How 'Riverdale' Is Revamping the Teen Drama For A Modern Audience

Nora Dominick ‘17/ Emertainment Monthly Executive Stage Editor

Spoilers ahead!

Now eight episodes into its first season, Riverdale has become a fan-favorite addition to the CW’s spring TV lineup. Riverdale is combining the best qualities of successful CW and WB teen shows to create a thought provoking show with interesting character dynamics and storylines. While keeping to the original source material of the Archie Comics, Riverdale is revamping the teen drama that made the network successful.
For a long time, The CW/WB was known for its teen soap operas. From Dawson’s Creek to One Tree Hill to Gossip Girl, the network thrived on showing teens and young adults at their best moments, but also their worst. Even Buffy the Vampire Slayer had some of its best episodes when the Scooby Gang was going through typical young adult problems, while of course battling demons. For years, The CW was the channel all teenagers flipped to, to watch their favorite dramas.
Since Arrow debuted on the network in 2012, The CW has undergone a massive rebranding. The network now has a heavy focus on the sci-fi/superhero genre with their hit TV shows like The Flash, Supergirl and The 100. Even their other TV shows such as Jane the Virgin and Crazy Ex-Girlfriend put a fresh and innovative spin on the dramas that once frequented the network’s airwaves. For a while, we thought the teen dramas of the early 2000’s may have been lost forever. Then Riverdale swooped in and proved the teen soap opera is not only still relevant, but can be updated for a new and interested audience.
Based on the popular Archie Comics, Riverdale follows Archie, Jughead, Betty, Veronica, Cheryl and other comic book favorites in the town of Riverdale. The catch this time around? Not everything is quite as it seems in the picturesque town. The show begins with the vicious murder of Cheryl’s twin brother, Jason Blossom. With a film noir feel, Jughead narrates as the town tries to find the killer. For anyone expecting the wholesome Archie and the gang from the comics, they’re in for a big surprise. There’s murder, teen pregnancy, affairs, and enough high school drama to remind you they’re still just kids. Riverdale uses the Archie Comics as a jumping off point, but creates a unique spin that has viewers tuning in week after week.

