My love for Archie comics may be new, but it’s deep and undying. I came in with Mark Waid and Fiona Staples’ updated take on the Riverdale crew in 2015, and with the launch of Chip Zdarksy and Erica Henderson’s Jughead I was officially obsessed. Today an Archie fanatic can indulge in Betty and Veronica, Reggie and Me, Josie and the Pussycats, and a digital-first Life with Kevin, not to mention the upcoming Sabrina the Teenage Witch relaunch. What really kicked off the reboot, however, was Roberto Aguirre-Sacasa’s Afterlife with Archie, a series that not only propelled the publisher to new heights but Aguirre-Sacasa himself. He’s now both the COO of the comics company as well as the creator/executive producer of CW’s newest sensation, Riverdale.
Despite being left relatively unchanged for most of its run, the Archie multiverse is surprisingly adaptable. Whether adding zombies, battling the Predator, or shifting to the small screen, the charm and heart always remain true. Riverdale is more than just a Twin Peaks-ified Archie. Layers of Stand By Me and River’s Edge roughen up the edges of the typical CW teen melodrama, like peering at the seedy underbelly of the ‘burbs. But it’s also so much more than a gritty reboot with Dawson’s Creek-esque dialogue.
Riverdale opens with a suspicious death and ends with a terrible murder. In between that is a whole lotta teen romance, high school politics, and parental scheming, spiced up with hotties looking hot. The death of Jason Blossom kicks everything off, but like Laura Palmer in Twin Peaks, the show is less concerned with investigating his death and more with how our protagonists deal with the ramifications of it. Everyone has secrets, adults and kids alike, and the quaint little town of Riverdale isn’t as pleasant as it seems.
The arrival of Veronica Lodge and her mother Hermione stirs the pot even more. The Lodge women are fleeing bad press in New York after Hiram goes to jail for embezzlement. Veronica plays at being a nice girl, but the lure of Archie’s chiseled jaw and enticing sixpack all but guarantee a love triangle between them and good girl Betty. But Betty also isn’t what she appears. Everyone thinks she’s square, but there’s an exciting young woman just waiting to break free. If you read the relaunched Archie comic you’ll recognize the character highlights, and it remains to be seen how much the show is willing to push boundaries.
Archie is still a small-town dork with a guitar and a keen interest in sports, but now he’s a dork with abs you could crush ice with. Thing is, Archie was never what made his comics so fun. He only pops as a character when he interacts with other more intriguing characters. It’s easy enough to brush past his white-bread-and-mayonnaise-sandwich personality on the page (especially when drawn by Fiona Staples and Veronica Fish), but in an hour-long drama it’s nearly impossible to ignore. K.J. Apa certainly looks the part of Archie, improbably red hair and all, but he can’t really do much with a character whose defining traits are “hot” and “brooding”. I couldn’t tell you what kind of person Archie is here, and I don’t think the show knows either. This seems like it’s going to be one of those shows where the protagonist exists to tie everyone together but who’s constantly sidelined by more appealing supporting characters.
Lili Reinhart’s Betty and Camila Mendes’ Veronica are thoroughly engaging. Out of all the Riverdale characters, Betty and Veronica get the most fleshing out in the pilot, both as independent characters and as girls at the start of a rocky friendship. We can see why they’d be attracted to each other and why those same traits would push them apart. They also have chemistry in spades, more even than with Archie, the boy with whom both girls are supposed to be obsessed. Count on AO3 and Tumblr to be inundated with Betty/Veronica femslash very soon.
In the pilot Cole Sprouse gets very little to do as Jughead other than look emo while typing on a laptop. He appears only briefly in the beginning and end, contributes nothing to the plot, and gets no character development. Smithers has more to do than Jughead. It looks like he’ll play a larger role as the season progresses, but if your only knowledge of Jughead was the pilot then I could forgive you for thinking him a minor character. It’s implied there’s a schism between Jughead and Archie, which explains why the two former besties never hang out. And I’m not sure I’m cool with that. Archie and Jughead go together like Betty and Veronica. Plus, giving him a friend who doesn’t want to get in his pants would give Archie some much needed space to become his own character rather than simply reacting to everyone else.
