by Bryan & Heather
The CW’s Riverdale is admittedly not quite the kind of show usually reviewed here on Concerning History. Heather began watching this dark, brooding teen drama take on the classic comic strip characters from its first season back in 2017, when it was just a murder mystery show. Since then, so many sharks have been jumped that, in certain quarters, Riverdale has become synonymous with storytelling so ridiculous it seems like it can’t be real. This all culminated in the conclusion of its sixth season, when efforts to prevent a comet from wiping out the town and resulting in the end of the world (oh, and the Devil was involved) led to the entire show being transported back in time to the comics’ original setting: the classic Americana of 1950s.
Despite its modern retelling, Riverdale has always leaned on a bit of that ‘50s nostalgia in its storytelling; it is, after all, the major appeal of the comics on which the show is based. Modern technology like the internet and smartphones exist, but so too does a malt shop form the core of the town’s identity, and vague references to geopolitics that sound more like the Second World War or the Cold War than any other recent events abound. With this explicit move back into the 1950s (early 1956, to be precise), Riverdale resolved much of this temporal tension that had been driving us crazy through its first six seasons. That doesn’t mean it’s good as a period piece, per se–costuming and sets prioritize a general ‘50s “vibe” over accuracy more often than not, and the show’s soundtrack similarly prioritizes modern music when contemporary numbers could have worked just as well to achieve the desired effect.
The real reason we decided to discuss the show on here, however, is the interesting decision to wipe all the characters’ memories and treat the seventh season as a soft reboot, everyone behaving as if they’ve always lived in the 1950s (and removing, for the most part, the hard magic that had entered the world). At the same time, though, none of these characters’ had their personalities changed in the process; gay characters in particular remain who they’ve always been, but now have to deal with coming to terms with themselves in a much more repressive society. Indeed, most of the driving force behind Riverdale season seven’s story so far has been a conflict between the main characters’ quests for social justice and freedom of their own expression and the older generations’ insistence on maintaining the staid status quo, be it in race relations or the kinds of stories told in comic books. Not only does this choice serve as a welcome recognition of the existence of LGBT people in the past, but it actually offers a compelling, personalized introduction to the counterculture and cultural revolutions of subsequent decades. Watching teens be told that what we know as a modern audience to be their healthy interests, desires, even their very selves are somehow aberrant, unnatural, something to be ignored or crushed, is infuriating, and when it provokes an all-too-human desire to rebel against these uncaring, out of touch authority figures, one understands just how much radical change could result when these young people finally leave home, go to college, and do not have to answer to all the old white men in their lives.
Perhaps this is reading a bit more into Riverdale than its creators intend, and to be brutally honest, neither of us has ever unequivocally enjoyed what is so often an absolute trainwreck of a show. But credit where credit is due, and through its…unconventional…storytelling, Riverdale has somehow stumbled into a portrayal of the 1950s that both delivers on the nostalgia for a classic, defining period of American identity and shines a light on the flaws that should make us glad that those times are past.