Tuesday, January 31, 2023
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Riverdale And The Halfhearted Return Of Teen Noir

[Note: Riverdale spoilers appear within, for those who aren’t caught up with the series.]

It’s been 10 years since the end of Veronica Mars, a teen drama that cleverly bubbled with the noirish atmosphere of a cynical narrator, femme fatales, and a convoluted crime. In its wake, a series of noir-lite shows have crept up with similar tropes, attempting to cash in on the aesthetics of noir while offering little else. Start a teen series with a murder and you’ve got a hook for at least a season, with plenty of tension to insert into the story when things start to drag. At least, that’s the hook for The CW’s Riverdale. The series opened with a dead body being dragged from Sweetwater River, Veronica Lodge swanning about an after-hours diner in a black cloak, and a long-simmering feud over a maple syrup empire. This past week, as Jason Blossom’s murderer was finally exposed, nary a bit of the series’ initial atmosphere was still intact. Had we been duped?

Riverdale, like any classic noir, is strung together by the narration of a cynical observer. Jughead is the narrator in question, but his account is decidedly un-noir in that it’s mostly overwritten and dire. Gone are the snappy one-liners and puns from classic noir storytelling, replaced by Jughead’s verbose Truman Capote cosplay narration and a Passions-level obsession with incest. Jughead becomes the central character of the series as his father becomes a murder suspect and provides a false confession, but he’s also oddly uninvolved in the final moments of the mystery, because at its heart, Riverdale doesn’t want to be a noir at all. It’s a teen soap opera starring Archie, Betty, and Veronica: the love triangle we’ve known since 1942’s Pep Comics No. 26.

To be clear: This isn’t a knock on teen soaps — a genre I’ve been addicted to since I first watched my mother glue herself to the television for Beverly Hills, 90210. The high-strung emotions of teen soaps lend themselves well to byzantine noir plots. Much like Buffy the Vampire Slayer used monsters as a metaphor for real life, Veronica Mars often used crimes as a metaphor for the way we hurt the ones we love. Riverdale, on the other hand, doesn’t quite know what it wants to say about teenagers. That they’re constantly controlled by their parents? Aside from the insane theatrics of Betty’s mom, Alice Cooper, who has probably trapped her daughter in a small, private elevator multiple times, and the Blossoms, most of the parents seem relatively normal (if not personally messy — this is a soap opera after all).

If Riverdale wants to be a soap with light noir flourishes, then its soapiness doesn’t go far enough either. Relationships have no lasting, simmering impact. Archie’s liaison with his teacher was outed at a party, but did he even care about that relationship once she was gone? The Dawson, Joey, and Pacey triangle on Dawson’s Creek led to explosive storylines and emotions for multiple seasons; meanwhile, Betty was in love with Archie, then started dating his best friend Jughead, and it’s decidedly not a big deal. The teenagers in Riverdale act more like the horny as hell bedroom-swapping psychopaths on Melrose Place rather than teenagers who invest everything in their high school romances. Right now, the series is muddled somewhere between noir and soap, with neither side particularly complementing the other.

Ultimately, after twelve episodes of a mystery that’s gone nowhere, we’ve arrived at an ending that doesn’t seem necessary so much as plopped into the narrative. Exactly what Riverdale uses noir tropes for beyond their basic aesthetics is unknown, because they never seem to parallel the real-life emotions of the characters. Sure, they deal with many of the same issues we’ve seen teens deal with before (coming out of the closet, pursuing art versus what your parents want, money problems), but there’s no outsize metaphor that brings home a point in each episode, just a quick narration by Jughead to tie things together. And while there are fun genre moments — like escapes from mental institutions, pregnant teenagers held captive in a mansion, and a street gang called the Serpents who live on the wrong side of the tracks — they’re simply moments. Ones that lead to no grand revelation about the human condition, just moments that are as thrilling as having a 7-Eleven slushee for lunch on a hot summer day, then having it stick to the pit of your stomach as you realize you should’ve eaten a meal.

Then there’s the murder mystery. Jason Blossom’s own father killed him, which was telegraphed in the beginning of the season when we first heard they “had an argument” the day Jason ran away from home. The facts of a murder can be obvious in a noir, but the way Clifford Blossom’s crime was revealed was through a never-before-seen videotape that proved he did it. The fun of unraveling a crime is how smaller crimes in the wake of the all-encompassing murder lead to clues that reveal the identity of the murderer. But in the finale, all we got was a big info dump — the secret that the Blossoms and the Coopers were actually related and that Jason and Polly’s romance was incest, something that might give Clifford a motive to kill his son. Never mind the fact that a series revolving around a maple syrup feud didn’t even have a maple syrup–drenched climax. The evidence is thrust into the hands of the incompetent sheriff and Clifford kills himself. It’s all rather … perfunctory.

After decades of Archie comics, it was refreshing to see a new take on the characters, and creator Roberto Aguirre-Sacasa has demonstrated before that he can take the material to exciting levels (as in the comic series Afterlife with Archie and Chilling Adventures of Sabrina), but the paint-by-numbers of Riverdale is far from inspiring. Still, there’s something ultimately compelling about the series even when it’s not doing much to impress you. I can’t quite explain it, even with my detractions, so maybe whenever the series disappoints, I should just paraphrase a classic noir: Forget it, Ira — it’s Riverdale.

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