Amazon Prime’s dramatization of a Pulitzer Prize book about slavery is powerful but difficult to watch.
Ah, Riverdale—the happy, innocent home of Archie, Jughead, Betty, Veronica and the gang. It’s a place of pure Americana, an idealized portrait of heartland life. It’s home to Pop Tate’s Chocklit Shoppe, Pickens Park and, of course, Riverdale High School.
For much of its pop-culture history, not much happened in Riverdale. Sure, Archie pondered whom to date: girl-next-door Betty or the glamorous-but-sometimes-conniving Veronica. He and his friends would struggle in school or get lost in the woods or, perhaps, unwisely try to learn to play the bagpipes. But generally, Riverdale was a carefree place, untouched by the gales and swamps found in the outside world.
“Archie was a primer on an existence that was insistently wholesome, perpetually teen-aged,” wrote Emma Cline in The New Yorker of the classic comic book series. “The characters made fudge and kept up Teddy-bear collections, called their cars ‘jalopies’ and entered radio contests. The weather in Riverdale was always sunny, unless it was neatly snowing, and no one aged or suffered beyond one or two pages of slapstick conflict.”
It was a refuge of sorts—an idyllic, domestic fantasy. A little like Disneyland, only with far cheaper chocolate shakes.
Now, CW is asking viewers to revisit the innocent hamlet of Riverdale again. And while it’s still a fantasy, this version is far from innocent.
Archie’s still around, of course. The rest of the gang’s around, too. But man, have things changed. Forget innocent jaunts for a chocolate shake: Archie and his pals are dealing with sex, affairs, murder and cult activity. These days, the quaint town of Riverdale is filled with the grimy crime of Breaking Bad’s Albuquerque, the supernatural intrigue of an X-Files episode and the sexual escapades (sometimes between teens and adults) of ’80s-era Dynasty—all wrapped up in a soapy, smarmy, teen-centric veneer.
Yeah, that’ll foster a little conversation at Pop Tate’s, that’s for sure.
Riverdale thinks itself clever. And at times, it can be. If the comic book Riverdale was a place out of time, CW’s version is steeped in literary and pop-culture references, from Veronica name-dropping Truman Capote and Toni Morrison to Josie McCoy (à la Josie and the Pussycats) calling Arch “Justin Gingerlake.”
But if the writing aspires to be like The Gilmore Girls, its plot is pure Pretty Little Liars. Only more trashy and tawdry.
The show is preoccupied with sex—heterosexual, homosexual, potentially incestuous, whatever. Sometimes, the leap from the classroom to the bedroom is made with less thought than deciding what to wear in the morning. (In the pilot, for instance, Kevin and macho football player Moose run off into the woods to engage in some impromptu, fleeting carnal pleasures, with Moose insisting that he’s open to everything but “kissing.”)
Where are these kids’ parents, you ask? Shoved primly away in the background or causing ruckus in Riverdale. And while many of these moms and dads do love their children, they’re divvied up into three categories. The “good” parents understand their children and, thus, let them do whatever they want. The “bad” parents are those who have, like, rules and stuff. And then there are the parents who’re making trouble of their own. (Seriously, you wouldn’t believe the number of parents in this show who have either turned out to be serial killers or threatened to kill their children’s friends.)
Sex? Scandal? Yep, it’s all here. Riverdale is what would happen if a high school yearbook and Gawker had a baby.
Not that the content is exactly remarkable in today’s age of tawdry teen dramedies. But the fact that CW has subverted Riverdale’s historically innocent vibe so purposefully and ruthlessly makes me sad. I know Archie’s comic-based tales have grown significantly darker and more problematic themselves in recent years, but c’mon. Having Archie have sex with Miss Grundy (a prime plot-point in Season One) is a little like giving Kermit and Miss Piggy a sex tape, or forcing a gun in Batman’s hands and making him kill. (Thanks for that, Zac Snyder.) It just doesn’t feel right.
Which, of course, is partly the point. We all feel this disconnect, which has earned Riverdale a modicum of attention in an overcrowded landscape. Maybe the strategy is akin to being a middle kid in a big family: To get attention, sometimes you set the cat on fire.
In one episode, Jughead and Betty look fondly into each other’s eyes at the local diner. “I wish we could just go,” Jughead says, looking as sad as a guy named Jughead can look. “Just hop on a motorcycle and leave Riverdale.”
You and me both, Jugs. You and me both.
