Watching “The Red Dahlia,” Riverdale’s most reverent homage yet to the tropes and textures of film noir, a viewer might be reminded of another show well-schooled in pop-culture mimicry, Community. Both programs demonstrated an in-and-out understanding of what defines a certain Dan Harmon’s cult-adored sitcom regularly savaged such genres as the zombie flick or the Western with deconstructive wit, picking apart the clichés in covert essayloads of auto-critique. Riverdale takes the opposite tack and plays everything so unabashedly straight that the on-the-nose-ness itself becomes the joke. Quick, without thinking, first thing that comes to mind: If you were going to spoof one classic line from the cigarette-flavored mouth of a hardboiled detective, what would it be? Something like, “Forget it, Jughead. It’s Riverdale.” Right? Well, guess what!
The only way to pull off a rapid-fire barrage of references to (and it’s possible this isn’t even covering everything but here goes) Raymond Chandler and The Big Sleep in particular, Martin Scorsese, Lauren Bacall, Mark Twain, Brian De Palma, Dynasty, The Godfather Part I, Jennifer’s Body, Bad Boys II, Silence of the Lambs, Chinatown, Chinatown, and Chinatown, is with absolute and unwavering conviction. If we’re doing a noir episode, we’re going all in, monochromatic dutch angles and all. Riverdale would never turn up its nose at any of these allusions as ‘obvious’ because it wants us all to know how much the show loves these people and works. The show won’t interrogate its relationship to these reference points because what it wants more than anything is to be them.
It’s genre as dress-up, and this week sees Veronica donning the sunglasses and statement hats of a Barbara Stanwyck-styled femme fatale. She comes to typewriter-clacker/teen gumshoe Jughead with an assignment to get to the bottom of who shot
JR Hiram. That’s on top of his own issues for the episode, which involve disposing of Tallboy’s rapidly decomposing corpse and convincing his newly appointed sheriff dad that he isn’t doing exactly that. (No great testament to F.P.’s skills as an officer of the law that he couldn’t even detect a mouldering body when he was sitting right on top of it. Something about the sheriff’s hat makes the person wearing it oblivious.) And Veronica’s only farming the work out to Philip Marlowe Jr. because she’s got a comatose father to tend to, which mostly means firing his only guards and coming up with a harebrained scheme to affect the appearance of power for appearances’ sake.
Between Veronica dressing down the capos for “mobsplaining” and Archie mouthing off to his supervisor on day one of his new job with his dad’s construction crew, this hour features two instances of teenagers fully convinced that they know more about a given profession than someone with decades of experience. Veronica’s equally baffling choice to burn her cache of drugs — because, I guess, drugs are bad? — reaps bitter consequences for her as well, calling into question the judgement of someone who’s at her best when outwitting the people around her. Archie’s getting worse and worse, and while the writers mean that spiral to be in terms of his approach to the rock bottom of getting drunkenly thrown out of the Bonne Nuit, he’s only growing less entertaining to watch. As he himself points out, his transformation in the woods didn’t stick. Once a dumbass, always a dumbass, it would appear. More inexplicable than merely stupid, this kind of acting-out falls on the wrong side of the show’s belief that it needn’t be beholden to patterns of human behavior.
Veronica and Archie’s respective self-owns drag down what should be the series’ greatest episode, because it is the one in which Betty and Jughead do investigative work at a local bordello. As she so elegantly puts it, “And now, apparently, there’s a not-so-secret sex club in Riverdale.” Her tone conveys the oh-for-the-love-of-god-now-what quality of the discovery and the demands it makes of the viewer. Get on or get out, because at the red-lit Maple Club, it’s “a safe place, as long as you know the safe word.” Betty and Jughead don’t spend too much time there, however, each of them hot on trails leading to Penelope Blossom, Hermione Lodge, and a face from the past presumed deceased.
