Riverdale doesn’t have characters, exactly. It mostly has hair. The color palette on this show recalls an underage game of Clue. Betty Cooper, latte blonde, hair pulled back into a ponytail, approachable in desert pink, imaginary blue, millennial wheat. Veronica Lodge, raven-haired and nouveau riche, with eyebrows for days, in Kate Spade plums and Alice + Olivia blacks, always lightly choked by pearls or guilt. Cheryl Blossom, the redhead, Poison Ivy by way of Regina George, a Pre-Raphaelite Jessica Rabbit, an anti-Weasley, smooth and creamy like a skinless almond.
The photography is to die for. The camera licks everything in reach, like a flame, or a cat, until every lip, every burger, every teenage corpse is pert and glossy with—what? Is it sex? “This is a very chaste show, all things considered,” my girlfriend remarked to me the other morning. It’s true. The boning-to-horniness ratio is relatively low if you discount all the statutory rape. Maybe appetite is a better word: One look at the neo-noir neons of Pop’s Chock’lit Shoppe, and essence of onion ring slides down the back of my tongue. A more infantile mode of desire, diffuse and teething, easily distracted. Everything onscreen is drooling over everything else onscreen.
Which brings us to the twins. Most proximately I mean the twin characters, of course, Cheryl and Jason Blossom, matching porcelain teacups who wouldn’t be out of place in a Wes Anderson film. The strong implication of the opening scenes of the pilot, which feature the two taking a row boat out on Sweetwater River on the Fourth of July, each dressed in immaculate white, is that before Jason’s bloated, frozen body turned up with a bullet in its alabaster brow, the Blossom twins were doing it.
This hasn’t been confirmed as far as I’ve watched, but it doesn’t need to be. Incest, like red hair, runs in the family. The late Jason Blossom and his pregnant fiancée Polly Cooper, unbeknownst to either one, were third cousins, the sticky result of a secret blood feud begun when one Blossom murdered another for control of the family’s maple syrup empire. (Yes, maple syrup empire, a phrase the characters repeat like this is the most normal thing in the world.) When the Coopers storm Thornhill mansion to confront their new cousins, the Blossoms are surprisingly chill about the whole thing. “Nothing could be more purely Blossom,” murmurs Cheryl’s mother dreamily. She has a point. One is reminded that the only socially acceptable avenue for fucking your relatives is marriage. The Blossoms do look so alike.
But it isn’t just them. All the Riverdale girls twin their mothers. The sight of Betty and Alice Cooper, Veronica and Hermione Lodge, Cheryl and Penelope Blossom in the same shot feels impossible and dangerous, like a glitch in the Matrix. Red-haired Archie’s lack of resemblance to his sad-eyed father is a minor mystery until Molly Ringwald shows up to play his mother. The threat, or the lure, of maternal fusion, of crawling back into the womb and plugging back in is ever-present, and often, well, hot. Let’s call this visual incest. Incest once removed, maybe; incest as a photographic style, incest as an Instagram filter. Even Kevin, Riverdale High’s resident homosexual Triscuit, looks like one half of a gay twin couple waiting to happen.
This is why Cole Sprouse is such an inspired casting choice. It’s not just that there’s always something viscerally appealing about watching former Disney Channel stars get the pixie dust thwapped out of them like old quilts. It’s also that on this show full of twins, literal actual twin Cole Sprouse makes his twinless début. Gone is the Mary Kate to his Ashley, Dylan Sprouse, who’s busy running a meadery in Brooklyn that’s “set to explode in the mead scene.” Nay, the cheese is standing alone.
Jughead Jones is bookish loner with a taste for the dark, bitter and brooding, typing away at his true crime novel, fighting his demons, weighed down with the sins of his father, who looks like Gilmore Girls’ Luke Danes fell in with a bad crowd. Cole’s hair is dyed polyester black, shooting the Mouse the bird like Miley’s bleach-blonde undercut circa 2013. It looks like a wig, but it isn’t, unlike the ardent fox curled up on Cliff Blossom’s head, a coif so horrifyingly unconvincing it had nearly torn through my Kevlar-grade faith in the Riverdale hair and makeup team by the time Polly caught a peek of his sex dungeon of toupées.
On the Suite Life of Zack and Cody, Cole played a bright, blonde overachiever; on Riverdale, he dates one. This is controversial, given that Archie Comics’ Jughead was revealed to be asexual in 2016. It’s as if Archie’s asexuality, like the Blossom clan’s incest, has been promoted from content to form, from plot point to aesthetic. For in Riverdale, to be twinless is to be sexless, kicked out of the tiny vibrating economy of the near-identical where most of the town’s residents make their lives.
What else to say? Riverdale is impossibly sized, big enough to have a South Side (with its own school district!) but small enough that Dilton Doiley can intelligibly tell Archie to go to “the edge of town.” (The edge? One solitary edge? What shape is this town??) Archie himself is boring. His thick neck reminds me of a beefy dude I went to grade school with. His voice is awful. KJ Apa’s trachea, faced with budget cuts, appears to have laid off his regular speaking voice, leaving his singing voice to pull a double shift. The result is as if Archie is constantly talk-singing “Hey There, Delilah.”
I’m serious, by the way, about Pop’s diner making me hungry. My fast food intake has definitely increased since I started watching this show. I almost exclusively eat fast food when I am alone, in places no one will recognize me, mostly McDonald’s and Taco Bell; afterwards, I never mention it to my girlfriend. It’s like some kind of affair. It feels bad, and I want it to feel bad. It’s a wonder that the Riverdale girls maintain the bodies they do in a town whose only restaurant appear to be a Fifties-style diner. Then again, you never really see the Riverdale girls eat, unless you count sipping milkshakes. Burgers and fries, lovingly prepared by the props department, glistening untouched on diner plates. Maybe they wait till no one is around, too.
Next week: One of the greatest Buffy episodes of all time…