As the Riverdale High students prepare for prom, Veronica tries to help Archie get into the Naval Academy while Betty and Jughead attempt to catch the culprit behind a series of “snuff” films.
We see shots of several snuff films where people wearing masks resembling the comic book versions of Riverdale’s characters stab real-life people to death. We see shots from sex tapes of Riverdale’s residents (including some underage characters), though nothing critical is shown. We also see shots of a serial killer as a child being schooled by his mother to punish “sinners.”
Several teen couples (including same-sex couplings) kiss and dance. Sex is talked about on multiple occasions by these same teenagers, and we see some couples in bed together. We see girls in cleavage-baring dresses and short skirts. We see shirtless boys boxing, exercising and spending time in a sauna. A lesbian couple campaigns to be prom co-queens and wins. We hear about two teens cheating on their respective partners.
A man wearing brass knuckles beats up masked thugs. A girl punches a boy after he recognizes her from a sex tape (that she was unaware was filmed). Two teens get bloodied up during a boxing match. We see a flashback to a man wearing a bandage over the stump of his freshly severed finger. Teens film a fake snuff film showing a girl supposedly getting stabbed by a shirtless boy in a risqué leather mask.
Teens operate and frequent a speakeasy. Parents drink mimosas with their teenage daughter. Someone spikes the prom punch with a drug. Teenagers drink at a rave. We see a sinister sign in a murder lair with the words “Smile, God is watching” written on it. People gamble. We hear uses of “h—,” “d–n” and “a–,” as well as a misuse God’s name.
A group of prep students try to frame Betty for Jughead’s murder. Veronica and Archie question Betty’s innocence.
Betty willingly undergoes hypnosis to try and remember what happened the night of Jughead’s death. In the resulting flashback,Betty stands over Jughead’s body with a bloodied stone in her hand. People see Jughead’s body in the morgue. Archie punches a fellow student in the face and threatens him.
Betty and Veronica, both covered in blood, stand in their bras and underwear around a campfire; Archie stands alongside them in his boxers, also covered in blood. Archie lays in Veronica’s bed, shirtless. A few teen girls wear cleavage-baring outfits. Veronica tells her parents that she played strip poker. Archie’s mother confesses to having a girlfriend.
Teens lie to their parents and to one another. Betty vomits. A group of teens reference getting drunk and a few consume hard liquor. A teen girl blows a drug into Betty’s face, causing her to lose short term-memory.
God’s name is misused once and other profanity includes multiple utterances each of “b–ch,” “d–n,” “h—” and “bulls—.”
As a result of actor Luke Perry’s death (who played Archie’s dad, Fred Andrews), this tribute episode was dedicated to him and the character he played.
Archie receives a phone call that his father has been tragically killed in a hit-and-run accident. Archie and the gang make the journey to collect Fred’s body from the town he was killed in and bring him home to Riverdale.
A woman says the Lord’s Prayer while holding hands with Archie and the gang at the site of Fred’s death. “Amazing Grace” is sung at his funeral and a reverend leads the service. Some graves in the background have cross-shaped headstones.
A teenage couple lay and kiss in bed, covered only by sheets. Later, they are seen sleeping in another bed wearing pajamas. A teenage boy goes shirtless. Later, we see him in boxers and a t-shirt. Couples (including one same-sex female couple) sit on blankets and watch fireworks together. A teenage girl sits on her boyfriend’s lap. A teenage boy kisses his girlfriend on the forehead. Teenage girls wear short skirts and cropped tops.
When Archie learns who killed his dad, he goes to the man’s house and slams the man against a wall. He then punches the wall next to the man’s head, bruising his hand in the process. He finds out that it was really the man’s son (who was driving without a license), and the man lied to the police to protect his son. Archie forgives them both, realizing that Fred would have done the same thing for Archie.
A teenage boy feels guilty about fighting with, and lying to, his father. Teenagers drink from brown glass bottles (it is unclear whether these are alcoholic). A teenage boy finds chewing tobacco in his dad’s truck. A girl talks to her brother’s dead corpse. Another girl finds that her dad’s tombstone has been graffitied with words that he is burning in hell. ”H—” is also used as a profanity a few times, as is the word, “d—.”
Hiram Lodge’s cronies have begun to distribute a drug-laced candy to Riverdale’s teens . These same drugs are responsible for multiple hallucinations, deaths and imprisonments. Betty is locked away in a mental institution where she learns that “The Gargoyle King,” a feared monster-leader, is a product of drug hallucinations. Jughead and Archie visit Jughead’s mom in Ohio, hoping to find refuge from the bounty that Hiram Lodge has placed on Archie’s head.
