Riverdale’s Rips off Twin Peaks (Badly) and Normalizes Rapey Plotline

There’s a lot wrong with CW’s latest show, Riverdale. Let’s put aside the crazy clown red hair and pale faces of the murder victim Jason Blossom and Archie. Or the obvious invocations of past popular teen shows. Or the super-fast, want-to-be Gilmore Girls speed of dialogue. It’s also clearly a Twin Peaks rip-off, obvious from the opening credits, and not a good, homage one, but just BAD.

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Riverdale wants to be Twin Peaks SO BAD. Not only does it mimic the opening of Twin Peaks, but there’s the prominence of the diner as the center of the town, the focus on a dead high school student, and how the appearance of the body uncovers the dark mysteries lurking beneath the town. The show also mimics the visual aesthetic of Twin Peaks. Like Twin Peaks, the forest is a dark, looming character of its own. The whole show is narrated by Jughead, who says the “town wasn’t the same as before…” pretty much what Twin Peaks invented. And by the way, Jughead is a poor man’s Stiles from Teen Wolf. And they stole Stiles’ murder wall too- even locating it at the Sheriff’s house.

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Jughead says Riverdale is “The story is about a town, once wholesome and innocent, now forever changed by the mysterious murder of Jason Blossom on the 4th of July.” Reviewers such as TV Line, and the Los Angeles Times have praised the “darker turn” of the revision. The New York Times called the series “Hot and Haunted.” They seem to have bought what Riverdale is selling- that it’s a dark, twisty, original mystery, an exposure of what dark secrets lie underneath the civilized veneer of small towns. Apparently these reviewers have never heard of Twin Peaks. Or any other show from the past twenty-five years since that has paid homage to it.

Riverdale is unoriginal, it’s what happens when you take thirty years of pop-culture, put it in a blender, and throw references on a page. Riverdale writers seem to think that if they just cram as many pop-culture references as possible into each episode, no one will notice how bad the show is in every other way. In case you’re not paying attention, each episode goes out of its way to show you how CLEVER it is. How META. How SMART. The first clue that this show is just so good is that each episode is a nod to classic movies; Chapter One: The River’s Edge, Chapter Two: A Touch of Evil, Chapter Three: Body Double, and Chapter Four: The Last Picture Show each title a clue to the mystery of Riverdale and the plot of that episode. But it’s not clever, or meta, or smart, or good. it’s lazy storytelling. The writers seemed to be working to win a bet on how many pop-culture references they could cram into the first four episodes and the loser has to what, actually watch the show? First, there’s the casting of Luke Perry and Madchen Amick, as the parents of Archie and Betty respectively, invoking television nostalgia but for no apparent reason. Then there’s the references to movies and television- Blue Jasmine, In Cold Blood, Goonies, Wednesday Addams, Team Outlander, the post-James Franco world, Green Mile, Suicide Squad, Donnie Darko, Our Town, American Graffitti, Rebel Without a Cause, True Detective, TMZ, Candyman, 1994 faux lesbians, Betty Draper, Vertigo, Rear Window, Indecent Proposal, the list goes on and on. In case you’re not convinced how clever the show is there’s also the token, one-dimensional gay best friend, the closeted football player, Moose, the cheerleaders are called Vixens, and Veronica is the anti-Heather Heather.

None of these problems are why I have an issue with the show though. I knew I wasn’t going to like the series from the first trailer.

For me, Riverdale is just the latest in a long line of rapey plotlines, shows and movies that seem to think it’s okay that adults rape and abuse children and I am done. The focus of the trailer wasn’t the mystery, or the iconic characters, or even a revision of what Twin Peaks did so well- it was the relationship between Archie and his teacher, Ms. Grundy. Once again, another show presents a female teacher sleeping with a male student as hot, sexy, sensational. Let me say this slowly, and with emphasis.

Rape is not a plot point.

It is not entertainment.

An adult woman, sleeping with a 14-15 year old is rape. It is pedophilia. It is child abuse. Some reviews, such as this one and this one, have expressed their concern with Riverdale’s recycled trope of the “hot teacher” sleeping with an underage student. Riverdale not only presents this disgusting, degenerate storyline as the center of the show, but they did it on purpose. In the comics, Ms. Grundy is a kindly, but tough, white haired teacher who often challenges Archie and the gang to be their best selves. She first appears in Pep Comics #30 (1 August 1942) and Geraldine Grundy’s death due to cancer on 29 December 2010 was a heart-warming goodbye to a beloved teacher.

