there’s my favorite character, Cheryl—or as she reminds us, “Cheryl Bombshell.” And boy, is she. She looks like Jessica Chastain’s little sister if she were forever stealing her older sibling’s clothes and trying to outdo her by wearing as few of them as possible at any given time. I would apologize for finding her and Lili Reinhart’s “dark Betty” hot, but true to the genre of teen TV, all the actresses are in their 20s, except for the honey-voiced Ashleigh Murray, who plays Josie; she’s thirty. Cheryl has Rita Hayworth’s curving red hair and racehorse legs but, at least initially, no time for sex. “Get your Sapphic, serpent hands off me!” is one of the best lines from her perfectly plump mouth. She does eventually embrace her inner Sappho with the very girl that line rebuffed, falling for the tough Southsider Toni. I’m thrilled for them both. It goes without saying that the two share their first kiss in the above-mentioned Gothic asylum.

Cheryl reminds me of someone, and then I realize why I am in love with the whole production. Cheryl is the Audrey Horne of 2018—over-ripe, precocious, sleuthing and scheming, but innocent at heart. And Riverdale is the newest iteration of the spooky small town Twin Peaks dreamed into being.

The Twin Peaks connection is no surprise, even apart from the fact that Riverdale’s creator has admitted its influence, for the cast of Riverdale is itself a throwback to teen movies, television shows, and idols of the late-1980s through mid-1990s. We have bad boy Skeet Ulrich, the imitable and constipated-looking Luke Perry (no wonder they made him a heroin addict on 90210), and Molly Ringwald. Ringwald, whose acting style has always been an exercise in the key of peeved, can only be the mother of Archie, the angriest young man on the show, and maybe the most inexplicably angry young man ever. Middle-aged women who were little overachievers will know Robin Givens not just as the ex-wife of Mike Tyson but as one of the stars of Head of the Class, the favorite program of every female who suffered through a public-school gifted program in the 80s. Above all, there’s Mädchen Amick, whom I have worshipped since the day when, barely out of her own teens, she slid a gun between her breasts to tempt Bobby Briggs on Twin Peaks. Amick, as Betty’s mother, is a force of nature. She needs to be if she is to battle her way through the storm of archetypes she is supposed to embody: the maternal harridan, the star reporter, the woman with a past, the put-upon wife (her husband is two-timing her with Cheryl’s mom, who in Season Two inexplicably turns into a courtesan to rival Nana), the Madonna yearning for her lost child, and the shrew with a heart of gold.

Undeniably, it is Twin Peaks with which this show shares the most DNA—not 90210 or Buffy the Vampire Slayer. (And not The X-Files, although like it, Riverdale has stoked local fervor by being filmed in Vancouver. I can’t wait until one of the cast marries Téa Leoni and demands that the show be relocated to L.A.) Like David Lynch’s masterwork, Riverdale feeds on the old-fashioned, mid-twentieth-century cinematic tropes. Archie and the gang are the proper-noun analogs for the kids from the wrong side of the tracks and the saddle-shoed femme fatales around which Lynch built his addictive murder mystery. And I use the word, feeds, purposefully: Riverdale does not draw from source material, or reframe it. It feasts, and it eats well.

Then why do I feel a bit nauseated while watching it? Twin Peaks—both the original series and Twin Peaks: The Return—are among my favorite works of art of any genre, despite the flaws and indulgences in both. Maybe it’s simply down to the joie de vivre with which Lynch films women. Whether he is capturing Bérénice Marlohe showing off her Louboutins or Audrey swaying dreamily by the jukebox, he loves what he fetishizes.

I’m not sure the same is true of Riverdale. But no matter. I love the fetishized girl-women of Riverdale enough for all of us. Fitting that they are based on comics, because these characters are gleeful cartoons, heightened like each and every day of one’s teen years. Riverdale stages the adolescent rites of passage as high camp, sex and love and family throw-downs served over ice cream sundaes at the malt shop. If Twin Peaks was the soap opera recast as horror film, Riverdale is the teen drama as drag show. And it’s fabulous.

Copyright © Cynthia Gralla, 2018