Monday, April 3, 2017

Melodrama and Riverdale (Core Response)

After reading  Feuer's essay,  I found myself intrigued by her notion that melodrama  is marked by an excess of hysteria, in both narrative and mise-en-scene, while also having the potential for subversive ideological value. While I as a viewer definitely recognized the excess, especially in the acting, I had not previously considered that soaps like Dallas and Dynasty could actually be criticizing the “relationship between melodrama as a form and the capitalist social formation (8).” In fact, I had always assumed that the luxurious setting and characters were chosen to reinforce the status quo of American white capitalism. Feuer’s comparison between 70s sitcoms, which she asserts had liberal messages within conservative storytelling, and 80s melodramas was also eye-opening. 70s sitcoms were conservative that they showed easy resolutions to bigger, more complex social issues while prime-time melodramas never reached resolve, instead containing bigger social issues within a family and serving as a  more “radical response to and the expression of cultural contradictions”  (16). It is this recognition of cultural contradictions that I want to focus on, applying this thought to the modern family soap Riverdale.
Like a Dallas or Dynasty, Riverdale focuses on the dynamics between various families in an idyllic town. Much of the show is about the ugliness behind a pretty picture, with both the teens and parents of these families all have darker desires and secrets than you would at first expect. Contradictions reveal themselves after the murder of the wealthiest family’s son and the idealism of what it means to be middle-class (but actually really wealthy) and All-American are shattered. Unlike Dallas and Dynasty, there is an attempt to show race and class diversity but the message seems to be the same: capitalism and the feuds that emerge from economic competition can be deadly. Through this, Riverdale shows a desire to be subversive but it is questionable whether it actually hits the mark. The elaborate mis-en-scene, even when depicting less wealthy characters, feels inauthentic to the reality of actual small-town American families, and the stylization does seem to exist to sell make-up to teens (episodes on CW’s online platform are always coupled with videos that show how certain products lead to the visual transformations of actors into their characters). Moreover, Riverdale is loosely based on the decades-old Riverdale comics, which were created at the height of pro-capitalist attitudes, and are still marketed and sold today.

Attached is a clip from Riverdale which uses the comic’s  original style to contrast with the show’s harsh “reality.” It also arguably serves to remind viewers that there are comics to be bought.


  1. Your description of Riveprdale as an “idyllic town” which reveals “the ugliness behind the pretty picture” reminds me a lot of Lynch, particularly something like Twin Peaks or Blue Velvet. In these, he takes the typical style of a small town melodrama - and subverts/ heightens its conventions, so that it tonally resides at an intersection of discomfort, campness, and even cringe - juxtaposing the banal with the surreal. This seems to fit aptly with Feuer's description too -- being both emotionally overpowering, but also using the avant-garde to disrupt this.

  2. I think your assessment of Riverdale's inability to "hit the mark" on subversiveness is very apt. Katharine mentions Lynch in the comment above and I think Lynch is a perfect example of someone who takes the same idea and does it well, because the actual content is also subversive. Riverdale uses a melodramatic trope within a glitzy format that still remains incredibly palatable to the capitalist consumer. I think it's always important to wonder, when something goes down that easily, how subversive can it be? In many ways Riverdale certainly serves to reinforce capitalist ideology, particularly as it draws on Archie comics, a very 'traditionally american' format and still utilizes the things that were idyllic and comforting within those comics to situate material that is at best, edgy.