Archie Comics’ live-action reboot deserves more attention than its surface-level nostalgia might suggest.
Creator: Roberto Aguirre-Sacasa
Starring: K.J. Apa, Lili Reinhart, Camila Mendes, Cole Sprouse, Luke Perry, Mädchen Amick, Madelaine Petsch
It’s a long-held social anxiety that beneath the shining red, white and blue crust of the all-American town, corruption will eventually rot away its structural foundations. In Riverdale, where the small-town machinery keeps community values and high-school hierarchy ticking over, slotting one generation into the moulds of the last, this decay is hand-sewn to the bloodless corpse of prom king Jason Blossom (Trevor Stines), the murder of whom has altered the Archie Comics brand forever.
The show that takes its name is much like the town. Narrated in the dramatic Gonzo journalism of local pariah Jughead Jones (Cole Sprouse), Riverdale ties together coming-of-age surface tension with the dreamlike murder-mystery of Twin Peaks. Emotions are high and consequences are arbitrary, the stakes often level whether the drama of the scene is in the familiar Archie-Betty-Veronica love-triangle, or an attempted suicide that’s over in time to make it to a town function.
Odd plot canyons like this last one are frequent, and as frequently dismissed and forgotten. It would be embarrassing if the show weren’t so enjoyable. Despite them, because of them; who really cares?
Archie, obviously, is a comics institution, and one that has embraced numerous genre explorations and updated reboots in his franchise’s 75-year history. In this year’s CW series, he is fleshed out – in more ways than one – in a slightly more reprehensible direction, kissing four different women/girls within the first five episodes, lying in a murder investigation, lying to his awesome dad, Luke Perry, forgetting that he has this super close relationship with Jughead that he picks up later in the series, and splitting his time evenly between kissing etc., crime-solving, and the High School Musical dilemma of choosing between football and “his music”.
Played, with a flawless accent, by New Zealand actor K.J. Apa, Archie Andrews’ underbelly – revealed, naturally, by the murder of his rich school chum that in real life would probably be educated somewhere else – is less than wholesome. Unfortunately, any consequences are stuffed into a convenient cupboard so that he retains the boring glow of the Disney-style hero. As the centre of the Archie brand, he can’t give us too much or he will stop being our projected gateway into the life of Riverdale.
The unexpected upshot of this is that the traditional love triangle that kept more interesting characters Betty (Lili Reinhart) and Veronica (Camila Mendes) at odds in Mark Waid and Fiona Staples’ rebooted comics series is broken from lack of caring, and the pair can headline a healthier representation of female friendship and cooperation. In the first half of the series, before the gang jumps aboard the Mystery Machine to do what professional law enforcement can’t, a powerful subplot picks up intensity where the girls of Riverdale High band together to oppose slut shaming and sexism from the boys on the football team.
Perhaps more familiar with the underside of Riverdale already, the tropes of perfect girl-next-door Betty and gorgeous exotic newcomer Veronica are quickly tested and turned. After a tropey girl-on-girl kiss that shows how schoolgirls are uncomfortably used to managing their power by utilising their sexuality, Veronica benches her bitchiness to become a true friend to Betty, who in turn steps out of her prescribed role and takes control of the situation by embracing her third dimension.
The storyline’s hot tub climax, which attempts to empower female sexuality by flaunting it in a particularly unhelpful way, is unrealistic and absurd. But what’s important is that the girls of Riverdale High win, and the sexual harassment is acknowledged and dealt with. It’s a good and under-represented conclusion to a mini arc, while also altering our expectations of the main female characters for the main action later. In the overall plot of the Jason Blossom whodunnit, Veronica needs loyal friendships, Betty has to take risks that go against her upbringing, and we have to be prepared to unwrap the frivolous to find the show’s real ambitions inside.
Given its many flaws in plot, pacing and dialogue, this may seem like unreasonable praise that reads too much into diet TV. It’s true, Riverdale is often silly, but what it does with its remodelling of a 75-year history is revolutionary. While remaining true to its brand, the show diversifies every character and introduces a whopping range of people, demonstrating awareness of deeper social implications than it has time to unravel in the first season.
Josie and the Pussycats, a staple of the Archie Comics universe, are revamped as a talented and career-driven trio of African American girls who are acutely aware of how race applies to everything they do and achieve. In order to even jam with them, Archie has to prove his intrinsic moral worth, and Veronica is only permitted to join by the band’s manager – Josie’s mum (Robin Givens) and mayor of Riverdale – because of her Latina heritage.
