I started watching Season 3 of the CW’s series Riverdale last week, once it became available to stream (sorry, regular TV). Until now, I’ve watched the series, a gussied-up, high-production-value take on the characters from the Archie Comics, unabashedly, although its audience almost certainly skews younger than the demographic I’m part of. Perhaps I started watching in order to stay somewhat current with the teenagers I was teaching English to. Or maybe Netflix’s practice of loudly and flashily promoting new content worked on me. In any case, I’ve followed the series with real enjoyment of its histrionics and saturated palette and too-gorgeous-to-be-real actors.

But a few episodes into the third season, it began to seem even more over-the-top than it already was. More violent. More melodramatic. More implausible. What is going on? I thought. Is the series just jumping the shark, as most do after one or two seasons?

I pondered the developments — Veronica’s ongoing rejection of her outright gangster of a father, Archie’s imprisonment in a juvenile detention that looks like the Gulag (except for how well-fed and exercised the young men are), the deaths of two kids in game that resembles Dungeons and Dragons. I never took the show to be anything other than a fantastical depiction of a fictional world, but the third season was challenging my already-suspended disbelief.

I hold two things to be more or less true about the fictions that appear in visual media — movies and TV. One is that such stories must in some way reveal the world that gave rise to them. However they look, whatever values they seem to endorse, they probably owe those to an alchemy that cooks the creators’ worldview up with the projected worldview of the audience. No matter when they’re set, they’re an amalgam of the present, though always a little bit behind by the time they reach our screens.

The second thing I believe is true about TV and movies, and about everything that we are visually bombarded with (from ads to music videos), is that whether or not the creators intend it, these “visions” can help us imagine what is possible in the world, especially in the part of it that’s outside our own experience. I wouldn’t be surprised, for example, if seeing actor Dennis Haysbert playing America’s first black president in the Fox series 24 didn’t help acquaint people with the idea that a black president was possible.

By the same token, though, what we see on screens can limit our imaginations. As much as I would like to give humans credit for being able to tell the difference between the real world and the fictionalized projections on our screens, I don’t think we always remember to make the distinction. See the same imagery enough, and you might, without necessarily agreeing to it, start to believe it describes the real world one to one.

The American penchant for movies “based on actual events” or “based on a true story” suggests that we like to see non-fiction dramatized onscreen by actors, and once a historical sequence of events is in the territory of onscreen interpretation, the line between the real and the virtual becomes difficult to maintain. The actors will be, almost certainly, more beautiful than the real people. The conversations will be creatively written, not as they happened, but as they might have happened. Events will be included, excluded, or manipulated to make a more artful product. And the viewer’s ability to remember that the reality represented in the glow of cinematography is not at all like the original, lived reality is dubious. Add actual fiction to the mix, and things get even more complicated.

Which brings me back to the subject of Riverdale. In its seductive, melodramatic sights is small-town America, a microcosm of America itself. In it, small-town politics meets big-city organized crime, and the wholesome nuclear family, under pressure, reveals its festering secret sins. At the epicenter of all this warring virtue and vice are the children, the teens who go to Riverdale High (er…sometimes? when they’re not sleuthing or eating at Pop’s or being locked up in convents or juvy?). Over and over, they hold the moral high ground against the craven, resigned, scheming, bullying, and murderous adults who are their parents. In Riverdale, the adults, with the exception of Fred and Mary Andrews, are terrible, terrible people. The systems — government, school, law enforcement — are corrupt and not to be relied upon for protection or guidance. The world these teens face daily is one of overt threat and covert malice, combined. They are largely on their own to defend themselves, and, with losses along the way, they do.

In a telling reflection of our visually-obsessed reality, they face gangsters and killers and corrupt cops in ravishing style, in perfect makeup, midriffs bared, in sky-high heels, ripped pects flexed. Damn, they look good challenging evil. As in the real world, women’s bodies — and faces — are still objectified and assumed to be the key to their power. While the series portrays its main-cast women as intelligent and brave and resourceful —I guess that’s progress! — they are all impossibly beautiful and thin and Instagrammable, and boy, don’t they know it. I can’t even imagine having had (ever, let alone when I was a teenager) the sheer, uncompromising physical confidence that Riverdale’s teen characters wear with the same finesse with which they sport gloriously well-fitted, expensive clothing, never the same outfit twice. But this is TV, remember? This is fiction.

In fairness, the men seem to be held to the same standard of physical perfection as the women. Is that equality? Even Jughead, initially styled as a sort of small-town Holden Caulfield, narrating from the periphery, can hold his own in a shirtless fisticuffs or in a sex scene. The camera lingers hungrily on the curves and angles of most of the characters, delighting in the shadows defining the muscularity of zero-body-fat bodies and in the glistening satin of flawless young skin. These young men and women are more magnetic and appealing in their supposed school-clothes than most of the naked people in most of the pornography that’s ever been made, and in their birthday suits, they are astonishing.

Meanwhile, in the real world, Generation Z is in high school, graduating, going to college. Is this the way adults look to them? Is this the way they see themselves?

In Riverdale, adults are corrupt bullies or credulous, helpless fools. They’re predators, or they’re hopelessly square crusaders-turned-rumpled losers. The kids are trying to make things right, trying to be themselves, and looking perfect doing it.

Is it so far-fetched, then to think that the real world facing the teens and twenty-somethings now looks a lot like the outrageous world of a purely fictional TV show? That Riverdale, as fantastical as it seems, is a glamorous mirror of the world?

In the real world of America, 2019, we have an openly corrupt president attended by cronies, lackies, toadies, and yes-people, fiddling while infrastructure falls apart and the rich and abusive are enabled to grow richer and more abusive. We have indeed allowed private prisons to enrich people who are already rich, and we’ve turned a blind eye to abuses like solitary confinement in prisons and even in juvenile detention.

And there’s little refuge from the virtual world’s assertion that everything is better for those who are slender, young, sculpted, and beautiful, despite the emergence of some body-positivity movements. There aren’t many fat or ugly or poorly-dressed people in Riverdale, and that’s still the message out here on the streets, too (even though few of us can maintain such high production values, outside of the odd Instagram post).

Who can be trusted? Why wouldn’t young people see the world as a carnival of unreliable credibility, misused authority, and spurious facades masking hostility and cruelty? What a putrid, festering crisis awaits the generation currently accepting the mantle of adulthood. That’s what Riverdale seems to suggest.

In old-school YA fashion, though, those “meddling kids” don’t fall prey to the corruption they find themselves sussing out and exposing. They make mistakes and take wrong turns, but they stay solid, loyal to each other, focused on a future that has to be brighter than the present. Is that the real world? Does art imitate life, or is it the other way around? Since we still can’t binge-watch reality, I guess we’ll have to keep tuning in to find out how our intrepid youngsters survive the inevitable transition to adulthood, where corruption awaits. Let’s hope they’re stronger than their elders.

Copyright © 2019 Jennifer Brown. All rights reserved.