I am not 12-34. I am not male. I am not white. As a viewer, I am surely outside of the The CW’s target demographic, even after they aged-up in 2012. Yet, some of my favorite shows are of the CW lineage, from the super hero flair to apocalyptic or dystopian dread.
I dipped in and out of Smallville‘s ten year story on Superman’s beginnings. I enjoyed the modern or unconventional mother-daughter relationship on Gilmore Girls. Girlfriends was my Friends, cherished and often quoted. Everybody Hates Chris was a reminder that Martin existed. Veronica Mars was my 90210 anecdote, young and the opposite of vapid. Jane the Virgin took me back to watching telenovelas with my grandmother. The 100 destroyed our future world and shows us how little race, gender and sexuality should matter. iZombie re-imagined the zombie story with new and exciting lore only matched by SyFy’s Znation. In short The CW is more savory and sweet than the often bland shows on CBS but it is no AMC. The network has redefined young, fun and imaginative television. Its success is its ability to disregard trends and boxes. They take risks and bring unique stories, from talented voices.
The CWs latest, Riverdale, is an admirable addition to the line-up. Far from the innocence of its source, it was promoted as a subversive take on the cartoon Archie. It is Twin Peaks meets Pretty Little Liars or 90210 if you’re not a millennial. Beyond the angst of teen life in the twenty-first century in Riverdale, the show is grounded by the darker and sexier lives of the characters. They are rejecting their parents lives, fighting against archetypes and investing in their bonds of friendship and love. They unite to tackle sex shaming, gentrification, pedophilia, depression, homelessness… However, much of the storytelling revolves around the murder of Jason Blossom, twin brother of queen bee Cheryl. The characters are searching for meaning and individuality in an often frivolous world, both in the comics and on the typical teen show.
The core cast is, of course, white. Creator and Chief Creative Officer of Archie Comics, Roberto Aguirre-Sacasa, is true to the nearly eighty year story. However, Archie, Betty, Veronica and Jughead are joined by friends of different races, sexual orientation and presumedly religions. Reggie is Asian. Kevin is gay (note he was introduced as a gay character in 2010). Moose is the bicurious jock who propositions Kevin and promptly disappears. Ms. Grundy is young and sexy, not grandmotherly at all. Josie and the Pussycats (Valerie and Melody) are all black aspiring pop stars. Of course, Riverdale’s mayor is black, as is the high school’s principal. The Lodges (Veronica, Hermione and Hiriam) are of Spanish descent.
Unlike The CW’s more forward thinking shows, this cast is rather segregated. All of the ‘atypical characters’ aren’t integrated into the show’s main storyline. Reggie pops-up in the cafeteria or a locker room. Valerie briefly interacted with Archie as a music mentor and love interest but that ended as quickly as it began. Kevin fares a little better as the son of the sheriff but he too is seen with his boyfriend or as a buddy to Betty and Veronica. Josie, though in a band and the mayor’s daughter, is not a friend of the group; this negates her presence in anything but a musical scene. The same can be said of Josie’s parents, Mayor Sierra McCoy and musician Myles McCoy; they pop-up even less than negligent parents in dysfunctional teen shows. Footballer Clayton of shamebook fame and Valerie from the Pussycats had memorable storylines yet they too are on the periphery of the Archie friend circle.
This is television’s trap. Representation is achieved to quell critical outrage and satisfy minimal expectations. Surely Riverdale would pass The Bechdel Test, The Racial Bechdel Test and The Representation Test. But by using POC, LGBT and people with disabilities in storylines which run parallel to the show’s core cast, the show and network negates the importance, relevance and ultimately the characters’ usefulness on the show. How many of these characters must we see come and go after a couple of scenes?
Instead of deploying this trap, Riverdale might forge real meaningful bonds and connections among the characters. Imagine a friendship between similarly damaged Cheryl and Josie. Or an awkward one between Valerie and Veronica, who are both fervent feminists and interested in Archie. The show has demonstrated its ability to lift teenage stories to prestige quality viewing with noteworthy writing and performances. The scene with Josie and the Pussycats and Archie writing music about black experiences was sensitive and thankfully lacked any tone deafness. Similarly the pedophile storyline with Archie and Ms. Grundy highlighted the treatment of pedophilia when the abuser is a woman and the victim is a boy/young man. The challenge Roberto Aguirre-Sacasa must meet isn’t one of representation, it is one of inclusion and equality. Why was it unimaginable to cast a non-white actor in any of the lead roles? There are tons of talented and engaging actors and writers of varied ethnic groups eager for the opportunity. That is all it takes, one yes…