Riverdale is Deconstructing The Pulp Noir Genre And We’re Definitely Here For it


Riverdale has all the elements of the pulp fiction and pulp noir genres, but they upend the complicated gender stuff to reveal something very modern.

Riverdale isn’t for everyone, I get it. Precocious teen angst and self-referential melodrama is an acquired taste, for sure. But whether you love abs, cheekbones, and a tongue in cheek wit or not, you have to admit, Riverdale is definitely doing something interesting. This week’s episode, “Chapter Four: The Last Picture Show,” really drills down on it’s pulp fiction elements. In fact, it’s plucking those pulp noir strings pretty hard. Except, Riverdale is deconstructing the genre, reassigning the tropes within it, and then redefining the paradigm. Throw gender into the mix, and it’s a really interesting contribution to the neo-noir moment.

The pulp genre became popular around the same time the original Archie comics did, so it’s not a stretch that a reimagining could marry the two. Pulp fiction (no, not the movie) got it’s name from the cheap paper the magazines the stories were printed on.The short books and mags were best known for their sexy, exploitative, and sensational storylines, much like this incarnation of the Archie comics.

The pulp genre gave way to pulp noir which “directly involves characters living bleak existences to accomplish a goal with odds against them, pulp noir often portrays a grittier, one-man army. Typically, the main character has no distinguishing abilities, but can hold ground against seemingly impossible odds. Pulp noir locations are often seedy, run-down and degradated urban landscapes, where the lack of law, morals and even the proliferation of crime and drugs are common themes. Another common trend in pulp noir is the glorification and/or demonization of its urban locations.”

As in most pulp stories, there’s always a hero – usually a schelppy man – who’s down on his luck and looking for redemption. This redemption usually comes in the form of the salvation of a damsel in distress that is in danger at the hands of a shadowy villain the reader doesn’t know anything about. All this is set against the backdrop of a cruel and dismal city. There’s usually a femme fatale that tries the thwart our hero’s efforts, usually by distracting him with her sexuality.

In this fourth episode of Riverdale, Betty is our hero. She is the intrepid investigator trying to save Archie, her damsel in distress from the enigmatic Ms. Grundy, who past is still a mystery. Although Archie is supposedly the lead character, his existence is really just a prop to allow Betty to emerge as the smarter, more industrious of the two.

Betty saves Archie, not only from the villain Ms. Grundy, but also from himself. This is a convention prevalent in crime dramas, especially film noir. Think back to Frank Miller’s Sin City in which the grizzled and world-weary John Hartigan must save the  young and innocent Nancy not only from real enemies, but also from her own choices.

Female characters are often drawn as childish, needing a father’s protection from the cruel world and their own ridiculous judgment. Riverdale doesn’t fall into this trap, but instead subverts it.

In other areas, however, it plays it’s homage pretty faithfully. Jughead, as morose and  and long-faced as he is, works perfectly as the narrator. In fact, pretty much everything he says is exposition. The grating voice-overs are a tenant of the noir genre, and Jughead’s storytelling is tool to navigate for audiences, even though we probably don’t really need it.

Riverdale the city performs it’s task as a bleak and disintegrating backdrop for the growing problems of it’s inhabitants. The seedy Southside Serpents personify a danger lying just under Riverdale’s surface, and demonstrate the depravity lurking on the outskirts. The demise of the anachronous Twilight Drive in is a blatant nod to this show’s noir roots, and Jughead, in all his expositive glory, pretty much tells us this outright.

The femme fatale character is embodied by one such Southside Serpent, Joaquin, who seduces Kevin behind the drive-in. Their clandestine, star-crossed relationship will surely lead Kevin down a dark path. More importantly, however, is the upending of the problematic gender assumptions.  The femme fatale character is usually a highly sexualized woman who lures the male hero away from the right path with her sexuality and feminine wiles.

This choice flies in the face of the “dangerous femininity” trope and redirects to a mostly unexplored area of sexuality as commerce. It’s really pretty genius.

Related Story: Lady Business: Riverdale Does Female Friendships The Right Way

The nostalgic cinematography, the vaguely mid-century wardrobe, and muted used of modern technology all contribute to the gritty noir tone and it’s damn refreshing. As a subset of television drama, the teenage soap has devolved into a cliche that cannibalizes itself over and over. Riverdale is doing something very different with the stereotypical ennui, and I’m loving it.

Check back here every Friday for my weekly dish on all things Riverdale.

Riverdale airs at 9/8c Thursdays on The CW.