Not Your Parent’s Comic Book
A New Look At Riverdale
Early in Kevin Smith’s seminal classic, Chasing Amy, Banky is discussing with a fellow comics artist the Archie Comics, saying that you couldn’t get more pure, wholesome entertainment. Then the co-artist tells him that Archie was one of the most pure closet cases he ever seen, and was secretly having an affair with Jughead. When Holden interjects that Archie never could seem to decide between Betty and Veronica, Banky angrily puts forth: “It’s because he was trying to get them in a three-way!” He then tried to convince us that Archie was “all about p — -y!”
One can’t help but look at the opening episodes of the CW’s latest comic reboot Riverdale, executive produced, like so many others, by Greg Berlanti, and wonder if the creators saw that movie and decided to base their series from there. Because the world of this series is so-far from the day-glo world that the Archie comics have been manufacturing for over 75 years, that one can only view it as satirical. It’s not just that Veronica kisses Betty as part of a cheerleader routine or that Archie ends up taking both girls to a prom that quickly reveals the darkness behind their relationship. Its that every pure impulse the series seemed to illustrate during its run has been subverted.. The cheerful Jughead has become the most cynical characters, trying to write a novel, and deeply detached from anything going on around him. Moose is a closeted homosexual. Reggie Mantle is Asian, and his swagger is far more bullying than anything we ever saw — he and Archie actually come to blows in the most recent episode. Miss Grundy is half the age of her comic book version, and has had a secret affair with Archie. Mr. Weatherbee is African American. Even the fringe characters seem even more darker than usual — Cherry seems to be a high school power broker, not even letting death lower her position. Did I mention the pilot involves the discovery of a murdered teenager?
All of this, by the way, I have no problem with. The Archie series was always one of the lower players in the comics universe, trying to stay light and wholesome with not even the lip service to the passage of time that was going on. (At least, before Archie died.. but like in all comic worlds, he got better.) The fact that the series seems tremendously self-aware, paying homage to all the WB series that have come before it (you can see the influence of Buffy and Dawson’s Creek) is actually an argument in its favor. The fact that it seems to owe more to Twin Peaks than Gotham is even more intriguing. There’s even a meta level when it comes to some of the casting: Luke Perry plays Archie’s father, Madchen Amick plays Betty’s really creepy mother, and Marisol Nichols plays a level of edginess as Hermione Lodge, a woman who has a level of history with both parents.
What remains to be seen is if any of this will actually work. We’ve seen certain levels of this kind of drama with so many series in the past that frankly the only major difference between this show and say, Desperate Housewives, is that this is fundamentally set in a high school. The level of meta and self-awareness in the dialogue is well-done, but it does have a tendency to go towards purple prose at times (particularly in the narration of Jughead) which barely seemed acceptable when you heard on the X-Files. And what seems to be a fundamental mystery of the series — the murder of Cherry’s twin brother Justin, seems something closer to what we’ve seen on far too many series in the past.
But the fact remains Riverdale, in tone and approach, is different from a lot of the series on network TV, even the CW comic book based series that make up half the schedules. One wonders if it has the same fan base to make up even the marginal audience that all of the comic book based series on TV seem to have, given the level of darkness that wouldn’t be out of place on True Detective. But its definitely engaging and a cutting tongue and cheek rebuke to all those teen dramas that used to make up this network. My advice: go to Pops, get a corner booth, order a milkshake, and plug in. This isn’t your parent’s Archie, and I mean that in the best possible way.
My score: 3.75 stars.