I need to pause here for a moment and mourn the loss of ace/aro Jughead. He is the only openly asexual and aromantic character in comics right now. Moreover, he carries no baggage about his orientation, isn’t constantly undergoing one identity crisis after another, and isn’t subject to harassment, rejection, or microaggressions. He’s open and confident and everyone respects that. Never once does he fall into ace/aro stereotypes. Queer representation on television is still pretty much limited to (white) homosexuality with the occasional trans character or bisexuals who never say the “b” word (unless you’re Darryl from Crazy Ex-Girlfriend), but there are no ace/aro characters at all. Think of all the rich, untapped stories Riverdale could tell! But no, he’s just another cis-het white dude. Maybe I’m taking it so hard because I’m also ace/aro and am desperate for more positive representation. Hopefully Cole Sprouse and I will get our wish for queer Riverdale!Jughead, but for now I’m wallowing in disappointment.
It does seem a bit odd that a CW teen drama would somehow be less sexually progressive than a comic book seven decades old, yet here we are. Where Archie handles dating, sex, and romance with depth and wit, Riverdale plays with gay tropes and falls back on queerbaiting Betty and Veronica. It acts like pairing up Archie and his music teacher Miss Grundy is sexy, but it has the exact opposite effect. What happened between them wasn’t two attractive people hooking up in the back of a car. She’s in her thirties and he’s 15. That’s statutory rape and it really needs to stop being treated like some consensual fling over summer break. I hated that storyline in Dawson’s Creek and I hate it even more 19 years later. If it were Mr. Grundy and Betty we’d all be screaming and it’s infuriating we aren’t doing it now that it’s a teenage boy and his hot teacher. Rape is rape no matter the genders of the assaulter and the victim. The sooner the show either deals with the trauma of his assault or drops the storyline entirely the better.
Furthermore, even disregarding Jughead’s network-enforced straightness, Kevin Keller (Casey Cott) is unpleasantly retrograde as Betty’s Gay Best Friend. He’s not so much a character as her accessory. Is he the only out queer student at Riverdale? Is that why he was willing to settle for no-strings-attached fooling around with “closet-case” Moose? If so, I want to see how that affects him. I want his identity to be about him, not as a tool for exploring Betty. Riverdale needs to get a lot better very quickly in how it portrays sexual relationships and identities.
Riverdale is peak CW. It is everything the CW does – good and bad – cranked up to eleven. You’ve seen this show before and you’ll see it again, but that doesn’t make it any less worth watching. If you like teen melodramas and Archie comics as much as I do then Riverdale is right up your alley. Easter eggs for the comics abound, as do winks at 90s teen dramas. Luke Perry plays Fred Andrews, Archie’s dad, and Mädchen Amick is Betty’s overbearing mom Alice. Both got famous for their own teen roles, and the genes from those shows run in Riverdale.
While the pilot isn’t as strong as it could be, it’s still a solid debut that lays a decent foundation. There’s plenty of intrigue to last several seasons at least and a large enough cast to keep the romance bubbling and unrequited without stretching patience or credulity. The genre elements are fairly compelling, with hints of getting even more Twin Peaks turned Gossip Girl as time goes on. Greg Berlanti, the showrunner for all of the CW’s DC shows as well as for two of the best WB teen dramas, Everwood and Dawson’s Creek, is on as executive producer, and his experienced, steady hand should keep Riverdale chugging along just fine.
- I’m curious to see how they pursue the Blossom family story. In Aguirre-Sacasa’s Afterlife with Archie there’s a subplot about incestuous sexual assault that leads to one Blossom’s brutal death. Given how they’re circling around some of Waid’s plots from the Archie relaunch, they might be pilfering from the non-canon stuff as well.
- I never want to have a female character introduced by showing her in her underwear ever again. Knock it off, male writers. It’s creepy and weird.
- Like every teen melodrama, none of the actors look, sound, or behave like actual teenagers. I work with high school students all day, every day, and if the script is any indication none of the writers have even talked to one in years. When Cheryl told Veronica to follow her on Twitter and I nearly spit out my tea. Instagram or Snapchat totally, but Twitter? Come on, writers.
- This show doesn’t have nearly enough Jughead in it. How can you put out an Archie show and not have Jughead cracking jokes or eating burgers? It’s sacrilegious.
- Furthermore, Jughead and his narration need some serious work going forward. Ostensibly his voiceover is the novel he’s writing, but the tone is way too omniscient for something he’s supposed to be crafting contemporaneously with the events on the show.
- I do miss the Archie from the comics, a goofball who fumbles literally everything and relies on Jughead to point him in the right direction. This Archie could use some dunderheadedness to liven him up a bit.
- Dawson’s Creek premiered 19 years ago. Christ, I’m old.
Alex Brown is a teen librarian, writer, geeknerdloserweirdo, and all-around pop culture obsessive who watches entirely too much TV. Keep up with her every move on Twitter and Instagram, or get lost in the rabbit warren of ships and fandoms on her Tumblr.