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Riverdale changed how Ms. Grundy is portrayed in the comics, and they did it for the express purpose of introducing this rapey plot line.

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You know the audience is supposed to see Ms. Grundy as a sex object because of her heart framed sunglasses, the oral fixation of the straw, the see-through shirt, and the sex scene in her VW Bug in the school parking lot, framed by a school bus in the background in case you were too dense to get it. Her further sexualization as a cellist is also a clear visual invocation of Susan Sarandon as Jane Spofford in The Witches of Eastwick. There’s a “cougar” reference by other male characters in the show early on which highlights one of the problems with this entire story line. Child abuse, rape, and abuse of power by adults is ALWAYS wrong. But culture often presents a double standard- that if the victim is a young man, he’s not really a victim, he’s the “lucky” one (See movies like The Faculty.  If it’s a young girl, most often the cultural portrayal is that she’s psychotic, a seducer, seeking to bring the good, guy down (See Wild Things, The Crush, Poison Ivy, The Perfect Teacher just to name a few). Or it’s just misunderstood (See Lolita, Never Been Kissed, American Beauty, Half-Nelson, the list, unfortunately, goes on and on).

The show does several things to normalize Archie’s rape. K.J Apa, the actor playing Archie, is actually 19. Archie is a sophomore which means he’s is 14 or 15. Sarah Habel, who plays Ms. Grundy is 35. That’s disgusting.  Certainly, the production team dresses and presents her as much younger when she first picks Archie up as another way of normalizing their relationship. Later in the show, once school is back, they move from portraying her as close to Archie’s age to fetishizing her role as teacher with see-through shirts, tight skirts, and glasses. The show normalizes the rape in other ways. The show attempts to give Archie agency, present it as though he’s pursuing her, seen in his dialogue like “Don’t panic, I’m not stalking you” and my “Not so indecent proposal.” The show shows Archie as pursuing her- running to her house in the middle of the night, asking her repeatedly to “teach him.” Grundy then is shown “doing the right thing” in rebuffing him- telling him that he’s trying to “restart something that never should have started.” This firmly tries to blame Archie, put the responsibility for their relationship on him. While the show ties itself into knots to NOT present Archie as a victim, he is. He upsets his whole life because of Ms. Grundy. He lies to his Dad. He deceives his friends. He jeopardizes the murder investigation. His father tries to advise Archie that he’s going down the wrong path, “these decisions have consequences. They go on to form who you are and what you become” but Archie has eyes only for Grundy, and doesn’t listen. Riverdale not only normalizes Grundy’s rape of Archie, but it places all of the responsibility and consequences on his shoulders. Fourteen and fifteen year olds are not to blame for adults that abuse their power. Victims are not to blame for abuse.

Riverdale seeks to integrate decades of Archie portrayals by making him an up and coming football star, who works for his dad’s company, and is a budding musician. It is this last that ties him to Ms. Grundy, as he seeks lessons from her the summer after their romance. His musical talent is also what normalizes their relationship because when Archie’s father asks her why she’d take such an interest in his son, she tells him that “Archie’s a special kid.” That’s called grooming, and it’s a classic abuser tactic. Framing their relationship as special, and something others just wouldn’t understand.

Not only is Ms. Grundy a child abuser, and a rapist, but she corrupts Archie in other ways. Ms. Grundy gets Archie to lie to his father, and other authorities, preventing a murderer from being caught, and she does it by manipulating him by abusing her power over him as an adult and teacher. She tells him that that they can’t go to the police and reveal a possible clue about Jason’s murder because she “could” lose her job and he would be expelled. First, she would absolutely lose her job, and face criminal charges, because child abuse and rape is against the law. Second, victims of abuse and rape are not expelled from their schools. Ms. Grundy abuses her power not only in the rape, and the manipulation, but by leaving a vulnerable Archie alone, threatening his future and to withhold their relationship if he talks.

Episode four focuses on revealing the mystery of Geraldine Grundy. Betty and Veronica both learn that Archie is sleeping with her, and Betty in her jealousy, starts Googling Grundy, really high-tech investigation. Turns out Ms. Grundy died seven years ago (a nod to the character’s 2010 comic demise, as is the white-haired picture they show). Archie refuses to believe the truth though, stating, “she believed in me when no one else did.” When Archie does confront her, about who she really is, she spins a sob story where she’s the true victim, an abused wife who had to run away and change her name a la Sleeping with the Enemy. Archie defends her to Betty, arguing that Ms. Grundy hasn’t done anything to him. But Betty counters that Ms. Grundy is cutting Archie off from everyone (and again, isolating their victims is straight out of the abuser’s playbook).