KJ Apa, Camila Mendes and Lili Reinhart in Riverdale. Photo Credit: Katie Yu/The CW
KJ Apa, Camila Mendes and Lili Reinhart in Riverdale. Photo Credit: Katie Yu/The CW
Even if you’ve never read a full Archie comic book, most people know about the love triangle between Archie, Betty and Veronica. It’s classic. While the three characters still play an important role in Riverdale, their love triangle has so far supplanted by Veronica and Betty’s friendship. Female friendships are rare on TV. Most of the time, female characters are pitted against each other and most of the time it’s over a male character. With this idea rooted in the Archie comics framework, Riverdale, refreshingly, switches things up.
From episode one, Betty and Veronica prove to be great friends as opposed to adversaries. Even when Veronica spends “seven minutes in heaven” with Archie, her first priority is to win back Betty’s trust. Throughout the first eight episodes, Veronica and Betty appear to have a stronger relationship than Betty and Archie do. Riverdale does this character building the perfect way. Establishing Betty and Veronica as true friends will open up conflicts and superior friendship moments as the seasons progress. While there inevitably will be a falling out between Veronica and Betty (there’s some teen soap qualities you just can’t alter), seeing them not fighting over a guy right off the bat is perfect. We aren’t backed right into the love triangle corner.
Madelaine Petsch and Lili Reinhart in the Riverdale episode "Chapter Three: Body Double." Photo Credit: Diyah Pera/The CW
Madelaine Petsch and Lili Reinhart in the Riverdale episode “Chapter Three: Body Double.” Photo Credit: Diyah Pera/The CW
Going into the female characters, each one brings a unique spin on the stereotypical teen drama character. Starting with Betty Cooper, Lili Reinhart has created such a dynamic female lead in these first eight episodes. Her storyline has been dominated by her interest in finding Jason’s killer. Yes, a romance with Jughead has found its way in, but she’s still not driven by a romance. Reinhart is just one of the many talented young actresses on Riverdale. She’s creating her own version of Betty Cooper. Most of her moments have been the most memorable, leaving audiences just in awe of Reinhart’s talent.
On the flip side, we’ve got Veronica Lodge (Camila Mendes), the rising queen of Riverdale High School. A character that could’ve totally been the antagonist to Betty, Riverdale allows Veronica to have her vulnerable and cold as ice moments. Mendes balances these moments like a class act. With each passing episode, it’s up in the air which Veronica we’ll be seeing. Like the iconic characters of Brooke Davis (Sophia Bush) and Blair Waldorf (Leighton Meester) that came before her, Veronica is the complex female character every teen drama needs. Like Blair, Veronica will soon rule Riverdale, controlling everyone with one hand motion. Then like Brooke, she’s tough when needed, but also knows the value of a good cry. Mendes is perfect to take on this role. A role that is essential for any hit CW teen drama.
Even Cheryl Blossom (Madelaine Petsch), the resident antagonist on Riverdale, is poised to have an incredible character arc. Instead of simply having the bitchy female foil for our leading females, Cheryl rides a fine line between bad and good. In one breathe, she’s yelling at the cheerleading squad and in the other she’s crying into Veronica’s shoulder. Petsch is tailor made for this role and it’s hard to determine whether we should love or hate Cheryl. Her intentions are good, it’s just her execution that could use some work. Reminiscent of the early days of Lydia (Holland Roden) on Teen Wolf, Cheryl will surely become a confidant for the others. Like with Veronica, Riverdale notices that no character can be black and white. They need to have qualities people will gravitate towards.
Cole Sprouse and KJ Apa in the Riverdale episode "Chapter Two: A Touch of Evil." Photo Credit: Diyah Pera/The CW
Cole Sprouse and KJ Apa in the Riverdale episode “Chapter Two: A Touch of Evil.” Photo Credit: Diyah Pera/The CW
The boys on Riverdale are no exceptions to the revamp. Archie Andrews (K.J. Apa) has all the lovable qualities of his comic book counterpart. He’s a football star, a musician and an all around good guy. He’s the boy you want to take home to your parents. Though in Riverdale, even Archie has his dark secrets. The storyline with him and Ms. Grundy (Sarah Habel) even puts a fresh spin on the stereotypical “student dates teacher” storyline that inevitably appears in teen dramas. Archie may be perfect on paper, but his faults actually make him the intriguing leading male character Riverdale needs.
Riverdale’s film noir take on Jughead Jones (Cole Sprouse) gives the show the extra edge it needs to stand out from previous teen soap dramas. The character of Jughead, even pulling from the various comic iterations of the character, will allow Riverdale to do some amazing things. While Jughead maybe starting a relationship with Betty, his sexuality is often a discussed topic among Archie comic book fans. A discussion that Riverdale will hopefully bring to the table as the show progresses. Jughead maybe the loner character, but he’ll inevitably allow the show to stand out amongst a sea of other teen dramas.
While Riverdale’s character development has already allowed modern audiences to fall in love with the teen drama genre again, it’s also the stories that have us ranking it among the best. This show recognizes their audience is smart. They’re going to figure out clues and they want smart characters. Often on teen dramas, audiences have to suspend disbelief, especially when it comes to storylines where teens are pitted against adult characters.
Cole Sprouse and Lili Reinhart in the Riverdale episode "Chapter Six: Faster, Pussycats! Kill! Kill!" Photo Credit: Dean Buscher/The CW
Cole Sprouse and Lili Reinhart in the Riverdale episode “Chapter Six: Faster, Pussycats! Kill! Kill!” Photo Credit: Dean Buscher/The CW
Not once in the seven seasons of Pretty Little Liars have those girls gone to the police first. Or has the student/teacher relationship been discussed with the parents. Riverdale undoes these two teen drama stigmas within the first eight episodes. Archie’s father, Fred (Luke Perry), has a significant moment when he finds out Archie’s dating Ms. Grundy. And after finding a crime scene, Jughead and Betty call the police. We know, shocking. Riverdale uses the teen soap tropes, but revamps them. They create storylines for a smart audience. An audience that’s willing to suspend disbelief for some things, but not others.
While fewer and fewer teen dramas frequent network television, Riverdale swoops in to capitalize on some of the character formulas that made shows like One Tree Hill and Gossip Girl so popular, while undoing certain storyline tropes. In a landscape filled with superhero TV, especially on The CW, Riverdale creates a refreshing teen film noir-like drama that has audiences hooked. With incredible young talent, intriguing storylines and formidable characters, Riverdale is poised to live among some of the best teen dramas we still discuss.

Riverdale airs Thursdays at 9/8c on The CW

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