I’ve been an Archie fan for as long as I can remember. It’s never been especially cool to be an Archie fan, especially not in the halcyon days of the 1990s where comics got grimmer, belts had more pouches and heroes that didn’t kill were wusses, but I have always thoroughly enjoyed the goofy pure charm that those characters exude. Archie has always felt like chicken noodle soup for me. A reminder of a pure, innocent time in my life that probably didn’t ever really exist except in half-remembered moments. As I grew up and my interests matured and got for lack of a better term darker, Archie stayed the same, pure, untouched, goofy and loveable. My interest waned but I could always count on them for some lighthearted reading.
Well, until the Archie renaissance that started a few years in 2010 with the Life With Archie revival piqued my interest and brought me back into the fold. Archie was still pure, but he was tackling more serious subject matter.
After that, the world of Archie mutated and got a bit darker.
Afterlife With Archie thrust the archetypical do-gooder Archie gang into a zombie apocalypse brought about by black magic and the death of Jughead’s dog Hot Dog. The dark Archie-verse grew with the release of Chilling Adventures of Sabrina. I am programmed at a biological level to reject grimdark turns taken by bright happy characters and yet I ate it up. I still do. Those stories work because those characters are so simple, pure and iconic that they can be placed into any story and have their character traits ring true. Riverdale is the next logical step in that direction.
On paper, Riverdale is absolutely tailor made for me. You take those strong character archetypes and you throw them into a world modeled after the Town With A Dark Secret trope that has been employed to great effect in some of my all time favorite pieces of fiction. The works of David Lynch, particularly Blue Velvet and Twin Peaks. The all-time great The X-Files episode “Our Town”. The works of HP Lovecraft. Put those loveable goofs with their easily definable characteristics in any of those worlds and you have something so definitively made for me that it almost borders on the comical. I was almost resentful of how thoroughly “My Shit” Riverdale looked to be that I couldn’t realistically believe it was going to actually work as well as it did in my head. But, it works. At least as far as the pilot is concerned, it works.
Riverdale is set in a contemporary Archie-verse that owes as much to the aforementioned Twin Peaks as it does the wholesome world of Riverdale. Set in the present, we have a Riverdale that has dark secrets, interconnected characters and the requisite drama one has to expect from a CW show. This summer Cheryl Blossom and her twin brother Jason went out for an early morning boat ride, as rich and vaguely incestuous twins (and explicitly incestuous in Afterlife With Archie) are wont to do. Jason didn’t come back. What happened on the lake remains shrouded in mystery and provides, at least as of the pilot, the primary inciting incident for our gaze into these characters lives.
The strongest facet of the show thus far is how true to the feel of the characters and their world the show rings, while also oozing darkness and small town mediocrity in equal parts. The show has definitely succeeded at organically integrating those archetypical character shapes into a real, breathing world. It’s succeeding at establishing the character relationships and how they fit together while adding something new to them. Sometimes that new thing is just making them real world flesh and blood teenagers and sometimes that thing is characters doing decidedly grimdark things that their Archie Digest counterparts would never have dreamed of.
Riverdale, which early reviews have lovingly compared to Twin Peaks, legitimately does feel like Twin Peaks Archie or at least something in that vicinity. Riverdale seems to be doing for the CW show what Twin Peaks did for the soap opera. Distilling its ridiculous premise down to refined, weapons-grade crazy and letting it lampoon itself while also being something completely fresh and strange.
As I’ve said, it’s easy to reduce the Archie gang to their most core traits, after all, that’s how the gang has been so readily able to shift genres as well as they have in recent years. You’ve got serious Archie, horror Archie, and of course the core billion or so number of Archie stories that have been told over the last 75 years. The gang works because they’re the prototypical all-American gaggle of kids.
Historically you’ve had the indecisive, clumsy and charming Archie. Forever torn between the possibility of two great loves and easily distracted by flavor of the month girls in tennis skirts, flavor of the month girls on roller skates and well, just girls in general. Betty, all-American girl next door. One of the boys. Blossoming into a young woman and pining for her neighbor and childhood best friend Archie. A great friend, a good heart, and exceptionally beautiful if frequently grease stained. Veronica, the new girl in town. Richer than sin and twice as beautiful, she swoops in and becomes queen bee and catches the eye of Archie Andrews, much to Betty’s chagrin.
The two strike up the all-time greatest frenemy relationship a full 11 years before the term found its way into the world via American gossip columnist Walter Winchel of the Nevada State Journal and a full 56 years before Sex and the City brought it to the suburbs. Jughead, the pre-Shaggy. Loyal, loveable and single-minded in his appreciation of a good meal. Etc. You get it. Everyone knows these people. Whether you know them personally or have simply come across the ten thousand pop cultural offspring of them, you know them.
Those characters, or at least the cooked down and purified versions of what makes them, well, them, have made it to CW’s Riverdale, and the show is better for it. It’s going to be a balancing act. How dark can you make these characters and their interactions while remaining recognizably true to their core characterization? Does it matter? If so, to what extent? Can you organically and realistically convince me Archie is having sex with a teacher and have that not sour his all-American charm? As of right now, the answer seems to be, “Yes, you can make Archie have a consensual sexual relationship with a teacher and have him come out still feeling like Archie.” I’m almost at a loss as to how it’s doing that, but it works. Ultimately, although the series never strays too far into the kind of explicit sexual content that you might find on adult entertainment websites like collegeporn.xxx, Riverdale is unapolgetically unafraid to deal with matters of sex and sexuality in an authentic way.
On the technical side of things, the cinematography is absolutely stunning for a CW show, or for any television show for that matter. This is a product of love, with a big enough budget to really let its ridiculous premise shine. Riverdale looks like something you’d be more apt to find on HBO or Showtime. It’s beautiful. The actors all feel like their characters, even Hot Archie (as the internet has dubbed him). The eyebrows on this show are unbelievable, y’all. It’s eyebrow city on Riverdale. More great eyebrows than you can shake a stick at. My early favorite is Jughead, played by Cole Sprouse (The Suite Life of Zack and Cody), who somehow manages to pull off the Jughead crown and still look brooding. I think, in a nutshell, that’s what Riverdale is. That’s the litmus test for enjoyment: Cole Sprouse looking brooding in a hamburger restaurant while wearing a crown. That’s the show distilled down to its most essential elements. If you can work with that, Riverdale is a show for you.
My only complaints come in the form of pop culture references and distracting music. Admittedly, pop culture references are the hallmark and touchstone of the way millennials (myself included) talk, and I’m willing to give the show a bit of a pass because most of those references are to Mad Men. It just may cause the show to age more poorly than it would likely want to. The music is very, very CW though. That’s a disclaimer I’ve got to put here. I can live with this sort of thing when watching MTV Scream though, so I can live with it here as well. Don’t judge me.
As far as what the show is actually doing, besides being Sexy Dangerous Archie, I have thoroughly enjoyed what I’ve seen so far. Having Archie serve as a reflection of the mysteriously dead James Blossom is an interesting start to the show. Redhead. Number nine on the varsity team. In the opening shots of the pilot, I wasn’t sure that I wasn’t seeing Archie. That can’t be accidental. The organic way they’ve brought Betty and Veronica together. The strained distance between Archie and Jughead. The verboten sexuality, the unseemly secrets under the surface, and the reveal at the end of the episode all give me hope that Sexy Dangerous Archie can work.
If Riverdale can keep me as excited as this first episode did, I’ll be in it for the long haul.