CHAMELEON GOES GENUINE

When I say I like Riverdale, the reactions I get are largely of contempt. I can see, sometimes, the millisecond someone decides never to take a recommendation from me again. The lines running through their head: I’m weird. I’m a weirdo. I don’t “fit” in, and I don’t want to fit in. Have you ever seen me without this stupid hat on? That’s weird…That means you’ve never known the triumphs and defeats, the epic highs and lows of high school football…Because we’re endgame, Archie…and so on, and so forth. Lines that have been ridiculed to death by watchers and non-watchers alike. 

On a surface level, I understand. Especially for people who haven’t seen it, and who have only seen these few moments pulled from context. It’s easy to see dialogue like this and dismiss it out of hand as being garbage. I’ve been there: when I first watched season 1 as it was airing my junior year of high school, I dropped it by episode 10 and, for years, I was a disdainful member of the “how is this still on the air?” crowd. Floating babies? A drug called “jingle-jangle,” distributed by a gang called the Ghoulies? I was baffled by the fact that people continued to watch the show, and vocal about my distaste.

It wasn’t until last spring that I decided to give it another shot, largely for fun. My sister and I needed a new show, and we like having something to laugh at. But as we sat on the couch together, watching the mystery of Jason Blossom’s murder unfold, I very quickly realized that the reason I’d hated it so much before was because I had been watching it through a genre lens that was completely at odds with the show’s actual intent. Many people, including myself, went into Riverdale in 2017 expecting a gritty, haunted depiction of our childhood favorite comic book characters. What we got was jarringly different: a whimsical, campy homage to television that constantly challenges the boundaries of narrative convention. It wasn’t cynical or edgy in the way we’d set ourselves up to expect–its approach was almost unbearably earnest. I was, to my own disbelief, enamored.

***

There were many things I couldn’t stand, as a seventeen-year-old at an arts conservatory. Everyone around me had such polished taste–I was surrounded by incredibly talented people in departments ranging from creative writing (my discipline), to visual art, to musical theatre, to jazz performance, to film, to culinary arts. Everyone was massively talented. Everyone had strong opinions on what constituted “good art.” I remember a kid getting bullied so badly he started sitting with another table at lunch because he dared to say Stephen Sondheim was his favorite theatre composer (too basic, apparently). It is only as I write this that I realize exactly how bizarre that was. 

The idea of adoring something without irony, and being torn down for it, was terrifying to me at the time. The things I loved were a self-portrait, and I didn’t want to be seen. I quickly realized that it was much simpler to detach and criticize everything, so I became detached and a critic. Every one of us there was obsessed with doing the best analysis, having the most refined taste, being the hardest to please. I spent my life as a voyeur of my own experience, and it was unbelievably lonely. 

It’s taken a lifetime for me to become indifferent to self-curation. When I moved to Orlando, three states and six hundred miles from home, I had the same thought as nearly every other college freshman: What if I became someone new? And so I did, and I did, and I did. There are so many failed versions of me left unfinished in the hands of friends I realized I had no genuine connection with. Nicknames I introduced myself by that I’d never used before. I was, and am, very good at reflecting only what others want to see from me. 

First dates were the ideal practice ground for my chameleon act. How can someone see through you if they don’t know enough about you to question the face you present? I’ve spent years learning how to gauge people, which of my favorite coffee shops would appeal to them: the off-kilter artsy jumble and scribble-on-the-walls charm of Stardust? The crisp, natural-light, succulent-on-each-table of Palate? We would sit across from each other, me in an outfit engineered towards what I believed to be their taste, and I would reveal myself in sanitized, cautious ways. Never lying, and genuinely thinking I was being vulnerable, but only allowing myself to exist in ways that were complementary to them. The first date was always fun, and I almost always succeeded in holding their interest for a second or third, but inevitably I would realize I felt disconnected. Out of guilt and confusion, I would ghost them when they tried to get closer to me.

I’ve been extraverted and introverted and aloof and seductive and pretentious and inviting and romantic and cold and anything but comfortable. I performed half-truths and caricatures of myself until I realized it was a chore. And in a handful of cases, I lucked out and found people that I liked–not just ones that I wanted to like me. I met some of my closest friends my freshman year: they still call me Bella, and they think it’s weird when others use my full name, saying, “What, is she in trouble?” 

It took me almost a year to realize that I was the source of my own discomfort, that the arsenal of mirrors and facades I’d built around myself to appear desirable deflected any possibility of real connection. I remember the moment I first felt comfortable as myself, without gimmicks or pretense. I was sitting on my friend Madison’s couch, with her and her boyfriend and her roommate, and we were playing Mario Party together. Joey had made alfredo and a pot of tea for us, and their cat was curled up next to me, purring as I scratched between her ears. Madison had called me first thing in the morning and asked if I wanted to hang out, and I’d been there all day, doing absolutely nothing. There was no pressure, no performance. I think that’s the first time Florida ever felt like home to me.

***

I find myself drawn to media that exists as a love letter to its own form. Self-aware, heavily referential & intertextual pieces, equal parts satire and earnest embrace. I am tired of artistic self-flagellation and fourth wall breaks. I’m tired of comic-book movies that hate themselves for being comic-book movies. Of quippy, quirky creators poking fun at others in their genre while refusing to say anything meaningful, for fear of being made fun of themselves. No purpose or message or substance, just “Hey, look at that guy, so cliche! Couldn’t be me.” The desperate desire to avoid being cringed at has driven us to a mass creative stalemate, made worse by the fact that so many people have direct online access now to so many pieces of art–whether that’s books, or TV, or film. To publish something in hopes of satisfying everyone who experiences it is a task that is not only impossible, but insanity-inducing in the internet age. The way out isn’t to anticipate and deflect all possible criticisms, but to stop writing for the audience altogether and just do what you set out to do.

Riverdale does exactly that. Not only is it genuinely a very smart and self-aware show, it couldn’t care less about audience misinterpretations. Every insane new twist, every piece of stylized, ridiculous dialogue, every reference to ‘20s Hollywood and obscure off-off-Broadway culture, every episode in homage to classic noir, or The Breakfast Club, or Pulp Fiction, is layered, intentional, and bold. Watching it, I understand why I so vehemently despised it in high school, and that’s exactly why I embrace it now. Riverdale does what very few pieces of art are able to accomplish today, and it does what I have struggled with since my formative years: it is entirely authentic, existing without shame or apology. When people give me strange looks for enjoying it, it doesn’t faze me. Yes, it’s bizarre. Jughead survives symptomatic rabies that he got from a bender in a New York sewer. Everyone except Veronica has superpowers now; there was a five-episode parallel universe arc in which Archie is quite literally crucified. Gay Kevin is a mind-controlled fascist. I don’t feel obligated to defend it, because it doesn’t ask for audience defense. The show speaks for itself, should you choose to engage.