With Kevin Keller, 'Riverdale' pokes fun at TV's "gay best friend" archetype
At first glance, Kevin Keller — as played by Casey Cott on The CW's new series Riverdale — is more a collection of attributes than a character. He's white, cute, sassy and witty, the kind of confident gay guy men who didn't come out of the closet until after high school wish they could have been. He fires off quips and plays close confidant to both Betty Cooper and Veronica Lodge, while admiring Archie Andrews' swole new body from afar.
[Editor's note: Spoilers ahead for the premiere episode of Riverdale.]
While fun, he seems a bit unremarkable — like The CW's hybrid of Chuck Bass and Walt Reynolds. But then, during a lunch scene in the series' pilot, Kevin faces off with head cheerleader and school queen bee Cheryl Blossom. Cheryl may have lost her brother Jason the summer before, but she's lost none of her edge.
"Is cheerleading still a thing?" Kevin snidely asks when Cheryl invites Veronica to try out for the squad. The redhead turns her sights on him.
"Is being the gay best friend still a thing?" she shoots back. He's instantly shut down, looking away. It's then the show's goal for the character becomes clear: He is an assemblage of tropes — a stereotype of the "gay best friend." Riverdale is fully aware of that. But slowly, they're going to subvert audience expectations of who Kevin is — or who he should be.
From that point on in the pilot, Kevin appears sparingly but critically. At the back-to-school dance, he talks about getting propositioned in the bathroom by Moose Mason, a football player. During their tryst — where Kevin problematically but oh-so-realistically revels in hooking up with a closeted athlete — he is the one to find Jason Blossom's remains.
The latter is valuable, because it makes Kevin a key character in the murder-mystery narrative, not just resigning him to being a background player (as still too often happens with LGBTQ characters). But it's the former — the sexualization of a gay teen character that matches the sexualization of his straight counterparts — that stands out.
Kevin is even the first to note how attractive Archie became over the summer, delivering what is basically Riverdale's thesis: "Archie got hot!"
Previous shows like Riverdale — teen soaps, usually on The CW or the former WB — would unequally distribute the sexualization of its characters. Yes, Dawson's Creek gave us the first real, passionate kiss between two male characters on American prime-time TV, but Jack McPhee's story was a much slower burn than those of his straight counterparts'. (Infamously, creator Kevin Williamson originally wrote protagonists Dawson and Joey as two guys before switching Joey to a female character.)
It may feel like the norm in 2017, but Kevin's characterization is still rarer than you'd expect. Now, it's just one episode; other series have included queer characters for whole seasons before ruining their stories. The easiest assumption is that Kevin will be shafted to the side in favor of the straight characters who are more critical to either Archie's romantic life or the murder-mystery plot. For what it's worth, Cott did tweet during the pilot a tease that his character would be getting a love interest, which is promising.
Another possible scenario: Riverdale fails at subverting stereotypes and, instead, makes Kevin a walking bag of tropes. Even as it stands, Riverdale isn't hitting an American Crime level of gay-teen writing — or a One Day at a Time level, for that matter. But there's something about Kevin that gives us hope. If nothing else, he's certainly a reason to stay tuned to Riverdale.
Riverdale airs Thursdays at 9 p.m. Eastern. Watch the first episode on The CW's website.