The (Moderate) Rise and Fall of The CW, Part 6
Riverdale and When the CW’s Troubles Reached Critical Mass
Trying to find the exact time the CW finally crossed the Rubicon of unoriginality will no doubt be a point of some debate in the years to come. But in my opinion, the point at which the network irreversibly jumped the shark came at the beginning of 2017 when Riverdale debuted.
I realize I may be reaching a touchy subject for many. The show has been a flashpoint for pop culture criticism as many think that it is completely and utterly ludicrous and just as many saying its lunacy is why it’s so brilliant. And I’ll confess a part of me does want to give the showrunners — Berlanti among them — credit for being ambitious and willing to push the boundaries of the origins far more than they were willing to do for series in the Arrow-verse. Certainly when networks exists only on the reboot and the formula drama, there’s something to be said for a series that is utterly willing to break every single rule that applies to the source material and so much of television in general. But there’s a point where ambition becomes pure self-indulgence and Riverdale sped past that boundary incredibly early and doesn’t seem to show any signs of stopping even at the end of the series.
For those of you who have been fortunate enough not to watch, Riverdale is a very loose and dark reimagining of the world of Archie Comics. This is a series that has wanted to be the child of Twin Peaks since it began but has completely ignored everything that made Twin Peaks work as well as anything that might resemble a series on its own merits.
To be clear there was never a point at any time when a traditional adaptation of the world of Archie Comics would have ever worked on television. The wholesome comedy of the world of Archie would have been too saccharine even in the 1960s and 1970s, when so much of television was instantly disposable. Even the closest version of that world — the 1990s Sabrina the Teenage Witch with Melissa Joan Hart in the title role — had fundamentally had to take the bare minimum of the comic and play it more or less as a traditional sitcom. (I’ll get to the modern Sabrina a little later.) To adapt Archie into the 21st century was something the comic books were increasingly having trouble with.
So it’s pretty clear that Riverdale embracing the Twin Peaks oeuvre may have been one of the few ways to modernize it — Twin Peaks was based on the idea that beneath the wholesome world of the homecoming queen who dated the school idol that there was a dark underbelly beneath not only Laura Palmer, but the entire town. (The most direct wink to this was the casting of Madchen Amick as Mrs. Cooper. Amick had famously shot to stardom as Shelly Johnson, Laura’ classmate who was at the center of so much of what was corrupt about the town.) And indeed, the pilot started with a murder: the death of Jason Blossom, Cheryl (Cherry’s) twin brother and spent the first season investigating that death. Like Twin Peaks, the series also cast several actors who were known for their links to a different kind of teen culture. In addition to Amick, Luke Perry played Mr. Andrews, Archie’s father. Skeet Ulrich was Mr. Jones, Jughead’s estranged father who had ties to the Serpents, a local biker gang. Molly Ringwald, John Hughes’ muse, eventually arrived on stages as Archie’s mother. And there were frequent nods to the seamy underbelly throughout: Cheryl was part of Riverdale’s wealthy and most corrupt family. Betty (Lili Reinhart) had a sister who’d had an affair with Jason and who had been sent to a convent to give birth to twins. Veronica Lodge (Camilla Mendes) was the new girl in town whose father was an underworld kingpin, much like Audrey Horne’ s had been. Jughead went from a happy-go-lucky eater to a cynical writer who embraced his links to the cycling world the same way James Hurley did. Even Pop’s shake shop was the center of the performances of Josie and the Pussycats the way that so many of the musical numbers in Twin Peaks did.
But there were critical problems from Riverdale from the inception, and no, I’m talking about the fact that Archie lost his virginity to Miss Grundy, who had been de-aged to a women in her twenties, that Mr. Weatherbee was black, that Veronica and Reggie were Latinx and that Moose was secretly in the closet. The bigger problems with Riverdale were its tone. The series could never decide how seriously to take itself or its source material. This in itself is not a flaw; as I mentioned in the previous story in this series, both Crazy Ex-Girlfriend and Jane the Virgin were exceptional series because they took neither the genres nor the boundaries of those genres themselves with any seriousness. The difference is that both of those series were satires and that they took the characters seriously. Riverdale could never decide whether it wanted to be a variation on a high school drama, a neo-noir, a satire, or some version of all of them in the world of Archie Comics.
This variations of genre hadn’t been a problem for Twin Peaks, of course, but that’s because it was the breaking the mold of what television was at the time and it was only when it tried to become more traditional that it began to break down. David Lynch himself made this very clear the year Riverdale debuted when his long-awaited return of Twin Peaks debuted on Showtime that May. In that revival, Lynch decided to break the rules he and Mark Frost had created a quarter of a century earlier and create a series that bore little resemblance to the original. It was brilliant and marvelous and left many fans and critics who had been hoping for Twin Peaks: The Reunion utterly baffled when Lynch didn’t give them that. In that sense, Lynch may have proved another point about all the series in the interval that had tried to be Twin Peaks: that it was always about pushing the boundaries of what television could do.
Riverdale, to its credit, did have a similar sense of not wanting to be traditional, even if it was by the limited standards of its own network. Part of me does want to reward the series for its bravery in trying to constantly make its own fans go WTF? There’s something impressive about a series that, when it decides to do a musical episode, chooses not Grease or West Side Story but Carrie as its songbook and ends with the curtain going up on a dead body that’s part of a serial killer that’s stalking the town. That’s certainly not something you would have seen any of the other series in the world of Berlanti even thinking of doing, let anything else on network television.
