A show about high school, played by adults, and written by teenagers.
(Spoilers? Meh, it’s impossible to spoil chaos. But anyway, this covers ground up to the first few episodes of the fourth season. This isn’t a review for deciding if you should watch a show, it’s if you want to indulge in thinking about a show way more than the writers of that show do.)
It’s the worst and best show out right now. I totally recommend that you watch it except that if you did and then wondered what the fuck was wrong with me, I wouldn’t blame you. It’s a perfect guilty pleasure, full of hot people and constant action and drama and weirdness so that it’s never boring. At the same time, just about nothing that ever happens makes any kind of sense in terms of “believability”. But that’s only an issue if you’re worried about things like “continuity” and “purpose.”
I mean, just to list an unsatisfyingly small fraction of the things that have happened on the show, there’s been a serial killer, a heated sexual affair between a teacher and a teenage student, secret societies, a whole bizarre anachronistic story line about an evil role playing game that makes people commit ritual suicide, wars between rival gangs, underground fighting rings, prison breaks, multiple murders and deaths including one in the middle of a school play, criminal real estate practises, a cult that maybe kind of reanimates the dead, class warfare, a fight with a bear... That’s just a taste of the variety of scenes going on here. In tone, it’s been a mystery, a high school musical, a softcore porn, an action adventure, a psychological thriller, a political intrigue, a road movie, and, again, more. So much more. You might watch it and think it’s stupid, but you can’t watch it and complain that not enough is happening.
It also features a lot of what I feel is one of the most amusing things to happen in any teenage drama, which is teenagers taking on adult responsibilities and the adults around them taking them seriously. At the start of season four it’s made clear the main cast are going into their senior year of high school, which puts them at about seventeen, and means when this show began they’d be sixteen or maybe fifteen.
One of the characters, Veronica, is running a fully functional speak easy, an off license bar and club that features gambling, cabarets, and conditional approval by local law. I mean… a seventeen year old girl is the sole proprietor of a fully functioning night club, and no one bats an eye. Instead, people negotiate deals with her plan events there, interacting with her as they would any other adult at any normal establishment. Another character, Betty, writes for the school newspaper, but she’s breaking stories about local homicides and corruption in city hall. For a while at least, Jughead, becomes the head of a gang that traffics drugs and has members in their thirties and forties. Sometimes they question his leadership, but never because he’s a sixteen year old boy, but because of the merits of his strategic decisions.
The only way this doesn’t look patently ridiculous is that of course all the actors are in their mid twenties, so they have a certain gravitas about them. Otherwise, you would probably be confronted more with the realization that adults should be more dismissive of their antics. The kind of thing these “kids” get away with is, for example, cops will show up at a murder scene and these “kids” go right into spouting theories of who did it and why, and they’re not simply told to just shut the fuck up. I mean, I’m not saying that teenagers shouldn’t be listened to. I’m saying, if a sixteen year old has evidence to provide about a murder case, you take them down to the station and write down what they have to say. You don’t let them start calling shots at a crime scene. Hell, you shouldn’t let adults do that.
Not only do these “kids” go around taking on adult responsibilities as a matter of course, they also just casually commit felonies like they were silly school pranks. In one scene, sixteen year old Betty, in an evil alternate identity defined by wearing a black haired wig, traps a “boy”, by which I mean a very large and well built adult man, in a jacuzzi, and tortures him by handcuffing him and holding his head under the water. I mean, that’s a pretty hardcore crime that could be the kind of news that would be a salacious story to pass around on social media. Sexy teenage girl with split personality waterboards hunky high school football player? It doesn’t get handled like the criminal offense that it is, it’s just sort of argued about in school hallways with about the same amount of concern that you would have for discovering somebody stole a textbook from someone else’s locker.
I grew up reading Archie comics, which is what Riverdale is based on, very, very loosely. Archie comics have been around since the forties, and up until the last ten years or so, were a sort of silly, light hearted take on teenage dating. Archie Andrews, the titular main character, was constantly pursuing girls with reckless abandon, but with a sort of innocence to it all. The furthest he ever seemed to want to go was kissing, and there wasn’t even the hint of nuance between the lines for a wiser reader that there could be more to it. I mean, you would assume that Archie wanted to fuck Betty and Veronica, just based on what you know about the world and teenagers and humans and sexuality. But all of that just isn’t in the comics. Archie stares at their bodies longingly and if he’s lucky they make out with him and never go past first base.
