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Whether for better or for worse, it’s common for long-running television shows to change over time. With “Riverdale,” it’s safe to say that what started out as a classic CW teen drama based on the comic “Archie” and best known for its small town charm has transformed into something else. What exactly that something else is has been eluding the average viewer for quite a few seasons now.
The Season 7 premiere opens on an unexplained, discordant image: Within the first few seconds, characters are dancing and spinning in over-dramatized ’50s attire as part of an old time intro set to Bill Haley & His Comets’ “Rock Around the Clock.” Not only has the timeline of the show rolled back roughly 70 years from where it left off in the Season Six finale, but it soon becomes clear that none of the characters even remember their past selves. This goes for all involved in the time shift except for everyone’s favorite cynical, beanie-clad teen loner, Jughead Jones (Cole Sprouse) — who makes it very clear to the viewer that he remembers everything, and he’s haunted by it.
Most premiere reviews need to provide some background information to get viewers up to speed, but in a case where the setting, past storylines, and memories of virtually all its characters are completely erased, it’s not clear what context is truly necessary for the last installment of “Riverdale.” By this point in the show, most characters have dated or married several others within the main cast, depending on which timeline you’re considering. The core group has rallied together, torn itself apart, fought crime, and — in the truly unhinged Season 6 finale — used witchery to prevent world destruction from a cleverly-named “Bailey’s Comet.” Therefore, it might be best to consider the Season 7 premiere as a completely separate entity.
After the cliche ’50s intro and Jughead’s expositional monologue establishing the cast as all “somehow juniors again,” the first plot point to be introduced is, alarmingly, the murder of Emmett Till. This is not a passing point or historical context, but instead a major conflict throughout the rest of the premiere episode, and presumably the rest of the season. The show’s choice to incorporate such a deeply painful and serious moment in African American history into a plotline that has devolved into nothing short of delirium comes off as extremely insensitive.
Every scene with Betty (Lili Reinhart) throughout the episode is devoted to her plight to have coverage on the Till trial published in the school newspaper by one of the school’s only Black students, Toni (Vanessa Morgan). The audience has to follow a somewhat painful subplot as Betty reckons with the extent of the racial disparities taking place in the ’50s timeline, detached from all memory of the progressive future in which she comes from.
Not only does Toni have to negotiate with multiple white men describing her article as “well-written” before dismissing it, but she and her two other Black peers are called upon on the spot in class to educate their classmates on what they witnessed at the trial — a problematic request by a teacher that is somehow painted as progressive.
Upon witnessing “Riverdale”’s decidedly inept handling of the Emmett Till trial, it comes as a relief to see that the rest of the show is mostly unmoored from its setting. The only other historical figure who receives attention is James Dean, as a name to embellish the Hollywood-raised Veronica’s (Camila Mendes) glamorous background. Dean’s supposed bisexuality is also used as a jumping point for the (previously lesbian in past seasons) Cheryl to display some marked homophobia: After Veronica hints at Dean’s presumed bisexuality, Cheryl is outraged that she would “besmirch his memory like that.” The choice to change Cheryl's sexuality for the last season feels unnecessary for the plot and jarring in relation to her character in past seasons.
As far as continuity goes, the premiere ends on an even more concerning note than it begins. Jughead, after unearthing a time capsule from the future and considering how to convince the others to travel back to their past storyline, is confronted with the future rendition of his girlfriend, Tabitha (Erinn Westbrook). Tabitha provides some exposition on what’s going on timeframe wise — the group’s attempt during the Season 6 finale to prevent the so-called Bailey’s comet from destroying civilization failed, and so Tabitha used the last of her “life-force” powers as a witch to transport them to a safe life in the ’50s. It appears that she cannot, as Jughead eloquently puts it, “use [her] chronokinesis and get [them] the hell out of 1955.” Instead, Tabitha insists that everyone “make a go of it” in the ’50s to ensure that, quoting Martin Luther King Jr., “the moral arc of this universe bends towards justice” in the meantime while she figures out her magical reversal solution. And no, the tie between “Riverdale”’s elaborately-constructed multiverse and the sentiments of MLK is not made overly apparent in this scenario.
The premiere ends with Tabitha removing Jughead’s memory of the future through a prolonged and dramatic kiss, and Jughead rushing to write down the words “Bend. Towards. Justice” before blacking out. Considering that the sole person who had any motivation to return the cast to their future environment has lost all memory of his goal, it’s hard to say what future episodes may hold, or how a stunted version of an MLK quote will help them get there.
As a whole, “Riverdale”’s Season 7 premiere is concerning on an artistic level, but more importantly, the careless way it handled its subject matter. The show’s choice to take itself lightly and make bizarre compositional choices on its own is respectable enough, but not when this approach causes insensitivity towards the history of race relations in America. In its very first episode, the final season of “Riverdale” has made several sizable missteps, and at this point is arguably just a glaringly sub-par piece of entertainment.
—Staff writer Dylan R. Ragas can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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