Skip to main content

The characters on Riverdale aren’t ‘teens’ with ‘teen problems’ – they’re people who’ve been dealt terrible hands.Diyah Pera

At the start of last week's Riverdale, we found ourselves smack dab in the middle of a 1950s-era fever dream. With our heroes decked out in knitwear and wigs, we catch a quick glimpse of Archie Andrews's reality the way it was once intended to be: wholesome and digestible, vanilla and nuclear. "When I was your age," we can hear a disgruntled boomer booming, "Kids wore bright colours! The ladies wore skirts! And surprise pregnancies were covered with an engagement and the promise of a better day!"

But of course, like the dream sequence itself, the episode's nostalgia-drenched homage quickly disintegrates. We see Jughead wake up to face his own homeless reality. We know that Betty's pregnant sister is on the lam. We remember that, sooner or later, Archie's burgeoning music career will be something we have to visit once more. Which makes Riverdale's approach to nostalgia less about paying homage to what the comic was, but to what we, as alumni from the schools of The O.C. and Gossip Girl, have come to see nostalgia as now.

If Riverdale – currently winding down its first season on the CW in the United States and available in Canada on Netflix – was a traditional Archie reboot, we would all want to walk into the sea. PG-rated love triangles and stereotypical teen hierarchies have been overplayed plot points for decades, which is why the debut of Beverly Hills: 90210 in 1990 was so refreshing. The series tackled everything from drug use to sex to the ins and outs of school newspapers, making Riverdale's recruitment of Luke Perry, a.k.a. Dylan McKay, a testament to this show's tricky balance: paying homage to the series that made Riverdale possible, but drawing our attention to our own mortality, too.

Which sounds a lot bleaker than it is, I promise. Nearly 30 years ago, Perry inhabited the role of the West Coast's secretly sensitive bad boy, cementing himself as the decade's James Dean in Beverly Hills: 90210. That same year introduced us to Madchen Amick who played Twin Peaks' Shelly Johnson, a waitress whose backstory is as heartbreaking as it was incriminating. Then in 1996's Scream, we met Skeet Ulrich, the Johnny Depp look-alike who freaked us out with his corn syrup and food colouring. Now, the three populate Riverdale as parents to Archie, Betty, and Jughead, leaving us to reconcile with the idea of Dylan McKay grounding his son or Skeet Ulrich being anything to us other than Sidney Prescott's boyfriend.

And that serves to make Riverdale stand out as more than just another teen drama. While fictional parents have always boasted their own narratives in shows such as 90210 or The O.C. or Gossip Girl, they usually failed to grab the attention of viewers who existed outside the teenage looking glass. Riverdale, on the other hand, has flipped the switch by injecting nostalgia – an existing social currency – directly into its narrative: as our former teen dreams play parents, we recognize that the trials and tribulations of small-town teens may not necessarily be only for us anymore. They might belong to fans who aren't as, well, old.

But this approach isn't exercised to the point of making us feel too old. While some of Riverdale's storylines run parallel to recent-ish series such as Pretty Little Liars (murder-mystery) or even Veronica Mars (film noir), they also tip their hats to the premises that made Nineties staples such as Dawson's Creek and Gilmore Girls so memorable. (Like illegal student-teacher relationships and a stoic young man who truly relates to Jack Kerouac.) Ultimately, Riverdale's nostalgia isn't limited to "Remember when you had a 90210 lunch box?" Instead, its whole operation thrives off reminding us that without the series we grew up watching and keep comparing it to, Riverdale wouldn't exist at all.

And that self-awareness is both special and limiting. With each week bringing new characters and working to shed new light on the dark corners that define this town, Riverdale feels like the final step in the evolution of "teen series" altogether. The resident sad boy is no longer Seth Cohen listening to indie rock and lamenting over unrequited love – he's the son of an alcoholic gang member whose behaviour has torn the family apart. To balance this, Archie is a neither complex nor just a jock: on the contrary, he's Dawson Leery, but without being pedantic and insufferable. (He's just a regular dude.) Meanwhile, Betty and Veronica are confronting the norms that come with having family in prison or family in danger, while "mean girl" Cheryl Blossoms is simply a young woman grappling with the tragic death of her twin.

These aren't "teens" with "teen problems" (maybe minus the "variety show" episode) – they're people who've been dealt terrible hands.

Which is why, thanks to Riverdale, the reality of teen series as we know them is uncertain. Steeped in nostalgia and daring to build on character tropes by adding depth and complexity, Riverdale's target audience is less the median age of Riverdale High, but anybody who loves a good story. Last week's opening scene was an uncomfortable reminder of outdated social norms, the impossibility of perfection, and how bad wigs can look. But it was also a reminder of how far TV and storytelling has come, too.

So why would we ever accept another show that reverts back to what we've all left behind? After all, we would never watch a show that the cast of Riverdale probably wouldn't watch themselves.