Greg Berlanti has rewritten the rules of television in much the same way the MCU did for films. And this week, he sort of did it again through some ingeniously integrated product placement.
Spoilers ahoy for Riverdale!
For those who don’t know, Greg Berlanti is the producer of most of the CW’s schedule, including their entire Arrowverse lineup and Riverdale. He is also the director of the upcoming film Love, Simon – a gay coming of age film that looks to become an instant classic.
Before we dive in, here’s some context about how Berlanti’s TV shows operate. With all due respect to Agents of SHIELD, Berlanti is almost single-handedly responsible for the astounding proliferation of superheroes on our TV screens.
Much like Marvel first connected disparate film franchises into one universe with epic crossovers, Berlanti did the same thing. It was an added value element, watching characters you love from different shows interacting with each other on our television screens. While I’m sure TV crossovers had been done before, it was never on this scale.
And it was a brilliant ploy to get people to watch more of the Arrowverse shows. Sure, you could try keeping up with only a few, but then you’d have the niggling feeling that you’re missing out on the epicness of the crossovers. (Let’s be honest, why else did any of us sit through Season 4 of Arrow?) But if you did somehow manage to keep up with four superhero shows a week, you were amply rewarded. There was, in fact, a glorious live-action team-up of DC superheroes last year: it just happened on the small screen, and was called “Crisis on Earth-X” instead of “Justice League.”
The other hallmark of Berlanti’s shows, besides their interconnectivity, is their progressiveness. Sure, it’s not perfect, especially as regards to the female characters – The Flash has trouble with the Bechdel test, and Arrow rather appallingly fridged Laurel in Season 4. But his shows get all the gold stars for diversity in race, and every single one of Berlanti’s shows has regular LGBT characters (whereas the MCU has… um… surely there’s one…?). Not to mention, the bisexual Sara Lance is one of the best heroes we currently have on television.
Those two attributes – interconnectedness and inclusivity – were deployed to great effect this week on Riverdale. It was all in the name of product placement, of all things! Love, Simon comes out within a week, so it makes perfect sense to promote it to people watching Berlanti’s shows on the CW. But instead of merely including ads for it during the programs, or having a poster in the background, Berlanti made the movie an entire plot point in this week’s episode of Riverdale.
Admittedly, the introduction was clunky – Kevin delivers a sales pitch about the movie out of the blue, trying to get his closeted ex-lover to see it. It was very obviously a promotion for the movie (otherwise, Kevin would just say “let’s go see this movie”), and my hackles were raised.
But to my surprise, the episode’s entire B-plot revolved around this trip to go see Love, Simon. It wasn’t perfectly done – for example, I can think of plenty of fates worse than seeing a movie alone, but apparently that’s the most tragic thing the folks of Riverdale have ever experienced. However, it was played to heartbreaking effect, precisely because of the specificity of the movie.
If Kevin had tried to go to the movies with Moose, only to be brushed aside for Midge, that would have been a perfectly acceptable plot point. But the bitter irony of the closeted Moose taking Midge instead of Kevin to see a love story about coming out – it elevated that entire story arc. The viewer empathizes with Kevin all the more because Kevin is savvy enough to see the irony himself, and Casey Cott imbues the scene with just enough disappointment and resignation to hit us right in the feels.
But an even more significant plot development comes from Cheryl Blossom, the absolute best part of any Riverdale episode that she graces. Admittedly, the whole arc would have been much more effective if Cheryl had more than fifteen minutes combined screentime across all of Season 2, but hopefully this is the start of us seeing lots more Cheryl on our screens.
After seeing the movie, Cheryl goes to Pop’s to drown her sorrows in a milkshake, as one does. That’s where she comes out as having loved a girl, and where we witness the start of something new between her and Toni. (Incidentally, Choni seems to be replacing Bughead as many Riverdale fans’ OTP – it’s everything we never knew we needed an episode ago.) Madelaine Petsch is an absolute treasure, and what makes Cheryl work so well is the contrasts. She is an over-the-top drama queen, and at first one just assumes that’s the Riverdale of it all. But occasionally, Cheryl has quiet moments of vulnerability. They show how the melodrama is an emotional armor for her, one she can put on and take off in a split second. When the armor came off during that scene, it was heartbreaking.
Again, what works here is the specificity. Sure, the scene could have worked without the context of Love, Simon – characters coming out can be triggered by any number of events. But as we so often hear, it is often triggered by the consumption of fiction that LGBT people internalize to feel safe. The world is littered with stories of people coming out after watching Glee, or bare the musical, or even when Jo Rowling announced that Dumbledore was gay. Stories are powerful in how they impact people and change their outlooks – Joe Biden has said regarding LGBT people, “I think ‘Will & Grace‘ probably did more to educate the American public than almost anything anybody has ever done so far.” By all accounts, Love, Simon probably will convince some people who watch it to come out – that’s what makes the story arc believable.
The decision to incorporate Love, Simon into Cheryl’s coming out was also wholly consistent with things we see on Riverdale. The teens of Riverdale, when they’re not kissing each other or dealing with dead bodies, are avid consumers of pop culture. Veronica peppers her dialogue with so many pop culture references, she could be a writer for Hypable. And we constantly see characters reading books in their downtime – this is one of my favorite things about Riverdale, incidentally, since it’s the only show I can think of where reading is presented as something normal teens do for plot-unrelated reasons. So it makes perfect sense that all the teens of Riverdale would go see Love, Simon and be deeply impacted by it.
All this combined to make the Love, Simon promotion feel like a worthy part of the episode, though obviously still a blatant promotion. Some viewers may be irked by blending marketing and plot, but we could do a lot worse than this – in fact, I would argue Berlanti just set a new standard for seamlessly integrating product placement into a TV sow.
Of course, tying Love, Simon into the show’s narrative arc is a big gamble. If the movie ends up with a mixed reception, or is just ignored by the general populace as so many excellent movies are, this will be a very awkward plot point for people watching Riverdale months or years from now. Berlanti and all the higher-ups at Riverdale must truly believe that the movie will be a well-received success in order to risk it, and that vote of confidence is very heartening for someone who can’t wait to see it this weekend. Here’s hoping Love, Simon lives up to its hype on Riverdale!