People are threatened with knives and we hear that a sheriff has had his head and hands cut off. A little girl hits a woman in the head with a rock. Couples argue. A young girl tells a story about a violent, fear-inducing cult leader. An elderly nun tells two girls she will “electroshock” the sin out of them, after admitting to using her secret mental facility to abuse and control young children. A woman is “waterboarded” with syrup.
Two men make out and flirt. Two women do as well. A woman asks her female lover to move in with her. Women wear revealing outfits. An elderly woman plans to open a brothel.
An entire group of girls have drug-induced seizures and a man continues to build a drug empire. Men drink hard liquor. A woman vomits. A man equates himsef to God. God’s name is misused twice and other profanities include multiple uses of “h–,” “d–n,” “b–ch,” and “wench.”
Hiram Lodge frames Archie for murder, and Archie is sent to juvenile detention. Veronica will do whatever it takes to get Archie out of prision, even if she must change her name to do so. Cheryl Blossom, Riverdale High’s self-proclaimed queen bee, runs for student body president. Betty has a seizure after seeing her mother and sister particpate in secret cult ceremony, but her family tries to convince her she’s going crazy. Betty and Jughead investigate mysterious murders and dissapearances involving a demonic creature known as “The Gargoyle King.”
In juvenile detention, Archie encourages the teens to act like men, not animals. The guards beat the boys and bribe them and the boys beat one another (various threats are uttered). Someone asks Archie to stab a fellow prisoner, but declines.
Mysterious murders plague Riverdale. People commit suicide with cyanide (we hear of it and see dead bodies) and one boy jumps out a window. A supernatural game has the power to summon evil creatures and spirits. Boys engage in a cult ceremony (we hear about the ceremony and see bones on the ground and symbols carved into the boys’ backs). Vodoo dolls hang from a ceiling. A girl believes she saw babies being thrown into a fire as part of a cult ritual . Two teen girls suffer seizures that are directly related to cult activity. A girl sneaks out at night with her boyfriend.
Guys strip for a routine check at the detention center (we only see their bare chests). Women wear revealing outfits (and are seen in bras and underwear) and dance provocatively. Posters of scantily clad women hang on a cell wall. Couples kiss. Two men kiss. Profanity includes multiple uses of “h—,” d–n” and “a–.”
After a townwide riot incited by mobster Hiram Lodge, Jughead is left injured but must regain his strength in order to save his band of followers, The Serpents. Veronica, Hiram’s daughter, disassociates herself from her father’s evil plans to take over Riverdale by besting him in business and helping Archie’s father run for mayor. Betty refuses to return to school when she finds that her father killed multiple people as one of the Black Hood.
Jughead lies on a hospital bed with multiple, visible injuries. Hiram plots to kill Jughead and ruin Riverdale by creating a brothel and creating a welcoming environment for drug dealers. Betty discusses the “unspeakable and horrible” things her father did to others. Someone is arrested. Multiple death threats are made and there is talk of burning down people’s homes.
Two men kiss, as do other heterosexual couples; two women flirt with one another. A teenage couple is seen in bed, covered only by blankets. Multiple people drink hard liquor, beer and champagne and one person lies on a couch, drunk. The words “b–tard,” “a–” and “h—” are used. An elderly woman is referred to as a “senile crone.”
Trouble this way brews in Riverdale. After Midge (a student of Riverdale High) is murdered, the town tries to track down her killer. Archie thinks it’s the mysterious vigilante known as the Black Hood (who Betty believes is her father), but most people believe it’s a member of the Serpent gang (who is innocent but has been unjustly accused). Veronica Lodge’s father, Hiram Lodge, is determined to run the city of Riverdale, and he will do whatever it takes, even if that means turning the students of Riverdale High against one another and manipulating Archie to gain power. Elsewhere, Archie’s father, Fred Andrews, and Veronica’s mother, Hermione Lodge, battle in the mayoral election.
People lie about murdering others and often mention death, murder and violence. An angry mob waits outside the police station. A girl is caught cheating on her boyfriend on camera; there’s further conversation about sex and infidelity. A group of high school boys get into a fight. Veronica tries to get mobsters to invest in a casino. Betty is called to the morgue to identify a body (we see someone’s dead face) and she later admits to having a darkness within her (she takes a gun with her as she makes plans to kill her father).Various people receive written threats and a man open fires at a school gathering (though no one is killed). Someone is shot in the stomach and blood pours from his abdomen.
