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Aside from the suicide and covert gay love affair, it's a slow week on Riverdale

Photo: The CW
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The fourth season of David Simon’s seminal HBO drama The Wire placed the public school system of Baltimore under a microscope to gain a closer perspective on the challenges faced by the city’s kids. The episodes traced the regrettable path taken by many youngsters, from dropping out of an educational institution that clearly couldn’t care less about them to finding a living, a sense of purpose, and a community in the gang world. The local classrooms turn into a pipeline for local organized crime, a feeder system spitting out disillusioned children who believe there are no other options readily available to them. Simon’s grand suggestion, to put it in radically simplified terms, was to disrupt the cycle of public violence by nipping it in the bud and giving students opportunities that offered another way forward.

While I cannot conceive of Archie actually watching The Wire, he’s latched onto a dumb-idiot version of the same idea. The most compelling notion contained within this otherwise sleepy (relatively, that is, by Riverdale’s crazed norms) episode concerns the big-picture effort to improve the community at the roots instead of neutralizing each new symptom of dysfunction as it pops up. Archie realizes that the only hope of curtailing the crime and drug use that’s come to plague the town rests in his hands, as the owner and custodian of the El Royale gym/community center/arcade. Archie wants to disrupt patterns of institutional neglect, but he goes about grasping this thought in the most boneheaded way possible, and the trouble is that the show’s not so far behind him.

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Dodger, the world’s blandest gangster, bribes kids with arcade tokens and pizza to run scams and hustle narcotics for him. So Archie and Veronica deduce that they can get the kids off the streets by bringing the pizza and arcade games into the El Royale through a bundle of pulled strings. That Veronica can snap her fingers and wrangle a bunch of pinball machines qualifies as the sort of implausibility that this show can get away with, but the whole of this plotline has been built on narrative quicksand. What’s the point of all this, if it’s not particularly fun? If Roberto Aguirre-Sacasa and episode writer James DeWille really think they’re engaging with the substance of this social theory, then what happens the next day, when Archie and Veronica realize that they can’t lure kids with fun and junk food forever?

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If anything, this episode conspicuously avoids the real meat of the conversation by casting a largely white group of extras to play the at-risk kids. I’ve brought up in the past that Archie’s whole for-the-children bit smacks of blaxploitation cinema, and even in a more measured form this episode, the ills at hand have a racial bent to them in the real world. The writing does just enough to invoke the spirit of an issue without actually touching upon it in any meaningful sense, the sole outlet for salvaging an uninteresting storyline in a less-than-exceptional hour.

The increasingly Gothic household shenanigans of Cheryl Blossom and Toni Topaz remain the strongest (that is, the most reliably weird) thread of the season, planted in a surreal middle ground between the material’s overt horror and the relatively grounded teen milieu. Cheryl Blossom’s starting to seriously lose it, to the point that she doesn’t feel comfortable leaving the house without first sealing the demon lying dormant in the doll within a circle of salt. Toni Topaz rightly begins to worry that her girlfriend is descending from eccentricity into something diagnosable, right at the moment that people keen to ship her to the madhouse arrive. Cheryl Blossom’s Uncle Bedford and Aunt Cricket enter the expressly forbidden chapel, and get an eyeful that will be more than enough cause to send Cheryl Blossom back to the loony bin. We’ve done that before with her stint in the draconian girls’ school, and she’s only getting better the more unhinged she grows (see below), so here’s hoping she’ll evade the consequences of her actions to continue believing in ghosts. We’ll all be better off for it.

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Betty and Veronica each confront mounting familial intrigue, none of it quite as amusing as the plotlines that bring them into contact with their friends. Though there’s a clandestine gay love affair going on under Betty’s nose, not trusting Charles feels no different than not trusting her dad, or not trusting Edgar; though Veronica gets to wrestle with the words “rum empire,” her parents forming a united front against her this time feels no different than it did last time. While a steamy reconciliation between Hiram and Hermione certainly won’t draw any objections from viewers and Hermosa remains a promising unknown quantity, neither can do much to refresh a premise that feels a touch been-there, done-that. This episode as well as the last have felt as segmented as the reviews I’ve written about them, with the plot checking in on each character in their hermetically-sealed scenes. Whether due to restraints of scheduling or space, the show’s suffering for it.

The only one flourishing in isolation is Jughead, whose every mishap at Stonewall Preparatory School for the Exceptionally Classist explores another dimension of literary culture’s more esoteric corners. This week, we may all ponder whether someone in the writers’ room subscribes to the patchy theory of alternative Shakespearean authorship, the assertion that close textual analysis reveals The Bard to in actuality be a group of writers working under a shared pseudonym. That’s the charge levied against the preening Mr. DuPont (even his name drips with obscene wealth), come to take over for Mr. Chipping after he leaps through a stained-glass window in the single funniest instance of questionably intentional physical comedy this show has ever seen.

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Jughead will almost undoubtedly discover that DuPont murdered Forsyth Pendleton and usurped his creative genius to pass it off as his own, but at least the path leading us to that destination will be dotted with It Author name-drops. That setting is fertile enough to sustain itself, but the atmosphere beyond the stone walls of Stonewall has gotten rather inhospitable. With Betty and Veronica going in circles while Archie goes nowhere fast, the show now faces its worst enemy of all: mid-season inertia. Riverdale is perpetually one good week from getting back in top form, so breaking through the current lull shouldn’t feel like too faint a hope. Mr. Chipping’s gone out the window, but the show’s still far from it.


Stray observations:

  • The two suggestions thrown out for a replacement professor are Ian McEwan (writer of many fine film-adaptation-friendly novels, such as Atonement, On Chesil Beach, and Enduring Love) and Celeste Ng (a recent sensation for Everything I Never Told You and Little Fires Everywhere, the latter of which has been optioned by Reese Witherspoon and Kerry Washington for a Hulu series). Both reasonable lit-nerd references, and yet they’re missing a certain something that Riverdale’s allusions usually summon. I was anticipating a Sally Rooney name-drop.
  • Frosty Pajamas. Think about these words. Say them out loud. Say them out loud again, in a funnier voice. Write them down. Get them tattooed on your bicep. Frosty Pajamas. Frosty Pajamas. Frosty Pajamas.
  • Over time, many television shows gradually exaggerate the defining qualities of their characters. By the end of Parks and Recreation’s run, every other line from Tom Haverford was about ballers or swag or whatever else we were saying in 2013. This process has indeed taken place in the case of Cheryl Blossom, albeit in the best possible way. At this point, she talks like someone trapped in the present despite a Victorian sensibility. (Curiously enough, making her the inverse of Hot Emily Dickinson from Apple’s Hot Emily Dickinson show.) Like a very normal person, she enters a room by saying, “Whyfore was I summoned?”
  • Chic’s hair looks too silky and lustrous for a guy who’s living behind bars. They got all-natural conditioners in the prison commissary or something?
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