After a traditionally absurd start for the new season, Riverdale settles into a new series, and a reliance on the sides of the show that struggle the most to keep anyone’s interest.
I mean, yes, this is still Riverdale and there’s still a bunch to enjoy about it on a purely superficial level: Madchen Amick somehow making pushing balloons aside seem like slamming a heavy door directly into your face, the Blossoms conducting a family dinner like some sort of twisted matriarchal version of What Happened to Baby Jane,
Skeet Ulrich lounging around prison and reminding me about these deep-seated father issues I have directed at any emotionally unavailable older man in a leather jacket, the return of Dark Betty. I’m delighted to welcome a spikier Lili Reinhart back to this season after a far premier performance that was far too pastel-hued for my liking, and doubly chuffed to see Madchen Amick sweeping around in flawless jackets and accusing her daughter of inviting crime into Riverdale by throwing a cutesy fundraiser. Even at it’s worst, Riverdale still features some fantastic performances and fabulous characters, and it’s always a pleasure to check in to the town week after week to catch up with them. I’m even -whisper it – starting to like Archie, or at least the way the show is dealing with his paranoia and trauma after the shooting. But this is also an episode steeped in all the worst features of the CW, and it grates.
For every Zodiac-inspired, new-wave-scored murder scene (two Zodiac references in as many days, guess serial killing’s coming back into vogue), there was Archie just opening the door shirtless to give us the requisite weekly ogle. For every acapella version of Kelis’ Milkshake forming the backdrop for Archie’s trauma flashbacks, there’s a tiny little c-plot Josie getting involved in the cheerleading squad that only seems tacked on to give Josie something to do. There’s a drug dealing plot, making out in a classic convertible, and a “let’s get together and save the town (insert nostalgic town monument here)” which they literally played with the exact same beats as the drive-in cinema story last season. It’s not an awful episode, but it’s not far off, just leaning too hard into it’s teen drama, and the misc. gothic horror that makes up the rest of the episode just isn’t strong enough to balance out the boringitude.
I’m still happy to have Riverdale back, but I’d just about scrubbed from my memory all the stuff that left me ice-cold about the first season: most notably every single thing that has to do with Veronica and her endlessly handwringing over the relative moral decency of her family. Maybe if Camila Mendes had a little bit of presence these plots could stand up to the campy fun of, say, the Blossoms current (and equally ridiculous) plot, but she’s just a blank slate, the entire episode grinding to a halt when she steps forward into the stoplight.
Not to mention, there’s just a lot of…oddness, in this episode? Not just the standard Riverdale hyper-meta oddness, but weird directorial choices along with some just baffling acting ones (Cole Sprouse’s “How many…………….years” delivery is, and I say this as someone who watched most of the new season of Twin Peaks, one of the fucking weirdest things I’ve seen on TV this year). I don’t necessarily mind this – I mean, if you can’t be great, you might as well embrace intentional awfulness as a house style – but these kind of bizarre choices tend to work best when Riverdale is in full, outrageous flow, whereas this episode feels as muted as every bit of acting Luke Perry is doing this season (headcanon: Fred is so toasted on painkillers after the shooting that he’s actually viewing everything that’s happening around him in the style of the original Archie comics) and leaves those choices looking less like active decisions and more like the show just truly couldn’t come up with anything better.
There’s also just a handful of plot holes that the show is all too happy to handwave away – the timeline between Fred’s shooting, Archie’s descent into sleep-deprived psychosis, and Grundy’s death (headcanon #2: Archie for certain did it, fight me on this), not to mention Jughead’s strange motivations – he doesn’t want to blackmail the Blossoms himself, but is all too happy to get involved in Betty leading the charge? Hiram Lodge is back on the scene and pleasingly scheming, but his schemes and double-crosses are sort of starting to pile up on top of each other and we’re only two episodes in.
I’m in for this entire season now, like it or lump it, and there was still just enough here to keep me interested: that final shooting, Betty’s continuing descent into callous cruelty, Madchen Amick, Madchen Amick. But Riverdale needs to take a step away from the network that gave it a home and the tropes inherent in it, and strike back out into it’s own territory with a little more force.
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