Episode four, and Ms. Grundy’s plotline, comes to a close when Archie takes her a gift, a bow as a goodbye gift, again, attempting to give Archie agency and power. HE chose the relationship. HE ends it. His actions though are negated by Betty’s Mom busting in with Archie’s dad, and Betty, and exposing Ms. Grundy and Archie’s relationship. Madchen Amick calls Ms. Grundy a child predator.  Again though the show pivots and has Archie take the blame for the abuse, blaming himself for his own victimhood- “I went after her,” “everything that happened I wanted to happen,” defending his abuser. Madchen Amick says her actions are about “doing what is right” but the show presents her as in the wrong, negating the truth of her words. Betty telling her mother that she’ll lie about Ms. Grundy to protect Archie further supports this narrative. Grundy offers to quit, and leave town.

When I was ranting, I mean pre-writing, this piece on Twitter, one of the Riverdale writers said they hoped that I’d end up happy with how they ended the Grundy storyline. I am not. And here’s why- child abuse is never okay. Rape is never okay. The abuse of power by adults is never okay. Presenting a storyline that says these things ARE okay to an audience that is a vulnerable demographic to this type of thing I think is disgusting, abhorrent, and unethical. Riverdale normalizes the rape of a child, and then ends the plotline in a train wreck. Grundy isn’t punished. She’s allowed to walk away unscathed. Archie is the one who is damaged. The rapey plotline only proves just how damaging child abuse is- that young victims who have been groomed for abuse end up with self-esteem issues, thinking they caused the abuse. Asked for it. Deserved it. And then left alone with the damage. At the end of the episode, his father tries to tell Archie these things, saying “this was not your fault” and Archies cries in his arms. It’s the only part of the rapey plot that rang true. Abuse hurts. Rape scars people. It affects their lives in deep, and awful ways. This is especially true when it occurs to children. It permanently alters their worldview, their relationships, how they view normal. This is the problem with shows and movies repeating and revisiting these storylines- they further normalize it. They condition people to think it’s okay.

So let me say this again. Slowly.

Rape is not a plot point.

Rape is not entertainment.

Child abuse is not a plot point.

Pedaphilia is not entertainment.

Greg Berlanti and the other writers and creators have been alarmingly silent to the concerns surrounding these types of storylines. One can only hope other show writers and creators will do better. There are lots of interesting things to write about. Rape isn’t one of them.

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ABOUT THE AUTHOR

Karra Shimabukuro is a Ph.D. student in British and Irish literary studies at the University of New Mexico. Her research focuses on how folkloric characters (especially the Devil) are represented in literature and popular culture. She regularly writes reviews for The Journal of Popular Culture and The Journal of Folklore Research Review, and she is also a regular presenter at the Popular Culture National Conference. She is a self-professed geek girl and can be found at scholarlymedievalmadness.blogspot.com.

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3 Comments

  1. Haven’t seen the show (only saw the trailer now), but apparently they tried to get it right (which is often not enough). I’d be surprised if that’s the last you’ll see of Mrs. Grundy. Apparently she is a liar and she has secrets, isn’t that what the show is about? The fact that she uses common tactics is not a problem. The fact that, at first, he thinks it’s all his fault and defends the abuser, isn’t a problem. It’s what happens. Frankly, I was expecting the good, lonely woman cliché (Summer of ’42 – which I actually like), and the show (as you presented it) didn’t go anywhere near that. It’s not about love and it doesn’t show her as misunderstood. These are good signs.

    Not saying it’s a good show or that I’m interested. But today’s TV is all about long-form storytelling (not necessarily a good thing, by the way), we can no longer demand that the bad girl should be punished in one episode (or, sigh, four). If they forget all about it, I’m with you. If the theme is developed through, at least, this whole season, subverting the expectations of those who at first were on board with this relationship, it could be interesting. I won’t know.

  2. Cody Walker says:

    Personally, I’m enjoying the show. The points you’ve made about it being a rip-off aren’t a big deal to me.

    However, I’m not a fan of Grundy sleeping with Archie. It’s as infuriating as you describe and I won’t argue against those points.

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