What went wrong with ‘Riverdale’?

Looking at the hit teen drama’s demise

Image by: Amelia Rankine
Riverdale is currently airing its third season.

I have trouble pinpointing the exact moment I realized Netflix’s teen hit, Riverdale, was no good. It might’ve been the episode Archie got attacked by a bear, or when Betty publicly strip-teased to join a gang. Or maybe my disenchanted attitude formed all the way back in season one, during Jughead’s cringe-worthy “I’m weird” monologue

It’d be easy for me to just write off Riverdale as a bad teen show, but the reality is the show’s a product of an industry undergoing sweeping changes in mainstream production and writing style. 

Unlike most shows, viewers can either stream Riverdale weekly on Netflix or tune in to its host CW channel on their TV. Although convenient for the modern TV-lover, that means the writer’s room has to consider the diversity of viewing methods when devising the narrative arc of each season and episode. 

Many of us still remember a time when television could only be watched on an actual television. Week after week, shows provided neat, tidy narratives. The formula was simple: present a problem, then a solution, and have a cliff-hanger thrown at the end for a twist. 

Because you wouldn’t be able to binge-watch shows, cable TV writers understood that, in addition to their loyal viewership, many people would be watching for the first time. To appeal to new viewers, overarching narratives needed to be summarized and characters easily introduced. Broadcasters would typically achieve this by beginning each episode with, “Previously on!” 

Since Riverdale airs on the CW, the writers parcel the show into consumable bites to attract people flipping through channels. This results in consistent cliff-hangers and buzzworthy plot points. The shock value of a character doing a strip-tease or getting attacked by a bear is meant to appeal to the weekly viewer. 

However, since Riverdale also airs regularly on Netflix, the showrunners have to take into account that people might binge multiple episodes at a time. The writers have to switch gears and cater to an online audience as well. And this is where we start seeing some problems. 

Whereas weekly episodes merely resolve storylines or leave cliff-hangers,streaming style requires overarching plots and Easter eggs. This can be explained by a concept called Complex TV, where writers take advantage of  the power they hold over rapt viewers to control their TV-watching habits. They want their viewers to watch, re-watch and even consume an entire season in a single seating.

Riverdale tries to achieve this by presenting storylines that build into complicated, series-long drama. This can explain why the current season opens with Archie in jail, Veronica’s dad and Jughead’s mom in a drug war, and Betty singlehandedly fighting a cult. 

The show’s experiencing television growing pains: it’s holding onto broadcast television’s writing structure, but also attempting to include binge-able content in the hopes of appealing to two different audiences. 

The problem is that it’s doing neither successfully. 

Instead, Riverdale provides a dizzying mishmash of overarching plot points. At one moment, it’ll explore drama surrounding the Fizzle Rocks drug or the Gargoyle King. At the next, it’ll have a song-filled episode based on the musical Heathers.

Riverdale provides a dizzying mishmash of overarching plot points.

If Riverdale was written for traditional television audiences, it’d follow a traditional problem-solution structure. Each episode would have its own narrative that’d wrap up by the end of the hour or carry out logically through the season. 

If Riverdale only streamed on Netflix, episode-long plots wouldn’t be prioritized. The viewer would be expected to watch multiple episodes in a row, with a full understanding of all its complexities. This structure allows writers the freedom to develop nuanced plots that continue throughout each season. 

But in reality, each season of Riverdale is filled with tangled plots that take a serious investment in the show to understand.

There’s a chance that Riverdale’s writers might figure out how to balance these opposing writing styles. In the meantime, I’m going to continue to laugh at the rollercoaster of plot twists that still manage to keep me coming back for more. 


Cultural commentary, Riverdale, TV

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