In episode three of season one of Riverdale, girl-next-door-but-not-really Betty Cooper totally loses control. After a f**kboy slut-shames her friends, she lures him into a hot tub, cranks the temperature up and seems to consider leaving him there to boil alive.
The incident was an early example of Riverdale setting the internet alight with a hard-hitting storyline. It saw fans discuss the incident in-depth, and adopt the nickname ‘Dark Betty’ for moments when Cooper’s behaviour in the show became hard to explain. For Lili Reinhart, who plays her, the nickname is “directly related to her mental health. When you see Dark Betty, it’s because Betty is struggling with something.”
Sitting in Pop’s Diner – the iconic hangout in the small town of Riverdale – the 21-year-old adds, “It’s important for me playing this role to acknowledge the anxieties and stress within her.
The concept of ‘Dark Betty’ is intriguing because people want to see that darkness inside her, and they want to see where it comes from and why it’s there.”
Riverdale’s following has grown hugely since it first aired in January 2017. In the US, 1.38 million people watched the season one premiere, which jumped to 2.34 million for the first episode of season two. Its young stars have all racked up millions of Instagram followers.
It has beautiful cinematography, a cast of teen heartthrobs and a series of gripping murder mysteries going for it. But what sets Riverdale apart, as with the ‘Dark Betty’ storyline, is it sensitively deals with issues its young viewers relate to: peer pressure, drugs, mental health and, in the case of resident drama queen Cheryl Blossom in episode five of series two, date rape.
“It’s important to show young minds this kind of thing does happen,” says 23-year-old Madelaine Petsch, who plays Cheryl, as she takes Reinhart’s spot in the diner. “And hopefully make them aware enough that maybe they will be able to avoid it happening to them. I’m happy we [explore such harrowing storylines]. It’s important.”
For Cole Sprouse – the 25-year-old who plays the show’s brooding narrator Jughead Jones – it’s all about conveying the isolation his character goes through as he battles with whether or not he should follow his father’s footsteps into local gang the Southside Serpents.
“He’s having a hard time figuring out whether he can be a badass,” he says, as we sit in the Pop’s Diner booth where Jughead often works on his novel. “He was this dorky, loveable outsider from season one who’s now been dealt a horrible hand of cards, and is really, truly a victim of circumstance. Everyone can identify with that.”
If season one was all about establishing the world of Riverdale, season two has seen it hit its stride, and the drama has kicked up a gear. High-school hero Archie launched a group of vigilantes to try and take down the serial killer plaguing the town via a viral video, and the younger members of the Southside Serpents have kidnapped a corrupt lawyer and cut her Serpent tattoo off.
Another theme running through the second season is the town’s crisis with Jingle Jangle, Riverdale’s drug of choice. In episode five we see the gang indulge in the party drug, with several of them, including bad-girl-gone-good Veronica Lodge, feeling obligated to join in.
It is, says 23-year-old Camila Mendes who plays Veronica, important for Riverdale to cover subjects like these, “because we have to take responsibility for our young viewers, and tell important stories.” She pauses for a second, then adds, “We have the opportunity to convey these messages to people, so why wouldn’t we do that?”
And that’s what makes Riverdale essential viewing.