But there’s a problem with constantly pushing the Overton Window back on craziness: eventually it becomes something that you can’t keep going back too. I gave up on the series halfway through the third season because even then it was looking like it was heading from the path of guilty pleasure to batshit crazy, and that was before Archie, on the run from jail, encountered a bear and got in a fight with him. Before that point Veronica had greeted Archie in prison with a team of cheerleaders singing ‘Jailhouse Rock’, half the youth of the town were addicted to a ‘Dungeons and Dragons’ knockoff game that involved drugs and increasingly deadly dares, and the entire cast of the show had played their parents in a flashback episode that revealed they’d all had previous friendships because of that same game being played today that had led to a murder that had changed their entire futures. By the time the town was cordoned off and quarantined, I had no more patience for Riverdale and increasingly little for anything that Berlanti had put his hands on — which, as we’ll soon see, was most of the CW by this point.
Indeed the CW at this point was as much the territory of Greg Berlanti as Dick Wolf had of NBC and Shonda Rhimes of ABC. The major difference was, however, that both of the latter networks limited their hit creator to just one night of television: Wolf had Chicago Wednesday (and still does) and Rhimes had TGIT (which at this point only includes two-thirds of one night and may not even have that for much longer. By contrast, Berlanti produced series were taking up more and more territory with each year: Black Lightning debuted in the fall of 2017 and Batwoman in 2018. Nor was Berlanti limiting himself merely to comic books: a much darker version of Nancy Drew debuted in the fall of 2019 and a reimagined Kung Fu came out in the spring of 2021. At this point, even with the fluctuation of schedules between spring and fall by the end of the 2010s, half of the schedule of the CW had been marked by Greg Berlanti.
As bad as all of this was, it was actually an improvement compared to some of the other series that were debuting on the CW by this point. The reboot of series was becoming a constant of almost all network schedules by this point, but by now the CW was doing so with WB series that either hadn’t lasted that long or weren’t that good to begin with. A reboot of Charmed — which in the kindest possible terms could be summarized as Buffy with witches — debuted around this time. Roswell, N.M. — a series that had started like gangbusters and had collapsed in quality by its second season that only a last-minute purchase by UPN in the spring of 2001 had helped it last three seasons — showed up about the same time. Other reboots were of series you didn’t think deserved to be rebooted at all — a ‘modern’ version of Dynasty with Nicolette Sheridan as Alexis and a reimaging of The 4400, a USA series that had staggered to last four seasons.
By the end of the 2010s, the idea that the CW could be the source for any original material at all was a bad joke. The one truly original show that the series still had — In the Dark, an intriguing series about a blind twenty-something woman who tries to solve a friends murder — would deteriorate so quickly and disappear so sporadically that you could be forgiven for remembering it was still on the air.
That’s not to say there weren’t some intriguing series even among the comic book shows. iZombie an adaptation of a comic book in which a woman named Liv Moore becomes infected with a virus was far superior to its source material, serving as equal parts procedural, comedy, and mythology series. (It helped that Rob Thomas, the man who had developed the still beloved Veronica Mars was an expert at this sort of thing.) And Stargirl, an intriguing mix of comic books and teenage angst was one of the more amusing creations of the Berlanti verse, precisely because it never took itself seriously. But by the time of this last series, the writing for the CW was increasingly on the wall. The network may be collapsing now because of financial difficulties, but it had been creatively bankrupt for far longer.
It says a lot about where the network was at this time in its life that when a reboot of Gossip Girl, one of the few genuine success stories the CW ever had in its own right, was announced in the fall of 2020, it did not end up going on the CW where it had been born and so many other reboots of its properties have been developed but rather HBO MAX. (The fact that at the current moment that streaming service is in the middle of its own ‘reorganization’ is another sad fact of where the industry is these days.) It is unlikely it would be any more successful or indeed of the moment than it was when it originally aired (I never liked the series at any point) but the fact that the television industry no longer considered the network that had created the show a safe home for it tells you a lot about where the CW is. The fact that the CW can not even find a future with its past success tells you that it may not have one creatively for a long time, if ever again.
Perhaps the signs were already there when The Chilling Adventures of Sabrina, a spinoff that Riverdale had inspired in its third season went to Netflix for its run rather than the CW. I’m still not sure why that happened — there’s nothing particularly adult or imaginative about Sabrina and the fact that it has been a waste of Kieran Shipka, one of the great young talents in the history of the medium, is worthy of a curse on Netflix. But the fact that this show that had been part of Berlanti’s brand wasn’t considering the kind of thing that a network that, for far too long, was willing to put up any kind of reimagining of a cherished childhood property, may indicate that their were limits for just how far the CW was willing to push the Overton Window that Riverdale kept pushing out further and further. Who knows? Maybe if it had stayed on the CW, some of the storylines for that show might have had something resembling logic to it. Then again, when you decide your last season occurs when a lead character uses magical powers to transport the entire town to the 1950s, it’s pretty clear logic is nowhere to be found. (Have I mentioned how glad I am I stopped watching the show after Season 3?)
The last piece in this article will summarize the history of the CW and the lesson that television should try to take away from it — though they probably won’t.