As the third season of popular teen drama Riverdale gets under way, it’s not an exaggeration to say the show still has a few kinks to work out. Hit by one of the worst sophomore slumps in recent memory, the show simply couldn’t live up to the heady heights of its first season, which focused on the murder of town golden boy Jason Blossom. Though Riverdale Season 2 upped its game to include stories involving a serial killer, the mafia, and multiple local biker gangs, it often felt haphazard and confusing – and deeply unsatisfying. Not only did many of the twists fail to make sense, they often weren’t even stories whose resolutions were worth caring about.
From Betty’s supposed long-lost brother to Archie’s bizarre stint as a mob enforcer, Riverdale continually doubled down on stories that bore little resemblance to the things we loved so much about Season 1. The core group of teens could hardly be bothered to hang out together, let alone act like real friends. And given Hiram Lodge’s real estate shenanigans, the intra-gang conflict within the Southside Serpents, and the town’s mayoral race, we spent very little time within the walls of Riverdale High or any sort of teen-focused story. In the span of a single season, Riverdale went from a series that delighted in subverting teen drama tropes to one that could barely be bothered to tell teen stories, and suffered because of it.
However, not everything about Riverdale’s second season was disappointing. The Black Hood was legitimately scary at times (before the revelation of his identity got quite so messy, anyway). Penelope Blossom also turned Thornhill into a brothel, Archie formed a shirtless vigilante squad, and the Pussycats beat up a serial rapist, just to name a few of Season 2’s wild and entertaining plots. But one of the most surprising (and satisfying) developments was the romantic relationship that formed between Riverdale queen bee Cheryl Blossom and Southside Serpent Antoinette “Toni” Topaz.
It’s difficult to tell whether this particular romance was planned all along or purely accidental, given that Toni’s introduction seemed to initially set her up as an obstacle for Jughead and Betty’s relationship. Either way, the love story that ultimately developed between these two women turned out to be a highlight of the teen drama’s second season, giving Cheryl complicated new layers and turning one of the nebulous Serpents into a fully realized character in her own right.
Though a true standout in Season 1, Cheryl sadly spent much of the first half of Riverdale’s second season on the sidelines, generally showing up only to drop a GIF-able one-liner every couple of weeks or so. Her exploration of her sexual identity, however, finally provided the character with something more substantial to do. Though it certainly had a few rough patches – including the part where she creepily stalked a crush for no reason, and her one-episode stint in gay conversion therapy camp – Cheryl’s coming out story was one of the best, most deftly handled moments of Season 2.
Unfortunately, that story came in fits and starts, often feeling rushed and truncated. To be fair, Cheryl and Toni’s relationship – and their transition from friends to something more – was generally charming and sweet. We just didn’t see enough of it. Riverdale skipped over large chunks of Cheryl’s journey to self-discovery and self-acceptance. (One conversation about how she had feelings for a childhood friend is not a storyline, show.) We also didn’t see much of the initial stages of the “Choni” relationship, and viewers had to assume key moments between them must have happened off-screen.
Rather than develop the romance slowly, the duo went from flirty behavior to intense heart-to-hearts, to one having to rescue the other from a virtual insane asylum in the space of a few weeks. That’s an awful lot to put on a couple that hadn’t even really been on a proper date with one another yet. By the end of the season, the two are an established item though, and Cheryl has an honorary membership in the Serpents. They’re out to their friends, and ostensibly happy together. (We think. Because once again, Riverdale hasn’t exactly shown viewers a lot of their journey.)
That’s something that really needs to change in Season 3.
Riverdale is a teen drama with an obvious interest in social issues, but it doesn’t necessarily center those stories within its primary narratives. Yes, the show features multiple LGBT characters, as well as characters of color – and it should be commended for that – but most of those individuals exist in the margins of the show’s larger stories. Josie pretty much only shows up to sing at some town event. Kevin is constantly absent or underwritten. (See also: That time his one “storyline” was a scene about how he went jogging to cruise guys.) Until the Season 2 finale, almost no one seemed to even remember that Moose was bisexual. Cheryl and Toni’s romance offers Riverdale a real chance to do better in this area, by centering a gay love story involving one of the series’ most recognizable characters and treating the duo just the same as their other two marquee couples.
Thus far in Season 3, Riverdale has seemingly re-centered itself a bit, putting Jughead and Betty back to solving mysteries together, making Archie’s prison stint as ridiculous as possible, and creeping us all out with the introduction of the Gargoyle King. Yet Cheryl and Toni still remain largely on the sidelines, and we’re constantly told, not shown, how great their relationship is. (The fact that they moved in together and spent the summer cross-country motorbiking all happened, once again, off-screen.) These two deserve better – both as a couple, and as characters.
The magic of Riverdale lies in its ability to take the tired, overplayed teen tropes of television seasons past and reinvigorate them by framing them in new and exciting ways. “Choni” offers Riverdale the chance to finally do right by several of its more marginalized characters without sacrificing its love of dark, gritty storytelling. Cheryl is already the series’ Gothic horror queen, after all, and Toni’s an active member of a biker gang. There’s plenty of room for their relationship to exist – and thrive – alongside the shocking secrets and thrilling mysteries that make up the rest of the show. All they need is the chance.
Riverdale airs Wednesdays on The CW.