We hear words such as “a–” and “h—.” A girl takes off her shirt, revealing lingerie and cleavage, and a boy takes off his shirt; it’s insinuated that a couple has sex as they kiss and are seen (covered) in bed together.
The gang join together to turn Stephen King’s Carrie into a musical. But this production will be anything but friendly as the Black Hood reappears to threaten lives.
Hiram and Hermione Lodge plan to ruin Archie’s relationship with his father (in hopes that it will prevent him from running for mayor) by buying Archie a new car.
Kevin, Betty’s gay friend, is the director of the school’s musical and chooses Jughead to be the film producer. Betty and Archie are cast as lovers, while Veronica and Chuck are cast as another couple. Veronica is cast as Carrie.
Girls dance provocatively during the musical, wearing tight and revealing clothing that showcase cleavage, stomachs and legs. A girl gives a guy a lap dance. Couples kiss and make out. In the play, two males sing about their desire to have sexual relations with one another. People’s lives are threatened (one girl pours blood over herself and threatens her mother), and one girl is seen dead, nailed to a wall and with knives in her stomach—her blood is used to write threatening messages. Someone sings that it’s better to get revenge by any means possible than lay low. God’s name is misused once and the words “d–n,” “crap” and “frickin” are heard. A few characters pretend they’re drinking during one scene.
Jughead writes an article about a local statue being decapitated, only to get kicked off the school newspaper because of it, along with ex-girlfriend, Betty. He’s also blamed for the riot and chaos that soon ensue, as the local gang the Serpents are evicted from their homes and blamed for the decapitation. He and Betty will have to solve the case, and they may even uncover a few enemies along the way.
After her breakup with Jughead, Betty decides to start an online erotica channel and asks her expert brother, Chic, to teach her a thing or two about using a webcam to build up her clientele. Naturally, it must all be kept a secret, especially if she and Jughead ever get back together. It’s also dangerous, which is why Chic and his mother have to “eliminate” one of his male clients when he comes lurking around the house.
Archie is taken under the wing of Hiram Lodge, his girlfriend Veronica’s father, and he beings to understand the inner workings of mobster life—and the threats that come against Hiram himself. Archie must choose if he will spill the beans about Hiram to the FBI, or if he’ll stay loyal in this “toxic and dangerous” life. Meanwhile, Veronica’s Catholic confirmation ceremony is upcoming, and she must prepare herself to “renounce Satan,” which she says in jest, but seems tricky when you’re the daughter of a mobster who kills people as part of his job.
We hear the word “d—” three times and “h—” once. Someone is called “a piece of trash” A woman’s dress is removed, revealing her chest and bare back. Another woman, wearing only a skirt and bra, engages in racy sexual play (which is heard and not seen) via webcam. Other sexual moments are mentioned, including insinuated homosexual activity. Characters drink and smoke. One “client” lies dead on the ground, surrounded by a pool of his own blood.
A nefarious murderer dubbed “the Black Hood” has taken a shine to Betty, and he begins calling her to issue various sordid demands—threatening to kill her pregnant out-of-wedlock sister (as well as other people) if she refuses. Betty acquiesces: She publishes a scandalous picture of her own mother, verbally trashes Veronica and breaks up with her beau, Jughead. In the end, she even names someone whom the Black Hood can kill: a visiting rich kid named Nick St. Clair. What did Nick do? He drugged the champagne of Cheryl Blossom, hoping to rape her while she was unconscious.
Veronica and the Pussycats (a band) stop him before he can complete the act. They punch and kick his huddled body (including in the crotch) until their rage is vented. It’s not enough for Cheryl, though: “I want Nick to pay,” she says. “To suffer. To burn in hell.” Earlier, Nick sexually pressured Veronica (threatening to upend her father’s pending business deal if she refuses him, which she does).
Meanwhile, Jughead undergoes his own brutal beating: an initiation ceremony into a gang called The Serpents. He’s punched in the gut and face several times, including once with a pair of brass knuckles. Afterward, a girl named Toni kisses Jughead (who just broke up with Betty).
