I’m loving the CW’s Riverdale, a darker take on the Archie comics gang that has been around since the ’40s. We’re only a few episodes in, but so far it’s some salacious fun with a good message about acceptance. For instance, several of the characters have been forced to really look into the mirror, assess and try to self-improve. Sure, Archie comics were never quite so brooding— and I mean just about everyone is brooding— but there’s still a lot of fun to be had in this likable soap opera murder mystery show.
When I was a kid, I read comic books — Spider-Man, Fantastic Four, Avengers, that kind of thing — but I also found out that you could buy Archie comics for about three dollars a bushel at my local comic book store and would frequently do so. Archie comics were a much different experience than, say, Batman, but I found myself seeking them out more and more. I can’t really explain why the stories, which seem deceptively simple, affected me so much, but there’s a lot in there about loyalty and acceptance by your family and friends. In many ways, Riverdale, the town the Archie gang lives in, is a utopia in the comics. But I wasn’t so interested in a close textual examination at the time. There was just always something very likable about Archie comics.
But there was always another side to those Archie stories. There have been many, many supernatural and “dark” Archie stories over the years, particularly right now, when there is an Archie zombie story that is very adult. But when I was a kid, I remember I read an Archie story about a haunted teddy bear that made people want to commit suicide and I didn’t think much of it at the time, but I would remember it at weird times and it literally gave me nightmares when I was in my teens. Something about it was Edgar Allen Poe-esque and, you know, suicide in a comic for 10-year-olds.
Don’t go find that story! I’m sure it’s terrible. My point is that they know how to connect with their readers.
There’s always been this part of Archie that can step into any different genre. “You kids in the ’60s like goofy superheroes? Here’s Pureheart the Powerful!” “You like pre-adolescent series like Little Dot (from the ’50s)? Here’s Lil’ Archie.” “Kids today like zombies? Here’s Afterlife with Archie!” So the show Riverdale, conceiving Archie as a watered-down Twin Peaks? Fine! So even though Archie is a little more “tortured” than we’ve seen him before, he is still basically a decent guy who wants to do the right thing and be nice to people (Pureheart!).
Archie comics have never been a company that shies away from fads. Archie went through a stage as a “radical” skate board guy in the ’80s, who I think would have embarrassed Pauley Shore at the time, as much as that was possible. And the characters were invented in the early ’40s when “being a teenager” wasn’t really codified yet, so every decade or so, the characters get re-invented. I bet Reggie has a tattoo now.
I didn’t mean to talk this much about the comics, but since I have, if you were ever even slightly interested in Archie and haven’t read the excellent Archie: The Married Life, scrounge up a copy and give it a read. It’s a lot of fun. I also have heard Mark Waid has been doing great things in the flagship Archie comics, but I haven’t read those yet.
So, I guess what I’m saying is, I have to take the new CW show, Riverdale, as an Archie adaptation, rather than just take it on its own. It’s impossible for me to step away from the Archie I already know. So on the one hand, I think that makes it a richer experience for me. I knew who just about every named character was, and something of their character. Jughead and Reggie didn’t do much in the pilot, but I certainly clocked their every move. I was actually delighted to see Smithers! Riverdale quickly made a cheap “closeted” joke about über-jock Moose, but then that began to be a story line with Moose open to the idea of a relationship with Kevin. Anyway, I’ll try to not be like, “This isn’t like the comics!” angry in my review, but know that I’m coming from a lifelong fondness for Archie comics.
Before I talk about the show itself, I think that it should be noted that this comic book adaptation is different than most, because this is a soap opera, and kind of a crazy one at that. The Batman movies, for instance, are trying to show us a self-contained story, maybe five or six issues of a comic. But Riverdale, right off the bat, is doing extensive world building. More than that, by having a bunch of characters who are trying to improve themselves, the show keeps the comic’s likable quality for the characters. Even the awful Cheryl Blossom, queen bitch of Riverdale (about to be overthrown by Veronica Lodge, I’m sure), recently had a family tragedy that would help me forgive a lot of her.
Riverdale’s plot is “small town with a secret,”with many secrets, chief among them, how did Cheryl Blossom’s twin brother, Jason, die? Supposedly, he drowned, but by the end of the pilot, we find out that he didn’t drown, but was shot. The autopsy will reveal all kinds of weird things — Jason was frozen; he was killed much later than thought; the Riverdale coroner is not only super creepy, but corrupt; and Archie can’t tell that he heard a gunshot because he was in the woods with Miss Grundy, the music teacher! But telling is the right thing to do! And is Miss Grundy manipulating Archie to keep him from revealing their illicit and illegal affair to the police? Hermione Lodge is back in town after her husband was arrested for some kind of bunko scheme. Her spoiled daughter, Veronica, is using the experience to try to become a good person and find out what really matters in life. But what about that satchel of cash she receives from a courier? “Oh, Hiram, what have you done now?” Indeed!
The acting was pretty good! That kind of “teenager show” good, but good nonetheless. Standouts were Betty and Veronica, as they should be. Luke Perry as Fred, Archie’s dad, brought a fun “meta” thing to the show where you could imagine that Fred was a teenager a lot like Archie, although maybe he grew up in a different zip code. Perry has a moment where you think he’s going to get mad at Archie for lying, but instead shows understanding and gives Archie the support he needs. He’s a great dad! And the adults are top notch across the board, even if they are hamming it up for the more soapy elements of the show. Look for Principal Weatherby’s strange, but caring, eyes watching the students like a hawk.
I was surprised to see Greg Berlanti’s name in the credits, although I shouldn’t have been. He is responsible for Arrow, Supergirl, The Flash and Legends of Tomorrow, anything with the words “comic book” and “CW” involved. But Riverdale doesn’t feel like any of those shows, it’s sort of a cross between Twin Peaks, which everyone keeps mentioning, and Dynasty with teenagers. In other words, this feels more like a better Vampire Diaries than The Flash to me, so I’m okay with that. But with Berlanti in the credits, I’m not going to be super surprised if, say, Sabrina, the teenage witch, shows up and can actually do magic. Hell, we had Josie and the Pussycats performing at the fall formal! (Archie went with Betty and Veronica… and it made sense!)
Just a Jughead note: They did a great job of actually giving him his crazy hat. Of course, my Jughead is sort of a proto slacker/beatnik/hippie. If you know who Maynard G. Krebs is, there’s a lot of Jughead in there. Shaggy from Scooby-Doo? A lot of Jughead. This Jughead seems to be introspective and is actually telling the story of Riverdale to us as he writes a novel about it. I think he’s going to be a good character, but we really only know that he and Archie had some kind of falling out, although they are still incredibly nice to each other, even when they’re being jerks. Oddly, Jughead has a very functional moral compass and seems to know what everyone should do before they do. But he does still talk about hamburgers a lot!
And since Archie had an affair with Miss Grundy, please look up a picture of Miss Grundy in the comics and then start imagining the set of circumstances that would lead to that tryst! I think it would have been braver to go with that rather than two ultra beautiful people hooking up from pure hormones.
A few stupid comic book complaints? Archie actor KJ Apa’s hair looks really, really weird. Veronica dresses like the boss at an advertising agency. I want Pop Tate to be surprised at how much Jughead can eat! I want Jughead to eat a hamburger!
Anyway, you don’t have to know one thing about Archie comics to enjoy Riverdale. Sure, it’s fun if you do know something about them. And since Archie comics created many teenage archetypes, you’ll probably find some things about the show familiar. On the other hand, these characters have been work-shopped since the ’40s and what works about them has been kept. I’m not saying this is Homeland, but it’s good soapy fun.