Ok, no, let’s delve into that a bit more, but firstly a disclaimer. I don’t watch Riverdale. I watched the first season and the Carrie episode but I hadn’t seen anything between then and the Heathers episode. I don’t know much about the plot now apart from the fact there’s a cult and things are weird. Therefore, I’m not trying to hate on Riverdale. I wouldn’t ever want to hate on something I haven’t even properly seen so I promise, I’m not hating on Riverdale… I’m just hating on this one episode of Riverdale. Here’s why…
Why it doesn’t work for the show
Here’s something you might not be expecting from that opening, I actually love the idea of Riverdale doing musical episodes. Since much of the action is set in a school it makes sense for them to incorporate real musicals into the show as their school productions. However, they do seem to be going for more of a Glee-approach to the episodes where the songs aren’t always performed as part of a show-within-a-show format. Sometimes the characters will just start singing when they’re not performing or rehearsing in a they-don’t-actually-know-they’re-singing-their-feelings kind of way. This is fine in a regular musical or even just in the odd one-off musical episode. Lots of shows have managed to include a musical episode without it feeling really off, usually it’s a bit cringy but they just-about make it work because they include original songs.
Where this gets confused in Riverdale is when they try to fit the songs from one pre-existing musical into the context of what is happening in that one specific episode of the show. Which, like any TV show, needs to continue the same established storylines it’s been setting up so far. Glee worked existing songs into its story by establishing itself as a musical show from the off and including any and all songs into the show. By restricting itself to an album of 20-odd songs to choose from, especially a musical theatre album where the songs are all very specific to a certain story, the Riverdale writers have to work extra hard to fit these songs into their pre-existing narrative. This is really difficult and credit where credit’s due, they tried. The Heathers episode did see them slot Seventeen really nicely into the show where it actually felt like it fit but no other song in the show that wasn’t added in to be the characters performing in the school production really did.
For example, the fact that Archie is practicing boxing when Josie comes to speak to him doesn’t justify her singing the lines “Well whoa, you can punch real good/ You’ve lasted longer than I thought you would”. This makes sense in actual Heathers because JD is fighting Kurt and Ram. Archie is on his own, not fighting anyone when Josie walks him so how has he “lasted longer than [she] thought [he] would” exactly? He was punching the air. The air’s not likely to fight back, Josie. It just doesn’t make sense.
Why it could be good for theatre fans
Let’s go back to what I said earlier about loving the idea of Riverdale doing musical episodes for a second. I really think if the songs from Heathers were kept in the context of a school production it would be a cool way to introduce musical theatre to an audience that perhaps doesn’t know about the amazing world of musicals. I love the thought that someone might watch that episode of Riverdale and go and download the Heathers album. Getting musical theatre out there and more accessible to more people is a good thing for theatre and, in turn, a good thing for theatre fans. Despite the dodgy lyric changes and awkward singing, there’s definitely going to be at least one person who comes away from that episode wanting to hear more from Heathers.
Why it isn’t good for theatre fans
Ok, now we’re getting into the real nitty gritty. To be perfectly honest, despite what I just wrote, I don’t think the makers of Riverdale care about anything I said in my last paragraph. At all. The makers of Riverdale naturally want to get their show to a wider audience. They’ve clearly done their research and found that there is a community of fans in their target demographic who are also fans of musicals which, since the likes of Glee, Smash and Rise are no more, don’t get a chance to see their love for musicals incorporated into TV. This means Riverdale is tapping into a gap in the market and trying to pander to musical theatre fans to get them to watch their show. This would be fine if they actually seemed to sincerely care about the musicals they were adapting or wanted to pay a tribute to those that created them. You can see this level of respect for source material in Heathers the Musical itself as it’s very much a homage to the film yet still functions on its own. The Heathers Riverdale episode didn’t feel like a tribute to Heathers the Musical, Heathers the film or even of musical theatre itself. No one seemed particularly happy to be working on a musical, in fact, it almost seemed a burden for some characters. Neither was there any championing of the messages and morals that Heathers stands for.
For me, the most glaring example of this was the fact that no one in the show was cast as Martha. Why? Because none of the current Riverdale cast members could or should be cast as Martha. Not a single one of them fits the casting type because Martha is a bigger girl and the Riverdale cast are all slim. Now, arguably, this isn’t that big a deal as it’s not as if we get to see Sweetpea (I literally had to replay it to make sure I heard his name right) as JD or Archie or Reggie as Kurt and Ram. But, celebrating acceptance and tolerance of all and disregarding social hierarchies in favour of befriending each other despite our differences is such a key message in Heathers and it’s not at all in the Heathers Riverdale episode. If you’re going to include a musical, please just try to care about what the musical is trying to say to see if it’s relevant to the context you’re putting it in.
On the one hand, I could be mad that the ploy to bring the musical theatre fans in clearly worked on me because I watched the episode but equally, I’m not likely to watch another one so did they really win?
Now, please, like I said before, don’t think I’m hating on Riverdale. I’m really not. I’m annoyed at one episode of a successful show that has many fans in its own right but that doesn’t mean it can’t try harder. I know the show gets a lot of stick for being cringy and weird but, as far as I’m concerned, as long as it does that on its own turf, it’s all good. But, when it tries to take good musicals down with it, regardless of their relevancy to their own plot and without even acknowledging the key messages of the piece and celebrating musical theatre itself, that’s just sad.
Overall though, there are way worse things to get worked up about. If Riverdale does another musical episode, I just hope it’s an improvement on this one.
In other news, I miss Glee.