That said, Betty and Jughead do share a long, drawn-out kiss themselves. Betty’s mother shows up at a shindig in a revealing outfit with a neckline that plunges to her navel. (We see the sides of her breast and lots of leg.) Other women wear attire that also reveals quite a bit. When Nick spots Veronica’s “Pussycat” ears, he says, “Just when I though you couldn’t possibly get any sexier.” He puts his hands on her later and tries to kiss her.
Nick has drugs, too, offering Veronica a “bump.” She refuses initially. But at a party she agrees to accept a Pixy Stix that, we’re led to believe, contains some sort of drug. Veronica and other Pussycats accept the Stix. We later see revelers dancing and making out in what’s supposed to be a drug-infused haze. Kids and adults drink beer and champagne, too. Nick tells Veronica that he’s been “in and out of rehab” for a while now, and he’s struggling to stay clean.
The Black Hood casts his murders as morally cleansing Riverdale of its “sinners,” supposedly setting the town on “the righteous path again.” Someone references the biblical phrase “pearls before swine” (Matthew 7:6). People lie and scheme. Someone gets bitten by a snake. Profanity includes uses of “a–,” “d–n” and “h—,” as well as five misuses of God’s name.
A new school year is about to begin, but Riverdale High will be without one of its most “popular” students: Jason Blossom, who supposedly drowned while with twin sister, Cheryl. Meanwhile, new student Veronica shows up for class and meets the show’s main players: Hunky redhead Archie; innocent and love-struck Betty; and Kevin, Betty’s gay best friend.
In flashback, we see Archie having sex with Miss Grundy in the back of a VW bug. (There’s a lot of movement, skin and steamed-up windows, but nothing critical is shown.) Archie and Veronica share a passionate smooch in a closet as part of a “Seven Minutes in Heaven” game. Kevin hangs out in Betty’s room, while Betty wears just a bra on her topside. As they talk, Kevin spies a topless Archie through a window and admires the guy’s physique. Archie’s football cronies ask him if he tapped some “cougar a–” over the summer.
In order to get positions on Riverdale’s cheerleading squad, Veronica and Betty share a passionate kiss. Cheryl, head cheerleader, is unimpressed. “Faux lesbian kissing hasn’t been taboo since 1994,” she says. Kevin confesses that Moose, a football player at Riverdale, crudely propositioned him in the boys’ room. Later, Kevin and Moose run off into the woods together, Moose insisting that he’s not gay even as he says he wants to experiment. Kevin suggests they start with skinny dipping and see where that progresses. Cheryl’s relationship with Jason is meant to feel a bit unsettling, perhaps suggesting they shared more than a sibling affection. The two, in flashback, are shown holding hands.
We hear that Jason once dated Betty’s older sister. Betty’s mother, Alice, believes that he drove her crazy, and when Jason dies, she tells her husband, “I hope in those last minutes he suffered. May Jason Blossom burn in hell.” Alice also tells Betty that all boys are alike, suggesting they’re only interested in sex.
Kevin tells Veronica that Riverdale is home to one strip club called the “Hoe Zone and a tragic gay bar called Innuendo.” Veronica is interested in Archie, saying she’s “tried every flavor of boy but orange.” We learn her father was arrested for fraud and embezzlement. We see a dead body. Betty’s mom reminds her to take her Adderall (an ADHD drug), pressing the prescription bottle into her hand. Characters say the s-word once (uncensored in the streaming version I reviewed), as well as “a–,” “b–ch,” and “crap.” God’s name is used inappropriately about five times.
Paul Asay has been part of the Plugged In staff since 2007, watching and reviewing roughly 15 quintillion movies and television shows. He’s written for a number of other publications, too, including Time, The Washington Post and Christianity Today. The author of several books, Paul loves to find spirituality in unexpected places, including popular entertainment, and he loves all things superhero. His vices include James Bond films, Mountain Dew and terrible B-grade movies. He’s married, has two children and a neurotic dog, runs marathons on occasion and hopes to someday own his own tuxedo. Feel free to follow him on Twitter @AsayPaul.
Emily studied film and writing when she was in college. And when she isn’t being way too competitive while playing board games, she enjoys food, sleep, and indulging in her “nerdom,” which is the collective fan cultures of everything she loves, such as Star Wars and Lord of the Rings.
Kristin Smith joined the Plugged In team in 2017. Formerly a Spanish and English teacher, Kristin loves reading literature and eating authentic Mexican tacos. She and her husband, Eddy, love raising their children Judah and Selah. Kristin also has a deep affection for coffee, music, her dog (Cali) and cat (Aslan).
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