Let’s see, what else, what else — Cheryl Blossom has donned her foxiest mourning ensemble to grieve the death of Claudius along with her mother, who it turns out has done some serial poisoning over the years. (Thank Jennifer’s Body scribe Diablo Cody for Penelope’s explanation that she had been killing “Not people, Betty. Men.”) The Blossom family’s flair for the dramatic leads once again to some sublime actorly moments, whether that’s Cheryl Blossom’s weirdly-phrased request for Betty to “mourn with us, cousin,” or the percussive shame implied in the final syllable of “My father hung himself in a barn.” If she show was to tighten its focus to a single narrative thread, the ongoing soap operatics between the Blossoms could sustain a viewership for years.
All of this, and not one mention of the five-foot-three elephant in the room, guest star Kelly “The Ripper” Ripa as Hiram’s side piece Mrs. Mulwray. She’s not permitted to have nearly as much fun as she did when stopping by Broad City to get lit up and order some handsome gigolos for herself and Abbi, but Ripa vamps it up as a pistol-toting blonde bombshell from the imagination of Dashiell Hammett. Though she’s as conspicuously out-of-place, as ineffably herself as Andy Cohen was himself, Ripa presents a welcome intrusion on the insularity of Riverdale. She’s a living set piece, a genuflection to camp in the same conceptual ballpark as the kitty-cat burglary from earlier this season. Another reference in this show’s flavorful stew of eclectic influences, she arrives surrounded by scare quotes. It is in this respect that she’s the perfect guest star for this show, in which we viewers must permanently squint and wonder just how seriously we’re supposed to take all this. The best episodes of Riverdale assure us that it’s all in good fun, but “The Red Dahlia,” in its undermining of Veronica and Archie’s scenes, can’t quite manage that much.
- Veronica’s pitch-perfect blank stare in response to Reggie’s musing that their plan resembles the plot of Bad Boys II reminds us whose cultural vocabulary forms the dialect around these parts. This is a “No Michael Bays Allowed” clubhouse.
- When David Robert Mitchell’s new movie Under the Silver Lake comes out in April, it will absolutely liquefy some of the Riverdale writers’ brains. Talk about your worshipful mash-ups of film noir with other cultural detritus endeared to an idiosyncratic, uncompromising author!
- Last week’s locker-room clip of Reggie’s animatronic “little bitch, Andrews” and “you were attacked by a friggin’ bear?” line-readings has been uploaded to Twitter, and I’ve seen it mocked for ostensibly “bad” writing and acting. What do these people want from this show? Are they disappointed that Riverdale, once a paragon of David Simonesque social realism, has fallen out of touch with plausibility? Do they go to pizza places and yell at the servers for not making Chinese food?
- I’d like to attend the passingly-mentioned Scorsese retrospective at the Bijou. Do you think they mostly stick to the greatest-hits stuff, or can I expect to see a Kundun or a New York, New York? Do they run 35mm prints, or is it just a DCP situation? Roberto Aguirre-Sacasa, these are the burning questions we need answered!
- “To paraphrase Samuel Clemens,” Veronica says of her father, “reports of his death have been greatly exaggerated.” Two things: one, not sure that she (or whoever wrote this line) knows what “paraphrase” means, and two, people who refer to Mark Twain as Samuel Clemens are, without exception, nerds.
- A corrupt mayor, in murderous cahoots with a corrupt sheriff, and in double-cahoots with the still-living, also corrupt former sheriff? It’s possible that Riverdale may be even worse off now than when it was under Hiram’s thumb.
- One of these days, this show’s allotment of masked shooter ex machinas will run out, but today is not that day. For the moment, there’s no jam the show can’t get itself out of with a well-placed gunman in a ski mask.
- If there’s still any hope that Archie can be salvaged as a character, it’s in the scenes that see him reconciling with a remorseful Hiram and asking Josie to play music again. “Like in the old days,” as she astutely says. Archie’s best self was his “guileless ripped Ed Sheeran” mode, and returning to that would be a preferable alternative to his failed experiments in going edgy over the past two years.