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Chaotic, sexy normalcy returns to a Riverdale settling back into its rhythm

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And we’re back, ladies and gentlemen.

Though the record books will mark down last week’s episode as the official premiere for Riverdale’s fourth season, the tribute to Luke Perry felt in a sense removed from the whole of the series, positioning itself more like a one-shot standalone than an attempt to pick up where the story left off. Aside from an obligatory mention up top from Jughead that Archie’s been taking his dinners at Pop’s with a support group of his three closest friends, there’s little connecting this week’s episode to the last, and everything connecting it to the third season finale.

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In other words: now that the dust on Fred Andrews’ tragic death has begun to settle, the time has come for a good old fashioned cross-cutting montage sexless sex scene. As if to announce the return of the Riverdale you know and love — to reaffirm that Archie is still Hot and Fucks — the teens wait not five minutes into the post-Perry era to jump each other’s bones. Nothing takes the sting off of your father’s untimely demise and the stresses of an impending school year quite like some strictly PG-13 rated writhing.

That’s the warning shot to an hour that attains and sustains the carefully calibrated alchemy of camp humor, social conscience, horniness, and patent absurdity that makes Riverdale the best version of itself. This falls under the category I’ve termed “[Stefon Voice] This Place Has Everything” Episodes, which burn through such a great volume of dizzyingly mashed-together plot developments and set pieces in such a compact amount of time that it feels like the writing staff could conceivably keep the crazy train running forever. It’s a pleasure to be on board.

Cheryl Blossom has a red-letter week, arranging the must-attend social function of the fall while cultivating a feud with new principal on the block Mr. Honey and paying regular visits to the preserved upright corpse of her brother, to whom she speaks as if he is alive. She first runs afoul of Riverdale High’s latest head honcho as he puts the kibosh on the dance she’s been planning, citing the eminently fair reason that “At the last student dance, multiple students were murdered.” She threatens him that “your name may be Honey, but I’ll always be the queen bee” and makes good on those words after she shifts the dance to a private party at her home and he busts it up anyway. Considering the junior-distaff-Norman-Bates stuff, she clearly has a lot of bats flapping around in her attic, and the mental stressors are only going to be amplified if this spat with Principal Honey continues to escalate.

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Jughead, Betty, Archie, and Veronica’s fates have been more thoroughly enmeshed, as they regularly touch base with one another for patter about what they’ve got going on in this jam-packed week. Together, they cover all four quadrants of this show’s shapeshifting appeal. There’s the arch sublimated-homoerotic comedy-of-manners mode, as Jughead gets scouted for a spot at Stonewall Prep, an elite school named after Roland Emmerich’s 2015 historical self-insert fan-fiction film where students exchange entry-level analyses of Moby-Dick in seminars referred to as “salons.” Veronica’s got the intrigue angle covered, as she emerges in opposition to both of her parents in the impending legal proceedings that have engulfed the Lodge/Gomez family, the latter name of which Veronica decides to adopt for the sake of optics and symbolism. (Same dif, am I right?)

On track three is Archie with the after-school special, a genre never far from Riverdale’s purview, and engaged with here in delectably silly fashion. He finds out that those shiners Reggie occasionally sports at school come from an abusive dad, and in his classically Archian manner, jumps right into the situation without considering the fallout. The show evinces, at best, a partial awareness that someone discovering their friend’s getting abused at home should not directly confront the abusive parent by yelling at them in public. Rounding out the hour is Betty with the essential supernatural-pulp quotient, as she works with her secret agent brother and secret-agent mom to bust up the cult to which the “so messed-up” Kevin may still be linked. Hers is probably the dullest component in this four-part breakdown — which says a lot about where the floor for excitement has been set in this topsy-turvy universe — but she’s also an important component of Jughead’s tough decision to attend Stonewall or not. She’s kept busy.

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Just when it seems like everyone’s settled their arc this week and there’s nowhere left for this episode to go, like a bolt from the blue comes Chicago’s signature tune “All That Jazz.” (Yet another respect in which “Fast Times at Riverdale High” qualifies as the true premiere; gotta open with a song, but a slinky Fosse number would’ve been in decidedly poor taste at Fred’s funeral.) Even on the relative scale of out-of-nowhere-ness that qualifies these musical numbers, this one feels especially abrupt.

It’s perfectly of a piece with an episode that exemplifies Riverdale in top form, ladling up the good stuff with a minimum of distraction. Let the teens be teens, and have their back-to-back steamy locker room scenes. Let them tentatively creep down a dark mansion hallway while clutching a candelabra like this is the Crimson Peak sequel I’m furious doesn’t exist.Let them learn non-lessons and demonstrate growth by continuing to make the same bad choices. Embrace the mess. Riverdale has risen.

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Stray observations: 

  • Any car with a license plate that reads MGNFCNT deserves to be destroyed.
  • I know this is network television and we’ve got standards to adhere by, but are we expected to believe that Archie pop’s Veronica’s brassiere off and then she puts it back on to sleep in it? Madness! Give the girl a ratty old T-shirt or something. Verisimilitude is all in the details.
  • A pleasure to see the revival of Monica Posh, Veronica blonde-wigged alter ego. I love that her efforts to make herself inconspicuous and avoid the attention of the press only make her a more eye-catching standout. The girl who looks like she’s in training to be Barbara Stanwyck’s stunt double makes an impression.
  • Cheryl Blossom one-liner of the week, delivered to the unwanted photographer snooping around the girl’s locker room: “Collecting photos for your sad pubescent spank bank, are you?!”
  • The dining hall at the “nihilistic and/or privileged” Stonewall Prep has “vegan, keto-vegan, raw keto-vegan,” I’m sure the list goes on. I just hope they make cheeseburgers, for Jughead’s sake.
  • The jangly rock tune blasting as Cheryl Blossom power-strides down the corridor handing out invites to her big bash just so happens to be “Archie’s Party” by the Archies. It has been stuck in my head for going on seventy hours now.
  • Nothing encapsulates Riverdale’s multivalent relationship to irony quite so wholly as the moment in which a non-diegetic record scratch sound effect introduces Mr. Honey with “You’re late.” It’s a half-winking allusion to a half-winking meme that alludes to a hackneyed film technique that itself alludes to the actual sudden disruption of a phonograph needle. It’s like an everlasting Gobstopper of joking-but-only-kinda.
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