Riverdale’s Kevin Keller (Casey Cott) is a groundbreaking character in a lot of ways. He’s a gay character on a teen soap that has little to no familial drama in relation to his sexuality — in fact the series begins with him having already been out so the audience never got to see that journey- and seems relatively well-adjusted (considering he lives in a town beset by murder). In season 2’s 3rd episode he also becomes a character that is telling a rare story.
TV has been trying for years to really capture the experience of being a gay teen. From My So-Called Life to Glee many versions of the “what is it like to grow up gay” narrative have been played out, trying to put into words the “otherness” that LGBTQ teens can feel. On Riverdale Kevin had previously been portrayed as generally mainstream, even after he began dating gang member Joaquin (Rob Raco) and had an aborted hookup with jock Moose (Cody Kearsley). But in Chapter Sixteen: The Watcher in the Woods we see Kevin not only engage in gay cruising culture but also defend it. In a blistering monologue to Betty (Lili Reinhart), Kevin dares Betty to judge him for trying to find closeness, intimacy and, yes, sex, in the dangerous hookup culture of the woods. Kevin blasts Betty for the ease in which her heterosexuality allows her to date, flirt, and desire whomever she wants while Kevin is alone in his school, isolated, and in many ways treated like a GBFF accessory. It’s a scene that simultaneously says some really valid and important things (while also acknowledging the inherent danger/plot-related danger) and sheds a light on a cultural phenomenon in the gay community that is rarely seriously discussed on broadcast tv, let alone a series aimed at teens. Cott’s performance is heartbreaking as he lets loose all of the pain and anger he has at the unfairness of having to spend years listening to Betty lust after Archie and now Jughead and an embarrassment of other romantic options while he is, in his mind, forced to engage in dangerous cruising in the forest just to get a glimmer of something that Betty herself takes for granted. Making the scene even more painful is its placement just after Kevin has a scene with Moose, his sometimes hookup closeted (bisexual?) jock, in which Moose (in the hospital recovering from a gunshot) tells Kevin that he can come back and visit whenever. The subtext clearly implying that Moose wants Kevin to comfort him but can’t bring himself to admit that. Cott’s expression says it all and the longing from both actors is palpable.
Gay hookup culture is a complicated world. Bars and public areas filled with codes and their own subsets of rules have permeated the gay community as our own urban folklore. Movies (Crusing) and cable shows (Queer as Folk etc) have addressed the subject in the past but broadcast TV doesn’t usually go there. Now, with the advent of hookup apps, the anonymous hookup culture has seemingly mostly faded away. That there would be a thriving scene in Riverdale is just part of its throwback aesthetic. For Kevin’s part, he chooses to abandon the woods in the wake of the murders in town leading to a lovely scene with his father, the town sheriff (Martin Cummins) who doesn’t try to shame Kevin but asks him to be safe and even clears the way for more open communication between the two.
Riverdale, despite the neonoir plot elements, is a show that comes from very sanitized and idealistic roots. For a show with its history and audience to not only normalize the pain of their LGBTQ character — letting him express his feelings, in his own words even, as opposed to having someone describe his feelings — and to even show a side of gay culture that just isn’t talked about in a clear and frank manner is frankly amazing. That said, the show bends over backwards to not only express the danger of “the woods” (above and beyond the plot of the show) in a way that is clearly the writers trying not to “glorify” the seedy practice. While this can be seen as a case of having your cake and eating it too, it’s also the nature of the broadcast TV/teen soap game — don’t glamorize the bad for your audience. In Kevin though the writers have now allowed themselves to not explore LGBTQ culture from a teen perspective in a more meaningful way than it’s usually done.