The series has gone through many transformations in its run. It began as a stylistic murder mystery—the answer to the question, “What if we made the Archie comics dark and sexy?”—and then evolved into a slasher series in Season 2. In Season 3, it became a pseudo-supernatural cult drama, and then a full-on fantasy superhero series by Season 6. In its seventh and final season, Riverdale finally took the characters back to their high school roots. Only, the series no longer was set in the present day. The season takes place in 1955, after the characters time traveled when a comet destroyed present-day Riverdale. (A natural progression, of course.)
The show’s spiral towards absurdity comes during a massive shift in the TV industry, too. With the streaming boom radically changing the model, in terms of how many episodes or seasons a series may have, and smaller networks turning away from scripted content, the TV landscape that Riverdale entered just seven years ago is entirely foreign to today’s.
The show’s end also coincides with the dual SAG-AFTRA and WGA strike, as both unions advocate for better working conditions and residual pay in a fractured, streaming world. With no end in sight for the strike and studios continuously digging their heels, it’s hard to say what TV will look like on the other side.
Maybe that’s why Riverdale’s unexceptional final season leaves me worried about the hole it will leave behind. For all its flaws, Riverdale represents something wholly important to the TV genre: the inescapable, often frivolous teen drama. With its long seasons, pandering to shippers with its romantic pairings, and endless preposterous twists, the show’s a full-time escape from reality. It’s a source of stability in viewers’ lives during the uncertain, often unpleasant time that is teenhood. And it could be the last of its kind.
When Riverdale premiered, the teen drama ecosystem was much healthier. The Vampire Diaries was two months from wrapping its own monstrous run on The CW, while cable hits Pretty Little Liars and Teen Wolf were nearing their own ends, ready to pass the baton to a capable Riverdale.
Back then, The CW was a full-fledged network, not yet sold for parts to Nexstar. Riverdale premiered in an era of resurgence for the CW, as the network’s streaming deal with Netflix gave the channel a much-needed second wind while shows like Jane the Virgin and Crazy Ex-Girlfriend garnered it awards attention.
And no show reaped the rewards of that streaming deal quite like Riverdale. The show premiered to modest ratings in spring 2017, before exploding that summer once Season 1 dropped on Netflix. As a 17-year old, it truly felt like the summer of Riverdale—and it was a blast.
While the show never quite maintained those highs, it lasted as a staple for seven seasons and 136 episodes, making it one of the network’s longest running and most prolific series. But as Riverdale turns off the lights, it’s taking the CW that once existed with it.When the series wraps on Wednesday, what’s left to take its place in the cultural cachet?
Every generation has its definitive teen dramas, some have several. But there’s no replacement in sight to take the mantle from the dying Riverdale. I mean, Gossip Girl, 90210, Pretty Little Liars, Teen Wolf, The Vampire Diaries, Glee, and One Tree Hill were all airing simultaneously in the early 2010s, four of which on the very same network.
The 2020s key teen dramas are Euphoria, Outer Banks, and… Ginny & Georgia? The Summer I Turned Pretty? The fractured and oversaturated nature of the streaming bubble not only makes it harder for a show to define the teen zeitgeist, but prevents shows from having the kind of titan run Riverdale afforded.
All American and its spinoff are the only shows on the network reminiscent of the old CW that have survived to the 2023-24 season, alongside just two other original scripted series: Superman & Lois and Walker, Texas Ranger. The network ordered just two new scripted series for the upcoming season, one a 6-episode miniseries, a far cry from its roster just seven years ago.
Obviously, the 22-episode network drama hasn’t died just yet—Law & Order: SVU premiered before I was born and will live a much longer life than I could ever dream. However, as network demographics continue to cater more to the older audiences who watch live TV, soapy teen dramas have taken a major backseat. The ecosystem that allowed Melrose Place and Beverly Hills, 90210 to thrive on FOX doesn’t really exist anymore. It’s likely Glee wouldn’t stand a chance on a broadcast network, outside of streaming, today. And had it quietly premiered on a streamer, competing for attention against the glut of other genre- and demo-specific series out there, would it have become the phenomenon that it was?
Cable networks targeting teens and young adults have died off too, alongside The CW’s consolidation. There isn’t a network or streamer fully investing in that young audience that The CW, ABC Family/Freeform, and MTV once championed. Teen viewers get their scraps here and there—I’m sure young Swifties are having the time of their lives watching The Summer I Turned Pretty squeeze a dozen Taylor Swift songs into a seven-episode run—but the dedicated programming that serves that audience is long gone.
Sure, there’s a lot I won’t miss about Riverdale. I won’t miss the erratic character development. I won’t miss the show failing its LGBTQ+ characters at every turn. I won’t miss the errant plot holes sullying the mysteries. I will, however, miss those musical numbers, haters be damned. Veronica Lodge (Camila Mendes) singing “Toxic” after she found out she has the superpower of a venomous kiss was art and that’s just a fact.
I’ll also miss the companion it has been, consistently popping out 20-plus deranged episodes each year. I’ll always look back on the show fondly for following me into adulthood, even if I was ready to leave it behind a few shark jumps ago.
When Season 3 aired, I was a freshman in college with no friends and a desperate desire for something to fill my days. Grabbing a pack of Twizzlers from the nearby CVS to catch up on my CW favorites is truly one of the only fond memories I have of that year. Back then, the charming ridiculousness really did feel like a lifeline, something to talk about with friends I missed from home.
Riverdale is unlikely to stick the landing. After a season trapped pointlessly in the ’50s, it’s hard to imagine a satisfying ending, but no one really expected Riverdale to end brilliantly anyway. It doesn’t need to, the show already cemented its legacy (often, of lunacy) long ago.
I haven’t found much enjoyment in this final Riverdale run, but I did feel sad watching the penultimate episode last week. Learning of their past lives in 2023 Riverdale, the ’50s characters got a chance to reflect on their memories in the form of TV clips. Seeing Season 1 and 2 scenes and remembering the high schooler who avidly watched those episodes was melancholic and weird, a punch to the gut that I truly have grown up.
Every generation of teens deserves a show they can spend years obsessing over, resenting for its insanity, and excitedly bonding with their friends over all the same. There is no current teen drama that rivals the hold Riverdale had at its height, or the consistency. How can Euphoria be the teen drama of a generation when it drops one season every three years? Which generation would it even define?
So much is uncertain in the modern world, and it’s sad that today’s tweens and teens may not have a show as long-winded and bizarre to glom onto. Riverdale isn’t important for its quality or even messaging; it’s important because it’s a source of solace for Tumblr kids. There will always be teens in need of an escape, and the least our society could do is provide that constant stream of content.
Maybe it’s fitting that Riverdale became such an extreme parody of itself. As The CW goes down in flames and the 22-episode teen drama becomes a thing of the past, Riverdale ends the genre in a blaze of outlandish glory. It may have been ridiculous, but it was never forgettable. From tickle porn to its multiple cult storylines, not to mention the group developing superpowers to duel against a man who made a literal deal with the devil, Riverdale always gave viewers something to talk about.