Riverdale wouldn’t be a teen soap without its fair share of pining. Although the CW drama borrows the veneer of David Lynch’s Twin Peaks, which fits its Archie comic universe like a tight angora sweater, it’s firmly in the tradition of shows like My So-Called Life and Veronica Mars. You know, where fresh-faced youngsters want what they can’t have.
Betty Cooper (Lili Reinhart) and Veronica Lodge (Camilla Mendez) both just happen to desire the same thing: Archie Andrews (KJ Apa), a classical shy-but-silent jock with a Baz Luhrmann dye job. Jughead Jones (Cole Sprouse) will do anything it takes to keep the town drive-in open, the kind of place where they show a double feature of Reservoir Dogs and Easy Rider on a Saturday night.
But the only person in town who seems to be getting what they want is Kevin Keller (Casey Cott). While other characters in Riverdale wait by their phone for that certain someone to call, Kevin has something to say when it rings. During the show’s pilot, the teen facilitates a hookup with a closeted jock named “Moose” (although one assumes not legally so), whom Kevin claims is every inch of his moniker. The two share an illicit skinny dip. Kevin would be living his best life, if not for the fact that the two uncover a dead body during their moonlight tryst.
Riverdale flips the script on the genre by making Kevin the only person in a 50-mile radius with a healthy, developed sex life. Archie has a bad romance with Miss Grundy (Sarah Habel), a music teacher who is about 30 years and one impending statutory rape conviction removed from the priggish old maid of the comics. While their classmates sex it up, gay characters in youth-oriented dramas very rarely get to enjoy the perks of being a teenager. The gay BFF is a snappy dresser and ready with a sassy one-liner, but he rarely gets his Molly Ringwald moment. He might get a two-second kiss with his longtime beau in season 3—faces smashed together to suggest intimacy—before producers cut to black.
To quote a catchy number from fellow CW show Crazy Ex-Girlfriend: “You know the trope/in storytelling it’s a norm.” TV Tropes calls it “But Not Too Gay.” To avoid the wrath of censors, LGBTQ characters in prime-time TV are typically as chaste as bingo night at the local convent. The gays don’t get to have much fun. In its first few seasons, Glee’s Kurt (Chris Colfer) was too busy fending off school bullies to get some. Seasons after Cam (Eric Stonestreet) and Mitchell (Jesse Tyler Ferguson) were finally allowed to kiss on Modern Family, fans still wonder whether the odd couple isn’t secretly cosplaying The War of the Roses.
LGBTQ romances on shows as varied as Gossip Girl, True Blood, Brooklyn Nine-Nine, Ugly Betty, and The Wire never got the screen time allotted to their straight counterparts. Tara and Willow hugged a lot on Buffy the Vampire Slayer, and creator Joss Whedon had to threaten to leave the show to get the network to allow the couple to kiss. Game of Thrones liberally depicts women being sexually assaulted, but when it comes to the male bedroom partners of Oberyn Martell (Pedro Pascal), a pansexual libertine, many of the raunchiest moments are implied.
If gay viewers have been waiting for some equal opportunity boom boom pow, Riverdale is ready to let them get in on the action. The show, created by Roberto Aguirre-Sacasa (Carrie), is knowing when it comes to gay teen stereotypes and treats Kevin’s storyline with a meta wink. When the character is first introduced, Veronica—a rich girl looking for a fresh start at her new school after her Bernie Madoff-like father is imprisoned—loudly proclaims that she and Kevin are destined for Will and Graceland. “Let’s be best friends,” she says. As if to further call attention the archetype, mean girl Cheryl Blossom (Madelaine Petsch) asks Kevin if the gay BFF is “still a thing” in a later episode.
From the first second he’s on-screen, it’s clear Kevin isn’t your usual sexless sidekick. Spying on Betty’s comely next door neighbor, Archie, through the drawn curtains, he comments that our crimson-coiffed hero “got hot.” Should you be wondering if the moment is a reference to Hitchcock, a window is never just a window in Riverdale. If there’s any criticism of the show to be had, it’s that Aguirre-Sacasa turns the pastiche up to 11.
Straight male characters have gotten to be horny since the boys of Porky’s discovered the joys of the gloryhole, but it’s frankly revolutionary to see a gay teen’s ravenous libido treated with the same solemn reverence. Kevin gets more action than a toilet seat. After sharing a too-long look with a fellow theatergoer on the evening of the drive-in’s last hurrah, the two are making out just minutes later. The youngster even gets “the talk” from his father—who simply wants his son to be safe while he’s expressing his age-appropriate urges. The two discuss the do’s and don’ts of cruising. Boys like Archie get to talk about their sex lives on TV all the time, but the Kevins of the world never do.
Kevin, a fan favorite from the comics, is nothing short of a revelation, and it would be tempting to say there’s never been a character quite like him. This is both true and not true. Television has been making great strides in recent years to allow LGBTQ people to have fully realized lives, whether that’s inside or outside of the bedroom.
Shonda Rhimes, the woman behind every show you love, has been a trailblazer for depicting queer intimacy with unflinching honesty. Rhimes has brought us complex, three-dimensional, same-sex relationships on shows like Grey’s Anatomy and Scandal, and she has claimed her formula is easy. “There are no gay scenes,” she tweeted in response to a viewer complaint about the frequent bouts of interracial sodomy on How to Get Away With Murder. “There are scenes with people in them.” Starring Viola Davis as a high-powered law professor, Murder also brought us television’s first male-on-male analingus. Conservative groups retreated to their respective fainting chairs, but the show’s ratings have yet to suffer.
The realistic and even sexy intercourse on shows like Transparent and Looking show we’ve come a long way in a decade. Noah and Luke, the resident gay supercouple on As the World Turns, made headlines when they shared their first smooch in 2007. But after that kiss, the two spent a lot of time exchanging longing looks—which isn’t exactly what all those headless torsos are looking for on Grindr. Fans held a pool to see how long it would be before their lips were reunited. If your answer was 211 days in between smooches, you won. Congratulations.
Television, though, still has a lot of work to do when it comes to treating same-sex intimacy not as a taboo but a fact of life. On shows like Girls, You’re the Worst, Broad City, and Westworld, the sex between its heterosexual characters is a default, the logical, no-big-deal conclusion of meeting at a bar and going home together or purchasing a love robot from a futuristic theme park. The fact that Jessa (Jemima Kirke) and Adam (Adam Driver) have so much sex that it alienates their friends is treated as a comic annoyance but nothing out of the ordinary for two self-absorbed 20-somethings who live in Brooklyn, New York.
Riverdale’s randy gay teenager is certainly groundbreaking, but the real progress will come when Kevin taking a dip with a stupidly nicknamed jock no longer seems like a big deal.