REVIEW | What "Riverdale" Says About Teen Relationships

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Like most teen dramas, Riverdale is an experiment in what would happen if the world really existed as a teenager views it. As with other high school murder mysteries before it, the show relies on treating teeangers' relationships and emotions seriously, more seriously than most adults do in the real world, and privileging the teenaged point of view as the one that is most often correct. But unlike similar shows, Riverdale doesn't insulate its young characters from facing real consequences for their actions, creating situations that don't often get an honest portrayal on television. While the show doesn't manage to entirely avoid teen drama tropes, it does new and better things with them.

Take, for example, Archie's relationship with high school music teacher Miss Grundy. The predatory teacher and underage student, portrayed as star-crossed lovers, are an unwelcome callback to the disturbing handling of such themes by similar shows — Pretty Little Liars comes to mind. But Riverdale does slightly better than its predecessors by allowing Archie's friends to react in a supportive and realistic way when they find out. Jughead and Betty are both horrified by the relationship, with Jughead seeing clearly how selfish Miss Grundy is being. Though scared of doing anything to hurt Archie, Betty ultimately brings the issue to the attention of other adults.

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Riverdale also shows a relatively nuanced portrait of teen conflicts with their parents. Admittedly, some of those parents are downright evil — Cheryl, Veronica, and Betty all seem to have semi-monstrous fathers. But the adults in the show are flawed in realistic ways, too. Betty's parents hide her sister's pregnancy from her and lie about her mental illness; ostensibly, this is to protect Betty, but it ends up being deeply traumatic for her and seriously damages her trust with her parents. Similarly, when Veronica realizes Hiram Lodge's crimes have ruined families other than her own, she sides against him to defend her friend Ethel. Riverdale isn't afraid to show adults making bad decisions, including bad parenting decisions, and kids pushing back against them. Home isn't a safe place for many teenagers, and these plot lines allow a broader range of possible parent-child relationships to exist onscreen.

One of Riverdale's biggest departures from its inspiration, the Archie Comics universe, is that Betty and Veronica are best friends, rather than frenemies who spend most of their time fighting over Archie. Instead of a catty, stereotypical high school mean girl, Veronica is a thoughtful person who feels terrible when she gets together with Archie, and continually checks in to make sure Betty is okay with it. Betty, rather than pining over someone who isn't interested in her, or holding a grudge against Veronica, moves on and finds her own relationship. Love triangles, or things like them, happen in real life — it's one of the reasons they're such popular fodder for drama — but allowing the conflict to resolve in a realistic way, and allowing the young women to remain friends, is an unusual move for the genre.

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The show's positive portrayal of open communication between Betty and Veronica is present throughout the show, as well. Characters keep lots of secrets from their parents, but they almost always share things with their friends (or at least, in Betty's case in season two, one friend). The few times when characters keep big secrets from one another — like when Archie and Veronica search F.P.'s trailer for evidence of Jason's murder — there is real fallout, and Jughead almost leaves town. When Archie is cagey with Valerie about his relationship with Cheryl, she ends things with him — and doesn't change her mind even after he begs her to take him back. Where other shows might allow a romantic gesture like this to work, Riverdale allows Valerie to be open and honest about her emotions, and move on when something isn't working.

In general, the show gives its teen characters' emotions more credibility than many other shows about young people, precisely because it provides real consequences for their mistakes. Often, this is just a matter of allowing a character to be upset about something for an entire episode or two, rather than having a conflict be resolved in a single conversation. When Archie doesn't reciprocate Betty's crush on him, she stops seeing him for a while to give herself time to sort out her feelings. After Betty tells Kevin's dad about his late-night hookups in the woods, it takes Kevin time to recover from this betrayal.

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It's also refreshing that Kevin's conflict with his sheriff father goes beyond the traditional teen drama coming-out narrative. Where many television portrayals of queer teens end, Riverdale begins, with Kevin, a queer character attempting to navigate conversations about safe sex with his dad, and Toni, who's both confident in her own sexuality and doesn't feel the need to define herself as only being attracted to men or women. It's a low bar to rise above, and the show could do a lot better — for example, it has so far chosen not to portray Jughead as asexual, as he is in the comics. But relative to similar shows, at least Riverdale gives its queer characters a fairer shot at being fully realized people rather than sidekicks.

The nuance in Riverdale's relationships and emotional conflicts let the show go beyond its melodramatic premise. It's not just a campy teen murder mystery — although that on its own would already be very entertaining. It's also a compelling portrayal of the friendships and family relationships in Riverdale, which have notes of real emotional weight. The show's characters are, in their own completely unbelievable way, kind of believable as they face various moral and emotional dilemmas. Riverdale walks that line between dramatization and truth with uncommon insight, making it a truly fresh addition to the teen drama canon.

Julia is a freelance writer based in Brooklyn, NY, who covers politics and pop culture with a focus on labor and gender. Follow her on Twitter.

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