Kevin Keller (Casey Cott) is openly gay, as he is in the comics, but is allowed to be more than a token. As the sheriff’s son, he acts as both informant and level-headed law advisor to the central cast and their mystery solving, as well as helping them make connections with the South Side Serpent gang when he starts dating one of their younger members.
Cheryl Blossom (Madelaine Petsch), twin sister of the deceased Jason, was expunged from the Betty and Veronica comics series in the 80s for being too sexual for children, but has popped up a few times since. In Riverdale her sexuality is implied through costume and contrast, her red lips and hair often standing out of delicate clothes of pure angel-white. Contrasting with her power colour red, white is used at various times to show something sinister in Cheryl’s innocence, the matching outfit of her brother emphasising Veronica’s thrown accusation of “twincest”. What’s most interesting about this character though is her poise.
When bad things happen to her, she rarely shows emotion, turning up to school and channeling her grief and rage into wider ranging power grabs. Cheryl isn’t cold, she is calm. A gated fire fuelled by antagonism and pain. Madelaine Petsch’s grace and complexion are a symbol of all this, like blood in snow.
At the risk of this becoming an IMDb cast list, the character that is central to understanding the motives of Riverdale is its narrator and framing device, Jughead.
From the beginning, Jughead is the person concerned with the bigger picture, and this mysterious fall of a town into sinful ruin. Living alone, away from his criminal father and absent mother, he impresses upon us that he has always been on the fringes of this small society, and so is perfectly placed to analyse for us from his perspective at the perimeter. Although we find out that he has always been close to Archie, there is a distance between the best friends at the beginning of the series, manufactured by Archie’s time bodybuilding at his dad’s construction company over the summer.
When the central murder occurs, Jughead is particularly isolated. Noticing the paint flaking away to reveal the town’s truths and troubles, he starts writing a book about the demise of Riverdale through the lies that are revealed when Jason’s body is dragged from the river. Astute and nonconformist as the character has always been, Cole Sprouse’s incarnation is nevertheless darker and more motivated than his comic book counterpart, drawn into the teen angst portion of the show by his connection to the friends that will help him solve the murder.
What makes him more compelling than his classmates is his more reasonable apportioning of his arc’s stakes. With the show not currently tackling the asexual and aromantic versions of the character from the comics, beginning a love affair with Betty means more to Jughead, an essentially homeless boy, than any of Archie’s inevitable conquests. Betty is held up as the perfect girl, and, even as he embraces her “darkness” and kisses her self-harmed hands, he harbours a genuine belief that he doesn’t deserve her. Despite all the things that he can see from being the “weirdo” outsider that is his label, he is still caught in the show’s running theme of children paying for the sins of their parents, even as he exposes it.
For, above everything else, Riverdale is completely self-aware. It’s hard to get mad at it for flapping around stereotypes and using convenient plot points when it’s just as likely to have a character mock them in the next beat. Open about its influences – including Twin Peaks and Gossip Girl – to the point where its entire adult cast is made up of 80s cult heroes, the dialogue is shamelessly referential to pop culture and literature in a way that would make Buffy the Vampire Slayer’s head turn. It’s a fun connection to the characters that shows they have lives outside of prom and homicide, as well as further informing their personalities through taste and intellect.
Acknowledging its potential for the supernatural elements of the Archie Comics universe that gave us Sabrina the Teenage Witch and the appearance of some hostile undead, Riverdale is somehow outside of time. Although its teenagers have mobile phones and knowledge of “season 4 Betty Draper” and Making a Murderer, a lot of the set pieces – school furniture, Pop’s diner, Molly Ringwald – are nostalgic for other decades. We’re allowed to treat this town – where the classes are jumbled into single public spaces and its main export only affects the professional lives of the family that controls it – as a fairy tale.
Folk tales are all about social anxiety, which is one of the reasons they changed so much with each re-telling. The Archie legacy has done the same for the last 75 years in the US. Its peculiar premise of a doomed town that acts as corruption personified is perhaps a side eye to the all-American ideal that even wonderboy Captain America has escaped. A deep and enjoyable challenge to the idea of making America great again.
Title image courtesy of The CW and Archie Comics.