After a tightly constructed and compulsively watchable first season, Riverdale returned for an eagerly awaited second season; and with it, a standard network television order for 22 episodes, not to mention a more elaborate storylines than a single murder that formed the focus of its premiere year.
There has always been a fine balancing act with the show, managing to be both a gritty interpretation of the famous Archie Comics, and a stylised teen drama that isn’t afraid to go off in extreme directions. The first season accomplished that balancing act superbly. The second… well… it still manages to be compulsively watchable with a lot to recommend it, but there is a feeling as it heads towards it mid-season break that maybe this is a season that has attempted too much in to short a space of time, instead of simply allowing itself to breathe and take advantage of its longer run.
Make no mistakes, this is still an incredibly enjoyable season of television. Like fellow teen mystery drama Veronica Mars (the pinnacle of mixing and matching teen drama tropes with larger mysteries), it opens itself up in its second season to something almost more grander and epic in scale.
It manages to pull this off…but only just.
In fact, when one gets to the penultimate episode, “House of the Devil”, the series nearly comes of the rails with a plethora of plot twists that sees the series throw in about three episodes worth of character development in about twenty minutes, and not managing to make it work, along with a sequence involving Betty that leaves a sour, nasty taste in the mouth because it borders on exploitation, and which almost derails the series and its ability to treat its female characters right off a very high cliff.
The season does throw a lot into nearly every episode, and for the most part is never anything less than mightily entertaining; the characters for the most part are still engaging (Archie is still a little dull and the least interesting one of the bunch), the story arcs are very compulsive and its ability to be incredibly stylised, taking a comic launched in the 50’s, set in the modern-day, but with a touch of the 80’s to it, allows it to retain its aesthetic pleasures.
The larger scale of a serial killer storyline, however, is maybe not as strong as the single murder of Jason Blossom in season one. Of course, since The Black Hood wears a hood there is a game to be had in trying to figure out who our killer is. The fact that he is the worst serial killer on record, unable to actually kill his victims despite valiant tries, almost makes it hard to take seriously, while the eventual revelation of the killer’s identity is something of a disappointment and lacks considerable imagination.
No spoilers here, but it really ought to have carried more of a charge been more of a breathtaking reveal.
There is still no getting away from the level of idiocy that comes in the previously mentioned eighth episode, “House of the Devil”. The series gets back on track with Silent Night, Deadly Night, but the problems with episode seven are incredibly severe.
Coming as it does after a superbly handled plot line involving Cheryl nearly being date raped, handled with a level of raw honesty for a series as consciously stylised as this one is, the image of Betty stripping down to what’s meant to be sexy underwear and doing a pole dance in front of a room full of middle-aged Soutside Serpents, an image coming as it does after a plot line that criticised the victimisation of females, to have the series then promptly going and effectively male gazing at a near naked Lilli Reinhart is a very sour note from a show that manages to straddle the fine line between treating its good looking cast well while also revelling in how good looking they are, and tips over into the edge of bad taste.
It’s a massive misstep in a season that does nearly everything right. Yes, The Black Hood is the worst serial killer in the world, but it does somewhat add to the fun that he is so incompetent, while his manipulations of Betty and the phone calls between them at an important point in the season is incredibly gripping.
It’s only in the last piece of the season that it nearly trips over itself; characters saying one thing then stepping over their character development in the space of a single scene, while throwing in more “Bughead” relationship drama at a point when it’s not earned, while trying to make “Barchie” happen when nobody really wants it, are somewhat massive stumbles.
It never remains anything less than watchable, and the first seven episodes, including a wonderful little horror tale that splits the episode into three separate stories (while throwing more hints of the forthcoming Sabrina series) is fantastic.
When the series comes back early in the new year, with new focus and a new arc (although at this rate I wouldn’t be surprised if The Black Hood reveal is anything but true and possibly pick up again) it might have a new spring in its step.
Despite some stumbles towards the mid-season break, it still is massively good fun and revels in its own sense of silliness (where else would you get a series where a prominent gang member is called Sweetpea and nobody makes fun of it?). It’s glossy, neon lighting, coupled with fun soap operatics and it use of darkly, bordering on horror story arcs, is such great fun that it makes one want to keep going with it, even when it stumbles as spectacularly as it did with something as awful as “House of the Devil”.
It’s probably indicative of how good the series is when it’s firing on all cylinders that it makes one come back to it, even when it does go wrong at the odd time.
Its return is still eagerly awaited.