There’s a moment in The O.C.’s third season when most of us die-hards knew it was over. Upon starting school at Newport Union, Marissa Cooper meets Johnny, a surfer-skater who’s doomed to die (but not before he comes between Ryan and Marissa, as most things tend to do).
And in any other season, it would have been fine. Had Marissa and Ryan not already endured Oliver, Teresa, Alex Kelly, and the shooting of Trey, we could have welcomed Johnny and the emotional wrench he threw into Newport’s already melodramatic romance. But Johnny didn’t show up alone: season three of The O.C. was riddled with too much of everything. Kirsten was a recovering alcoholic nearly swindled by a bestie she met in rehab, Sandy began doubting their marriage and his entire life, Julie launched her own dating service, Taylor Townsend came to be, Volcheck entered the picture, Kaitlin Cooper morphed from a child into a teen (and usurped the Queen Bee crown from her elder sister), and Summer and Seth argued about nothing real people would ever argue about.
And now we have Riverdale.
Riverdale’s first season was defined by sensationalism. It was over-the-top, emotional, suspenseful, and included a sincere speech about weirdness.
It was film noir crossed with Gossip Girl, Veronica Mars, and every O.C. scene accompanied by that Imogen Heap song. It was unrealistic, yes, but it seemed self-aware in its fantasy: evil Dads wore evil wigs, romance between different parents occurred organically, Betty had an alter-ego capable of murder, and Riverdale itself seemed to exist in a world completely separate from the actual one. It was self-contained, it was a snow globe. It was Twin Peaks for the CW audience. It was, to quote Natalie Portman in Black Swan, “perfect.” Until season two began.
Currently, a serial killer is wreaking havoc on Riverdale residents, past and present, and jingle jangle (a drug so embarrassing in its name that it should deter anyone from ever doing it) is making its rounds around teen townsfolk. Veronica’s Dad, Hiram “Daddy” Lodge, is an obvious supervillain (whose wife lives in fear of him), and Archie’s obsession with protecting his dad/himself/his mom/everyone has led to him showboating and gun-stroking as a means of asserting his alpha male tendencies. (Remember his sensitive acoustic music days?) Jughead has joined the Southside Serpents and put himself in the crosshairs of the Ghoulies (kill me), Veronica Lodge may inherit her dad’s dynasty, and the season’s third episode ended with Archie making a video accompanied by shirtless men in masks calling themselves the Red Circle.
While The O.C.’s second season was rife with drama (and boy was it), it never gave us enough to appease what we really wanted. Ryan and Marissa—unlike Veronica and Archie—only made as much progress as would keep us wanting more, while Summer and Seth took half a season to make their relationship as legendary as we now know it. (Meanwhile, Betty and Jughead have no option but to crash and burn — unless they Bonnie and Clyde this shit.) Parent-wise, Kirsten and Sandy had issues, but nothing near as dark as the dynamic between Hermione and Hiram — or as grim as Luke Perry and Molly Ringwald (their character names obviously being irrelevant). And while Luke Perry’s near-death experience at the close of season one could’ve paralleled the fall of Trey Atwood at the end of The O.C.’s season two, it detoured into Se7en territory, only with teenagers in charge. We’re ultimately one Johnny death away from letting the series peacefully die.
We’re ultimately one Johnny death away from letting the series peacefully die. Which isn’t something I take joy in saying.
Which isn’t something I take joy in saying. At its beautiful best, Riverdale is interesting. Outside the push to make Archie a heartthrob hero (give it up, guys), its characters are endearing and complex and flawed in a way not normally reserved for CW protagonists. I like its focus on parents being people (in the same way The O.C. always celebrated Kirsten and Sandy), and I bask in Josie and the Pussycats making every episode exponentially better. (BTW, where the fuck have they been?)
The thing is, we know what happens after a season equivalent to The O.C.’s third: nothing. At least, that’s what I assume, because I stopped watching before Marissa died. There’s sensationalism, and then there’s the type that’s so over-the-top that it’s draining. There’s melodrama, and then there’s the type that ends with a slew of shirtless high school students wearing ski masks. There’s Twin Peaks and Se7en and Zodiac, and then there’s a serial killer that’s somehow so boring I find myself caring more about the logistics of the Serpents — a gang that seems a little less tough than whatever The Outsiders was about. There’s Dark Betty, and then there’s Volcheck, the worst human, but at least the reason we got to hear that Imogen Heap song one last time.
Of course, there’s time to turn back. There’s time to dial down Archie’s revenge and bring in Josie and the Pussycats before we find ourselves attending the equivalent of Johnny’s funeral (see: feeling exponentially relieved when he wasn’t on the show anymore). There’s time to send Hiram back to prison in the way The O.C. killed off Caleb to a Coldplay song. There’s time to break Betty and Jughead up just enough to make us cry relieved tears when they end up making out like Spider-Man circa 2003. There’s time to go back to The O.C.’s second season.
There’s still time to make us care again.
Even though Seth and Ryan would rather have walked into the ocean than have any part in the Red Circle. And for good reason, if I’m being honest.