People often say that college is the best four years of your life, and for the characters of Riverdale (who in high school survived treacherous parents, several serial killers, and a drug-addled live-action role playing game), they almost certainly would be. By the end of senior year, these characters are destined for elite institutions — Betty for Yale, Veronica for Barnard, and Jughead for the Iowa Writers Workshop. One could say these glamorous destinations are only to be expected on a show that celebrates glamor as a virtue in itself, and one wouldn’t be wrong. But additionally, these storylines assert another idea — that such success is fundamentally mysterious. After all, none of these characters ever did any homework. They were never in class!

Most of the time, we presume that people go where they deserve to go, based on “merit.” I don’t simply mean college students. I mean also adults with no particular interest in teen soaps. But “meritocracy” was originally a sardonic term, coined in 1958 by the sociologist Michael Young, who felt that such a system — though seeming to uphold principles of fairness — would devolve dystopically. It would be as if there were no bad lots, just bad choices. Hardship would befall only those who deserved it. As Young lamented, “No underclass has ever been left as morally naked as that.”

Are our metrics for success illusory — or worse, morally corrosive? Michael Sandel, author of the much-admired book The Tyranny of Merit, believes so. In his eyes, meritocracy quells humility while bolstering hubris. It has nothing to offer when mistakes are made, when addiction gets the better of us (or someone we love), when hard times arrive actually out of nowhere. These things happen all the time, and they are frequently the beginnings of spiritual conversations, about identity, value, centuries-long debates that go back at least as far as early Christianity.

Take St. Paul (né Saul of Tarsus). For every metric of ancient success, he was the most deserving. A member of the religious elite, he professed, “If anyone else thinks he has grounds for confidence in the flesh, I have more.” Of the right bloodline, with an intellect for the ages, Paul only found the Lord’s favor once his inner meritocrat had been reproached. In a vision, the Lord told him, “My grace is sufficient for you, for my power is made perfect in weakness.” Suddenly, for Paul, it was not the deserving who were favored, but the undeserving, the weak.

Later, theologians like Augustine would agree that salvation (that most ancient of acceptance letters!) could not be earned by proper religious observance. And when, eventually, the Church began selling absolution in exchange for good works, the Reformation argued that divine favor was received sola gratia — by grace alone. In Sandel’s words, “The Protestant Reformation was born as an argument against merit.” Even the Calvinist concept of predestination was intended to subdue meritocracy: whether you had been damned or saved was not up to you.

In the hands of some, however, this had the opposite effect: you could prove you were destined for heaven by behaving as if you deserved it. Remote as it may seem, these are the underpinnings of today’s merit mania, most evident in the college obsession. One begins to suspect that college has become so important to our culture because it promises the best shot at controlling what is specifically uncontrollable: the future. College isn’t just one rung on the ladder of meritocracy; it is the ladder itself. It is the place we’re told we’ll meet lifelong friends, where we’ll discover who we really are, and begin doing what we’re meant to be doing for the rest of our lives. Get into the right college, and the world will be at your feet. This is the theory.

In reality, college is the place where fools (at twenty-one years old, what else could you be?) posture at being wise. Of course, four years anywhere cannot preempt disaster — or ensure success — for the rest of life. You become a lot smarter the day that collegiate merit looks starkly unimportant, the day when success feels like a gift, not something fought for. Success, after all, is an abstruse thing. How does one measure the success of the former Harvard student who dropped out to care for ailing parents? Or a young man receiving little income but heaps of love? Or a young woman who never attended college at all, and instead dedicated her young years to social welfare? This is what one character does on Riverdale.

The strange thing about Riverdale (a strange thing) is that, this season, it has leapt ahead seven years, bypassing the college days entirely. One wonders whether anything important happened on those most pined-for campuses from which thousands are rejected yearly. We never get a glimpse, so … apparently not! Our characters have gone on to secure spectacular careers — college served at least some purpose — but trouble still finds them.

One could never say it’s a particularly deep show. But for whatever reason, the teens are now adults. And if Lori Loughlin’s husband happens to be watching from his prison cell, at least he won’t have to see them solving mysteries at colleges his daughters could never get into. And maybe it would seem obvious, then, that they never had to in the first place.