RIVERDALE & CHILLING ADVENTURES OF SABRINA
by Sarah Yanni & Zakery Benjamin
HOMESCHOOL is a recurring column that explores the current landscape of adolescent TV and film. Authors / partners Sarah and Zak review the cringiness of each drama, and perform some much-needed self-analysis, attempting to unearth why the genre dominates their viewing catalogue.
The year is 2009. We (Sarah and Zak) are both teens in Los Angeles, enjoying our respective teen activities and media, unbeknownst to one another at that time. Although we grew up four miles apart, our high-school-aged selves, particularly our viewing habits, could not have been more different.
“I watched Disney Channel well into high school,” says Sarah. “And then I switched to like Pretty Little Liars and The Vampire Diaries. You know, shows that felt edgy but actually weren’t at all.”
“I watched Breaking Bad and The Daily Show. Scrubs reruns were my absolute shit.” Zak recalls. “In fact, I never watched anything centered on the lives of teens when I was one myself.”
Fast forward to 2021, and we’re going on our seventh year as partners. In that time, much television and film have been consumed, especially in the last 10 months. Zak, a high school teacher, and Sarah, myself, a writer and editor, both consider ourselves to be fairly cultured individuals. Yet together, our TV and movie viewing gravitate uncomfortably towards the slop that is contemporary adolescent content. AKA: shows and movies that take place in the high school world, revolving around stereotypical, petty teen drama, ignoring logic via chaotic plot holes, endlessly teasing a romance between two teens who are clearly played by actors our own age, and, for some reason, often including out-of-place musical numbers.
Certainly this apocalyptic capitalist hellscape calls for some indulging in the escapism offered by such teen filth. Between the two of us, we have subscriptions (read: friend’s passwords) to basically every streaming service, and the fact that we’ve spent the last year with a laptop or television constantly at arm’s length makes these shows all-too-easily available. But in HOMESCHOOL we’ll try and look beyond escapism as the default answer to why we’ve spent so many hours with this genre, and engage in some coupled self-analysis while giving readers a concise and frank review.
Enter the Cringe-O-Meter. We’ll open each segment with a verdict; just how bad are these teenage binges? And, how much should we wish to hide under a blanket when we admit to watching (and sometimes enjoying) them in our post-quarter-life-crisis lives?
RIVERDALE & CHILLING ADVENTURES OF SABRINA CRINGE-O-METER: 9
These shows are bad. Really bad. Honestly we debated not writing this column so as to never have to openly admit to having seen every damn season of them.
Sarah: So, let’s talk about Riverdale. Riverdale is a one-hour CW drama based on the Archie comics characters, with some very creative liberties. The show mostly revolves around these four small-town high school friends—Archie, Jughead, Betty, and Veronica. And it’s a mystery; you know, there’s murder, romance, and also at one point, an organ farm slash cult that is led by Chad Michael Murray.
Zak: I think we would be remiss not to mention that neither of us has ever read the Archie Comics. You know, actually [pauses to skim a Teen Vogue article on the subject of their differences] okay, yeah, it’s loosely interpreted.
S: When did we first watch Riverdale?
Z: In 2016, the first season was added to Netflix at the beginning of the summer. I remember I was graduating from my master’s program, and I had just finished my thesis, so I was decompressing.
S: And we watched it all in like, three days, right?
Z: Yeah, it was hot and we had nothing to do. I guess if we had to give a brief summary, Riverdale is about a group of teens who would literally never be friends, finding themselves mixed up in some very adult and very deadly gang, mafia, and murder-related situations, while still worrying about school dances and graduation.
S: The parents are all highly involved in their lives, which also doesn’t make sense, because if they were that involved, their kids wouldn’t be getting into any of these situations.
Z: Yeah, if my dad was as involved in my everyday decision-making as Archie’s dad is, I’d graduate top of my class at Stanford. But no, Archie is literally in an underground prison boxing tournament.
S: Also just want to note that the main drug in the Riverdale world is called… Jingle Jangle.
Z: Ah yes. Getting high on the Jangle.
S: And then Riverdale has this “sister show”—Chilling Adventures of Sabrina, which we just always call Sabrina. It draws from the world of the original Melissa Joan Hart Sabrina the Teenage Witch, but the energy is completely different. The show takes place in a town called Greendale, which is across the river from… wait for it… Riverdale. There hasn’t been a crossover episode, but they sometimes reference each other, yeah?
Z: Yeah, they reference one another. So in this new Sabrina, Sabrina is an actual spawn of the Dark Lord (AKA Lucifer) trying to balance her real-world school life with her newfound embrace of the occult. She splits her time between Greendale and Hell. Moreover, Salem is no longer a speaking character.
S: Yeah, and on a surface level, it’s a lot darker than Riverdale. Among the cast of characters is the actual devil, some really grotesque-looking demons, various manifestations of evil, and a nameless void that threatens to end all life on Earth.
Z: I remember the first season came out around Halloween, so it seemed fitting. And then we just… kept watching it, even though, like Riverdale, the plot lines make no sense and are generally very poorly written and overacted.