This show has taken a lot of the characters from that world and placed them into a more adult take. In this show, these teenagers are fucking. A lot. What carries over from the comics are only the broadest archetyptical foundations from which to evolve new characters. It’s kind of a whole new thing, so there’s no real discussion to be had about whether the show is “better” or “worse” than the source material. In fact, Archie Comics, who publish a variety of titles using these characters, have been experimenting with different art styles and narrative types in their comic books as well, so this show can be seen as just part of the broader attempt to make the universe of Archie stay relevant and appeal to more varied sensibilities. Which was long overdue. By the time I was reading Archie as a kid, teenagers going on dates to get milkshakes at the malt shop was already anachronistic, and the excess of innocence was suspicious even to my completely non-worldly ten year old brain.
At the same time, you have to recognize that Archie Comics has managed to stay alive and appealing since 1941, when the character of Archie first appeared in Pep Comics. There’s something there that works, that reaches across generations and can weather different interpretations. If I were to try and think about this show, which I usually don’t, because that would only detract from all the pretty people running around doing ridiculous things, the question I would wonder is, does this show manage to find that magic at the core and carry it over into a new manifestation?
As much as I enjoy the show, I think they missed out on one of the most fundamental premises built into Archie that has been a key component to its longevity. Probably the one thing that made Archie comics so endearing for so long was the love triangle between Archie, Betty, and Veronica.
It was obvious why Archie wanted to get with Betty or Veronica. They, like every girl or woman drawn by Dan DeCarlo, the artist who defined the art style for Archie Comics, were busty bombshells. But it wasn’t just a matter of looks. Betty was the archetype of the girl next door, tomboyish at times, but strong willed, fun to be around, and down to earth. Veronica was the femme fatale, sexy and selfish, exciting but dangerous. They had a yin and yang kind of complementary opposition, where both were completely different but equally appealing options.
As much as Archie lusted after Betty and Veronica, they seemed just as keen to be with him. Betty was a little more overtly interested, but even though Veronica was more aloof, she clearly wanted it to be her choice who Archie dated. Why Archie was so appealing to the two girls was always a bit of a mystery. Unlike other similar narratives, Archie isn’t the typical bland every man who often stands in for male reader’s fantasies of managing to get with women out of their league in spite of not having much to offer. Although Archie is portrayed mostly as kind of a bumbling fool for comedic effect, he’s not a social outcast or loser. He plays just about every sport known to man, especially American Football. He plays music, he stands up to bullies, he’s at all the parties, he has a core group of friends, and seems to be well liked by all his peers at school. So in one sense he’s not unappealing, but he lacks the clarity of character that Betty and Veronica have. Archie is whatever the plot needs him to be for whatever little vignette from life in Riverdale is happening.
Still, whether in spite of or because of Archie’s inconsistent character, his constant wavering between Betty and Veronica is one of the most iconic love triangles in modern pop culture.
A love triangle made all the more interesting by the fact that Betty and Veronica are best friends. Granted, the comics can get away with a lot because of its short vignette format. In one story, Betty and Veronica are sabotaging each other to be with Archie, in another they are a duo on an adventure together, and the stories are too simplistic to bother with justifying one situation in the context of the other. Still, overall, as a reader one takes away the idea that Betty and Veronica are good friends who have to deal with the complicated issue of both liking the same person. That’s a really interesting dynamic that could have been played out with more nuance and depth in the medium of a TV show, and I would have loved to see that.
Unfortunately, that classic love triangle and all its intricacies are completely missing in this show. There was some hint of it a little at the start, but it got dropped quickly. Given that struggling relationships can be the backbone of shows for a decade, like Ross and Rachel on Friends, a good love triangle could potentially fuel a show almost indefinitely. But this show just drops all that potential, and without it, I feel the characters drift into vagueness. Not just the characters who would have been in the triangle, but around it as well.
