Saturday, March 13, 2021

Gothic as All Get Out: Riverdale

When a show is titled after the setting, viewers know the setting counts big time. In Riverdale, the place is everything.

That wasn’t the case in the classic comic world of Riverdale. That pleasant anyplace serves mainly as a background for the antics and events of Archie and his light-hearted high school gang. It is so unimportant that the writers could create an ever-changing town with museums, airports, and other landmarks that came and went over the decades as the stories needed. As a result, there was no reason for creating a local history to impact the storylines, and the town of Riverdale did little to influence the actions of the characters.  The Riverdale of Riverdale couldn’t be more opposite.

The setting of Riverdale itself is the character most changed from the classic comics. This new place is more than a backdrop, it complicates the plotline and motivates the characters. The Gothic setting gives the show a dark edge. Broken families, hearts, and spirits replace the humor and happiness of the comic Riverdale of the past. It is from the setting that the darker elements and some transgressions result. Riverdale’s storyline is built around the misdeeds, lies, and subversive connections of the adults. The teens struggle against the adults’ actions, trying to return their town to normalcy and safety. Intergenerational family dysfunction, secret societies, and local superstitions are classic elements of Gothic fiction and all present in CW’s Riverdale.

Fred Botting, one of the go-to academic folks on what exactly is Gothic, in his go-to book Gothic, describes how the otherworldly setting, such as the one seen in Riverdale, provides an effective backdrop for

movement from and back to a rational present: more than a flight of nostalgic retrospection or an escape from the dullness of a present without chivalry, magic or adventure, the movement does not long for terrifying and arbitrary aristocratic power, religious superstition or supernatural events but juxtaposes terrors of the negative with an order authorized by reason and morality.

Not sure what all that means? No worries. You will by the end of the first episode. Academics who study Gothics are intrigued by how this genre is transgressive in terms of social norms; they explore the world of vice. Botting observes that “Gothic texts are, overtly but ambiguously, not rational, depicting disturbances of sanity and security…displays of uncontrolled passion, violent emotion or flights of fancy to portrayals of perversion and obsession.” All these characteristics are visible from the start of Riverdale. When you watch the first episode, note that all these traits are encapsulated in unscrupulous teacher Ms. Grundy. The corrupt femme fatale, a sexual predator who represents the Gothic tropes of abuse of power and eroticism, coerces an underage student, Archie, into a sexual relationship. Her depiction sets the tone for the new version of Riverdale and paves the way for other disruptive and disturbing adult behavior.

The parents of Riverdale generate much of that screen-gluing tension mentioned above. Disruptions of sanity and security are visible in Betty Cooper’s parents, Hal and Alice Cooper. No spoilers here, but keep an eye on these two and observe how they manipulate others, their children in particular.  As you spot their controlling actions, examine the tension created, and observe how their control harms those around them. Portrayals of perversion and obsession are accomplished through Veronica Lodge’s parents, Hiram and Hermione Lodge. These unapologetic criminals take advantage of their wealth and power to manipulate Riverdale’s citizens, including their own daughter. Again, watch how the parents’ actions contribute to the plot and force those around them, specifically the teens, to struggle.

Collectively, the characteristics and actions of the parents and other adults in Riverdale represent and create Gothic tropes, including aristocracy, corruption, isolation, madness, and family secrets. The antagonists, the adults, generate the story conflicts and produce the tension; the teenagers, the protagonists, respond to the evil, chaos, and threats created by the adults’ attitudes and actions. This dynamic is the essence of the Gothic and the essence that defines the newly envisioned characters and shapes the overall storyline of Riverdale.


This excerpt from The Binge Watcher's Guide to Riverdale.

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