S: And they both insist on having musical episodes where suddenly everyone in the show is a thespian? It’s really, deeply uncomfortable to witness.
Z: I usually leave the room.
S: But on some level, we like it, don’t we? I mean, that’s why we’re writing this. They’ve each had four seasons, and we’ve watched all four.
Z: I don’t know if “like” is the right word on my end. But yeah, I can’t deny having put in the hours.
S: I blame my smooth brain. But no, actually, I think for me there’s still some tension—the plot lines are hypothetically interesting and gripping. But the fact that it’s so badly written and acted makes it feel low stakes, so I don’t actually have to think about it critically? It’s a perfect middle ground of entertainment; it causes me no actual stress but is still interesting because the characters are in objectively stressful situations.
If you’re an adult, and bad things are happening in your life, you’re going to have to deal with them like a grown person. But when we’re watching Riverdale or Sabrina, I know that none of the main characters are ever going to actually die, and at the end of the season, even though we’ve just watched 12 hours about the town’s serial killer or a supernatural army from hell, the final episode will still be about the prom! The conflict one episode will be, you know, is my dad going to go to jail? And the next episode will be like, Ugh, I can’t believe they won’t let Archie graduate. So it’s intriguing, but with no stakes. It feels safe.
Z: It’s interesting that you talk about these shows as feeling safe, because I can’t think of a more dangerous subset of the population than mostly white teenagers who grow up with endless resources and no boundaries. It’s like the “affluenza” court case.
S: But is that what you’re thinking about when you’re watching it?
Z: Yes. Largely, I would say.
S: So these shows are stressful for you?
Z: They aren’t stressful in any real-world way, because the things that happen are so ridiculous, and I feel like they get less realistic each season. In Riverdale, the first season, okay, Archie’s fucking his teacher and there’s a town murder mystery. But then by the third season, Cheryl has her brother’s dead corpse in her house, there’s a cult that’s also an organ farm, and there’s a convoluted game where they’re all being hunted and have to drink some special potion…
S: There’s also a whole subplot with Jughead avenging his grandfather, whose novel was stolen, and then because of that, this teacher gets involved and is murdered.
Z: His teacher doesn’t even get murdered, he gets coerced into committing suicide in front of the class.
S: Omg, that’s right! I can’t really explain it—but if you were to tell me that a show has gang violence, suicide, or satanic sacrifice, I’d say; cool, I don’t want to watch that. That’s too dark and I can’t deal with that right now. But with these…
Z: It’s because they’re family-friendly versions of all the bad things that can happen. Gang violence for the suburbs, if you will.
Z: And even from season one, I didn’t necessarily love either show, but thought, wow, this is what kids are watching, what my students are watching at home. And I think that’s interesting because in some way, the media they consume shapes the world around them.
S: But you were engaged in the stories at some point.
Z: Yeah you know, each show’s first season was genuinely okay, but as they’ve gone on, they’re just too much. For both the series, I found myself not even paying attention to the storyline by the time the fourth season arrived. I just found myself kind of wincing at random things, like the fact that Veronica from Riverdale still calls her dad “daddy” even though they’re operating dueling rum companies in some Amazon-versus-Walmart-style attempt to run each other into financial ruin. But also, I get it. Of course the growth of these characters is stumped, because that’s how TV shows make more seasons. If they ever learned from their lessons, there’d be no more money to make off a series.
S: But it’s a contained chaos, which goes back to that feeling of safety.
Z: Sure, yeah, at the end of every season, Sabrina or Archie end up giving some long speech to their friends about how much they’ve grown. But the next season everyone comes back and it’s like none of them remember the lesson. It’s honestly disturbingly like actual high school.
S: I will say that out of all the shows and movies I think we’re going to chat about, these are probably the ones where as I’m watching them, I’m the most self-aware—I’m thinking Oh my God, this is so bad, I can’t believe I’m watching this. For you, is there anything from these shows that feels relatable to your high school life?
Z: Uh, no… I mean much like many of these characters, I went to a public high school but I wasn’t, you know, fighting crime or going to jail as an adolescent. I didn’t have some Succession-type rivalry with my father and was not dealing with my sacred birthright as Satan’s child or whatever. Though, I’m sure there was some speculation on that last point.
S: I also don’t find myself necessarily identifying with these characters, but I identify with the feeling of how when you’re a teenager, everything feels like it’s the biggest thing… there’s a nostalgia for feeling like everything going on in your life is just absolutely overflowing with emotion. You know, everything is seen on the same scale.
Z: There’s a lack of ability to take things apart.
S: Yeah, I think that was something that I experienced in high school. Little things, like the school dance, literally created this feeling of “this night could change my life.” And in both Sabrina and Riverdale, it feels like they’re constantly going through events that could “change their lives” even though for them, like me, it never really ends up doing that.
Now, life changes too much. I wish nothing was monumental. I wish I had the dopamine of excitement and butterflies followed by the safety of consistency.
Z: We haven’t left the apartment in 11 months. Is that not consistency?
S: *sigh* Yeah. Jeez, yeah, wow. Okay. Well, here’s to month twelve.