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Riverdale reveals the promise and pitfalls of reverse-engineering a fandom

Riverdale reveals the promise and pitfalls of reverse-engineering a fandom


On Tumblr, the show is bigger than Star Wars or Harry Styles

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The CW’s “Archie Comics for Gen-Y” TV series, Riverdale, spent its first season ratcheting steadily toward the sky, eventually pulling in 2 million viewers per week and knighting its young stars as the new “It” kids of Hollywood.

According to a data dive published on Tumblr’s staff-run Fandometrics blog, the show netted 15 million engagements (defined by Tumblr as “searches, original posts, reblogs, and likes”), and the #Riverdale tag was the 44th most popular across the entire site. That’s impressive, especially considering that the bulk of the site’s most popular tags aren’t for specific properties, but for more vague categorizations like #photography, #travel, or #inspo.

It also means, as Tumblr points out, that a first-season CW show spent the last four months outpacing the tags for well-established fan favorites like Harry Styles, Star Wars, and Pokémon. Beyond its adherence to the obvious, tried-and-true method of “a familiar thing but everyone’s hot now,” how did Riverdale get so popular? The romance and nostalgia angles certainly helped… plus everyone in it is beautiful. But more specifically, Riverdale was written and conceived around the idea of a fan community, incorporating fan service into its scripts before there were fans to appreciate it. Its fandom was reverse-engineered.

According to Tumblr, about 29 percent of all current Riverdale conversation centers around the character of Jughead Jones. Crucially, the character is played by Cole Sprouse, an unlikely personification of internet trends. He was made famous by an early 2000’s Disney Channel show that’s still fodder for memes and GIF sets. He’s cultivated a wry, delightful Twitter presence. And in his free time, he snaps pics of Kendall Jenner for the cover of The Sunday Times. He’s built a brand new career by inverting the tragicomedy of “Where are they now?” and “Look who grew up and got hot!” tabloid baloney, as well as “15 things you forgot about the early 2000s” BuzzFeed culture. And what’s more, he’s willing to admit it.

CW’s audience is eating it up, and several of the top Riverdale fan-fiction and fan-art bloggers point to the cult of Cole to explain the show’s popularity on Tumblr. Heaven, a fan who runs the popular Jarchie (Jughead and Archie) fan-art blog, explained, “I'm on Instagram a lot, and lots of people were talking about how hot Cole Sprouse was. He had a ‘glow up’ from his Suite Life days. His tweets are funny and he's very intelligent, so I took a great liking to him. When I heard he was going to be on Riverdale, I knew I just had to watch it.”

cole sprouse is the embodiment of several internet trends

Riverdale has also instigated an outpouring of fan fiction — mostly speculative “shipping” of the dozens of possible romantic pairings inherent to a teen drama with an ensemble cast. The most popular pairing is “Bughead,” Jughead Jones and Betty Cooper, a duo that generated about 51 percent of Tumblr conversation around Riverdale romances. They’re followed by “Beronica,” Betty and Veronica Lodge, a couple that made up 32 percent of Riverdale shipping posts. But fans have invested time in every conceivable pairing, imagining relationships between Jughead and Archie; Veronica and Riverdale High’s queen mean girl, Cheryl Blossom; and Archie and Valerie Brown, one of the members of the girl band Josie and the Pussycats.

A rudimentary search for any of these ships will turn up dozens of blogs with fan-made art, slash fiction, treatises explaining the story logic and emotional resonance behind each pair, and GIF sets from the series that prove the couple’s undeniable chemistry.

And Riverdale fan blogger Avrealyn points out, “Everything about Riverdale, from its noir elements to its intriguing multi-dimensional characters, the beautiful cast, the fantastic quips and references and writings and storylines and perfect soundtrack choices, as well as the overall gorgeous aesthetics of the scenes… to the colors and the outfits, makes such great fodder for fan fiction and fan art.” That sounds like fan hyperbole, but it’s true that nearly every scene of Riverdale is shot to look like a neon-hued poster. Every frame makes a beautiful GIF, or suggests iterative illustrations.

And the soundtrack is also calculated for maximum teen-fan impact. The first music cue of the season is Santigold’s “Can’t Get Enough of Myself” — from her 2016 album 99¢, the first major music release handled almost exclusively by Tumblr — and the soundtrack only gets more blatantly market-tested and cool-teen-baiting from there. The whole cast is active on Twitter, Snapchat, and Instagram, which gives bloggers even more material to work with. And it gives them direct access to the stars, who engage (generally positively) with their ideas about the show’s relationships.

Fan art isn’t a new phenomenon. And fans write romantically charged fan fiction about essentially any piece of popular culture. But Riverdale encourages it to a degree precedented only by a handful of other recent shows (The CW’s Smallville, MTV’s Teen Wolf), with a writers’ room that’s more than familiar with the internet cultures that spring up around youth-oriented programming.

