If you’re anything like me, you’ve seen about a thousand screen captures of Riverdale being mocked on Twitter. Since its premiere in 2017, the teen supernatural-comedy-drama-soap based on the Archie comics has gradually lost its popularity and become the punching bag for anyone on the internet with a brain and a platform. Many would say this is for good reason—what was once a well-crafted murder mystery has deteriorated into a nonsensical festival of cringe that referenced internet shipping drama and gave the main characters superpowers. I used to say the same. Recently, however, I’ve been captivated by the many plotlines and cultural reflections that make up the immense and absurd world of Riverdale. What started as a jokey high-school rewatch of the first two seasons with a pint of dairy-free ice cream in hand became a rabid binge-watch during winter break to fill the void left behind by classes and social events.
It wasn’t an immediate switch. Towards the end of the second season, when the show revealed the existence of a “serial killer gene,” I remembered the ridicule the plotline had endured and became skeptical. A storyline revolving around cult leaders and a D&D parody seemed laughable at worst and unrealistic at best. But as I watched the third season’s musical episode, which parodied Heathers with artificial skirt-whipping and off-key singing, it hit me: Riverdale is a beautiful celebration of the absurdity that pervades the world in which we live. Watching the characters worry about sex, the school musical, and other banal high school anxieties while serial killers prowled and gang wars raged in the background was deranged – yes, but the show’s simultaneous depiction of exaggerated drama and lack of consequences also reveals something bigger about the current moment.
The world isn’t so bad, it seems to say. Look at these kids. Archie fought a bear and went to war. Betty’s whole family are serial killers. They have to defeat the literal devil. As the show became increasingly deranged, I grew more fascinated with the characters. Despite the strangeness of a small-town crime boss and a gang of high schoolers, the emotional arcs were viscerally real. The death of Cheryl’s twin brother haunted her throughout all seven seasons, resulting in a kooky but ultimately devastating portrayal of grief when she began treating his corpse as a confidante. Veronica ordered a hit on her father after realizing that he would never respect her as an equal, but in so doing, reenacted his criminal lifestyle that she despised. The heightened circumstances allowed the characters to express heightened emotions that resonate with the despair many young people are feeling as the planet gets hotter and politicians less competent.
The penultimate season, for example, tackled a parallel universe terrorized by the devil, a vengeful family of gangsters all named after Charles Dickinson characters, and a warlock who intended to raze the town. It also saw the characters go through childbirth, divorce, and the difficulty of returning to a hometown they no longer recognized. At the end of the season, the town was transported to the 1950s, echoing the current political movement towards “traditional values” even as it became ever more absurd. The show’s treatment of off-the-wall plotlines and genuine emotional developments with equal seriousness allows me to feel more okay about the ominous decay of the world around me. The characters’ over-articulated, over-dramatized feelings provide catharsis for the big feelings that come with being in one’s early twenties. Riverdale encourages the expression of big feelings—of rage, devastation, fear. It also celebrates the persistence of human joy, of people who want to protect their communities, of big hearts and love stories that span seven seasons. And perhaps most importantly, it is fundamentally silly. Watching actors well on their way to middle-aged years playing as teenagers and witchcraft saving the town is hilarious in its absurdity. It throws caution to the wind in a moving embrace of camp and kookiness. But the show’s sincere tone treats even the strangest of situations with care and empathy. It lends comfort to its subjects and its viewers, both needing the space to go through the stages of human life as the world around them declines into insanity.