I think the show made a good choice in completely abandoning the bumbling aspect of Archie’s character in the comics, and honed in on him more as a leap before you look do-gooder. He’s serious, sexy, and has an unshakable moral code. It makes sense why this Archie would be someone two girls might compete over. So… why aren’t they?
The actress they have playing Betty is pitch perfect. Somehow even though the original drawings are very cartoonish, she looks like how I imagine Betty to be. She’s smoking hot, but conveys that girl next door approachability. They’ve written her as strong, stubborn, and relentless in her pursuit of justice. She’s extremely compelling.
And then there’s Veronica, the corner of the triangle that falls down. Nothing against the actress. She’s fine, I guess, though, if I’m being honest, she doesn’t match my image from the comics anywhere near as accurately as the actress they got for Betty.
Veronica, in the comics, if I can be more crass than the comics ever were, is the kind of bitch that you want to fuck. She manipulates people and causes trouble, but somehow it’s fun and mischievous and ultimately forgivable. In this show, we find out in the early episodes that Veronica was some kind of trouble maker at her previous school just before transferring to Riverdale High. But, because of vaguely hinted at and never clearly defined fallout from that earlier behaviour, when we, the audience, meet her, she’s trying to be a better person. Nothing less fun than hearing about a character that sounds like she would have been interesting to watch sometime before the time we get to watch them. Don’t tell me you used to be bad, let me see it happen. Anyway, she’s got this moral compass thing going on, so she’s not that much different from Betty. There’s no yin and yang, there’s no strong archetype.
Veronica’s all the more lost as a character because the show makers decided to come out of the gate including another character from the Archie comics universe, Cheryl. Cheryl was brought into the comics after many decades of Archie wavering between Betty and Veronica. The idea was that she would be this person that Archie could fall for and make Betty and Veronica jealous. My guess is that someone thought it was time to mix things up, but personally, I think it was a solution to a problem that no one was having. Also, I think Dan DeCarlo just had a thing for red heads and wanted to draw one. In any case, Cheryl’s character was defined by how she wasn’t Betty or Veronica, and knowing more about what a character isn’t than what they are isn’t very interesting.
In the TV show, Cheryl has a very clear and strong character. She’s the kind of bitch that you want to fuck. She manipulates people and causes trouble, but somehow it’s fun and mischievous and ultimately forgivable. A femme fatale, sexy and selfish, exciting but dangerous. In other words, she’s everything that Veronica is in the comics.
Archie is Archie, Betty is Betty, Cheryl is Veronica, and Veronica is kind of nobody particular. Which, I’m kind of bummed about it, because Veronica was my favourite character.
Unfortunately, without the classic triangle at the core of the show, it causes instability throughout.
The other super iconic character from the comics is the classic woman hating Jughead. When I say “woman hating”, that’s using his own literal words from the comics, but he was never some kind of mysoginist as we might think of those words in a modern context. Those words had different implications when he said them in the fifties. He was just adamant about not dating. He liked eating food and hanging out with Archie. Women, to Jughead, were this kind of mildly annoying thing that would distract his buddy Archie now and again. Jughead was never hostile to Betty or Veronica, just mostly indifferent if it was comedic, and a good supportive friend of theirs if the moral of the story was on how friends should be.
It seems to me a no brainer that if you wanted to bring this world of Archie into a more modern context, then you’d bring Jughead out of the closet. He could be Archie’s gay friend without anyone even commenting on it, and boom, total progressive win. You wouldn’t have Jughead have any attraction for Archie because that would be stereotyping gay men as being indiscriminate about their affections and unable to have a straight friendship. So, just as he does in the comics, Jughead is on the sidelines of the triangle where he can comment on it dispassionately, and as a bonus you get some nice progressive representation.
In this show, a straight Jughead hooks up for the long term with Betty. Which would annoy me more if it weren’t for the fact that the guy they’ve got playing Jughead is undeniably right for the part. Other than what I think is a disappointing lack of gayness, the way they’ve written him as a misanthropic rebel who’s a little smarter than everyone else feels very right for the character. I like Jughead in this show. I just kind of wish he wasn’t dating the person who could have been part of a more dynamic tension with other characters.