For example, Archie Comics’ chief creative officer, Roberto Aguirre-Sacasa, who created the series for the CW and wrote several of its early episodes, also penned episodes for Glee. That was another show that explored what seemed like hundreds of different on-screen partnerships. And Glee also saw a massive Tumblr fandom step in to supplement the on-screen stories of favored pairs, and to dive into the rare possible pairing that went unexplored by the writers. Many of the fans who now operate Riverdale blogs told me their interest in shipping started with Glee, or with CW shows like The 100 and Supergirl.

riverdale’s creative team isn’t new to the world of fan fiction

In recent years, the Archie comics have introduced a gay character to the core cast and allowed Jughead to come out as asexual. And the comics have always cheerfully swapped Archie between polar-opposite love interests who are still able to remain friends. So there’s a solid background for the type of quick partner-swapping and sexual-identity exploration that happens in the show. Incidentally, Aguirre-Sacasa, along with Riverdale writer Aaron Allen, also worked on HBO’s Big Love — a Mad Men-era prestige drama about the intersecting relationships in a polygamous Mormon household. They’re no strangers to the dramatic possibilities of convoluted relationships — or the ways presenting fans with relationship choices automatically creates teams of viewers, each enthusiastically rooting for their favorite pairing.

The rest of the creative team is rounded out by more Glee alums, and several writers (including executive producer Greg Berlanti) who worked on the CW’s Supergirl, which has a thriving fan-fiction community around the canonical couple known as “Sanvers” (Alex Danvers, played by Chyler Leigh, and Maggie Sawyer, played by Floriana Lima). Veronica Lodge even uses the word “ship” in Riverdale’s second episode to refer to the potential coupling of canonically gay character Kevin Keller and football player Moose Mason. And it’s obvious that writers took pains to imbue every friendship in the show with a healthy level of flirtation. Betty and Veronica kiss. Veronica and Archie kiss. Archie and Jughead hold eye contact forever. Betty and Jughead bounce every high-school storytelling trope imaginable off of each other. (Their shippers have the easiest time of it.)

The fact that CW, Berlanti, and crew worked backward to make a teen sensation doesn’t mean the fans have been duped, or that they’re on board with all the show’s choices. Fans have vocally criticized the show for queer-baiting, the practice of endlessly hinting and winking at gay relationships without actually letting them come to fruition onscreen.

Andrea, an Italian fan who ships Jughead and Archie, writes, “I’m a gay guy and I look for a possible gay relationship to create for my head-canons in anything I watch or read. In this case, the canon gay kid, Kevin, is not a character I particularly like. It’s not the portrayal of the character I would have liked to see — he wasn't so stereotyped in the comics. So I went looking for other possible queer characters… There is far better stuff to watch on TV, so for me, it's this ship that really keeps me going and keeps me active in the fandom. At this point, I much prefer fan fiction over the actual show.”

Fans have also sparred publicly with actress Lili Reinhart (Betty), who defended what seemed like an intolerant comment about “Beronica” shippers from co-star Shannon Purser (Ethel Muggs), even after Purser published a heartfelt apology. “We are in 2017,” writes Cassandra, a Beronica shipper. “There's still a lot of problems with LGBT rights in the world. It would be the minimum that, on TV, in a fictional world, there could be great representation.”

Sophia, who runs a blog dedicated to demonstrating the chemistry between Betty and Veronica, explains why their potential for romance is so important to her: “If Beronica were to become canon, Riverdale would have an interracial queer couple on the show with strong female leads. There's no show out there like that… that really represents an interracial queer strong healthy couple. We had Clexa, but then one of them died.”

It’s understandable that fans who see a show tailored around their interests, and designed to get their hopes up, would expect the showrunners to hear and respect their requests. Regardless of whether Riverdale’s creators think any given relationship makes sense for the characters involved, or the ongoing story, the might of the online community means they’ll repeatedly be asked about these ideas in interviews, through social media, and anywhere else they make themselves available. At a minimum, they’ll have to think about what the fans they deliberately drew into the fold actually want. Many of these viewers are hungry for the representation they’ve been denied in the broader culture, and Riverdale presents an environment where it feels possible, and even reasonable, to demand it.

riverdale fans are simultaneously loyal and mutinous

The Riverdale phenomenon is mildly interesting, especially considering it’s a first-season show on a network that has had almost no major successes in the last five years, outside of superhero shows. But what’s fascinating is the fandom’s boldness, its intuitive understanding that the pieces of this show were built specifically to be played with.

That kind of fandom is simultaneously the peak of loyalty and its antithesis. Viewers are more invested in Riverdale’s characters and storylines than they are in the average TV show, but they also feel far more entitled to decide when the show hasn’t delivered what they believe they’ve been promised. The fact that some of them would rather have their own version of Riverdale than the one that actually airs is telling. We’re approaching an era where more and more creative properties are viewed as open-source, where deriding something as “not canon” barely even registers as an insult, and where fans who are given a backchannel to interact with stars, creatives, and each other will use it constantly and aggressively.

What Riverdale does or doesn’t do with all this input in its next season will provide something like a rough sketch of the roadmap for the next crop of teen TV writers who choose to loop in massive fandoms. Whether or not these fans keep watching what they come up with will let us know if it was worth it.

Correction: A previous version of this article referred to CW as a cable network, and Teen Wolf as a CW show. CW is a broadcast network and Teen Wolf airs on MTV.