The next most iconic character from the comics is Reggie. Reggie is well done in the show, in that he’s an arrogant jerk while still compelling, but he’s so under used. In the comics, Reggie was always there to pick up the slack if Archie fumbled with Betty or Veronica, though Reggie was clearly more interested in Veronica. However, repeating myself I know, but, without any triangle, Reggie doesn’t matter as much.
In the comics, he was a rival and villain to Archie, sure, but he wasn’t technically doing anything wrong by trying to win over the girls that Archie was struggling to be with. He just created a distinct pressure for Archie to up his game. Here, in this show, Archie is locked in with Veronica long term, and any attempt Reggie makes to intrude on that makes him look like an asshole for trying to steal another guy’s girlfriend. Less compelling, less interesting.
In place of Reggie, in this show, Archie’s main rival is Veronica’s father, Mr Lodge. And Mr Lodge, before we even get to his relationship with Archie, doesn’t sit very well with me.
For diversity, they decided to make the Lodge family Hispanic. Latin? I’m not sure the right term. In any case, it’s fine, I guess. Veronica’s Mother, Hermione, is a welcome addition in that she’s a non-entity in the comics, but here in this show she’s a dimensionalized character on top of being smoking hot. My male gaze out of the way, the issues start with the decision to make Mr Lodge the head of a criminal empire. In one way, we’re supposed to be post racial and say that we shouldn’t avoid casting a non white person as a criminal, but on the other hand, because the character in the comics is neither Latin or criminal, making both choices seems bound to each other. One or the other, and no problem. But together? Are they connected somehow?
Archie comics has long had an issue with simplistic tokenism when it comes to characters, but for better or worse, there are already multiple character types in the comics that could be brought to the show to give it the diversity it needs. I think maybe instead of changing characters up, they could have instead given more importance and depth to the ones available, which is what they did with Archie Comics’ resident token gay guy, Kevin. His character in the show works for the most part.
Instead, some of the switches they made put awkward questions on the table that didn’t need to be there. For example, in this show they’ve included Josie and the Pussycats, an all girl rock band that were in their own separate eponymous comic book, but still part of the same universe. They’re just sort of extras in this show, and, again, seemingly in the service of diversity, they’re all black. The original Josie and the Pussycats had a member who was black already, but in any case, even if I can believe it was everyone’s intention to be progressive and inclusive, I can’t help but have questions. They decided to cast these particular characters as black as opposed to other options because… they’re musicians…?
Anyway, vague-enough-to-be-non-existent-except-that-I can’t-seem-to-just-dismiss-them racial issues aside, Mr Lodge’s relationship to Archie is ultimately empty. In the comics, Mr Lodge hates Archie because he thinks Archie is not good enough for his daughter, as fathers stereotypically do. And given Archie’s accident prone bumbling nature, which of course was in full effect most in front of Mr Lodge for comedic effect, Mr Lodge can be seen as having a point. In the comics, Veronica might well wonder if her father is right, which creates a dynamic tension. Villains, if we can call Mr Lodge that from Archie’s perspective, are always more interesting when they have at least some rationale that the audience can see the merits of.
In the show, Mr Lodge more or less hates Archie for kind of the same reason, that Veronica should be dating someone more equal to her in terms of class status. The problem is that in this show, Mr Lodge is a convicted criminal responsible for widespread suffering and I think even some deaths. So he has no moral high ground or even moral level ground to be assessing anyone else. Also, in this show Archie is not the accident prone bumbling fool he is in the comics. Archie being so good and Mr Lodge being so bad make it so there’s no tension within Veronica about which way she should go. It’s obvious she should ignore her father and be with Archie. As a result, all of Mr Lodge’s attempts to do something about Archie being with his daughter seem destined to fail from the start.
It’s just another lost opportunity for dramatic tension on a more core level that the show could have inherited from the comics but decided not to. Without those fundamental dynamics in place, the show almost has no choice but to constantly distract you with a constant barrage of extreme fleeting circumstances.
And at that, they succeed. I love watching the show for all its outrageousness and out of control narrative. And the hot and sexy people.
But I won’t really remember it after it stops running. After all, what’s to remember? Is there anything iconic here to carry over to the next incarnation? Or will whatever reboot or reinterpretation comes down the line years later return to the source material that has lasted for more than half a century?