Archie Andrews and the rest of the gang have been kicking around comics since 1941. And for most of that 76 year history, Archie Comics has played it straight. Archie is the All-American boy next door: He plays sports, he’s interested in music, he has several girls on hand to date but in an innocent way that never gets more serious than a shared chocolate malt or a chaste kiss. Betty Cooper is the blonde bombshell who also happens to be a tomboy. Veronica Lodge is her foil, a spoiled, high-maintenance brunette with a good heart. The comic rounds out the cast with Archie’s best friend and hamburger-inhaler Jughead Jones and array of secondary characters that embody broad archetypes such as the “Jerk with a heart of Gold” (Reggie Mantle, and to a degree Cheryl Blossom), the “teen genius” (Dilton Doiley), and, most recently, the “gay best friend” (Kevin Keller). Over the decades, these wholesome embodiments of 1950s Americana became part of our collective consciousness but, as time marched onward, they also became increasingly quaint and outdated.
But the thing about broad strokes characters like the Archie gang is they’re ripe for examination and subversion. Which is exactly what happened when Archie Comics debuted the delightfully sinister Afterlife With Archie zombie series in 2013. The ongoing series upends the Archie narrative, expanding the darker personality traits of the cast and in the process rebirthing Archie Comics as comic publisher capable of balancing different tones for different audiences. The Chilling Adventures of Sabrina and a reboot of the entire Archie universe quickly followed the success of Afterlife, deftly setting the stage for multiple “Elseworld” interpretations, including the new CW show Riverdale.
Having watched the first four episodes of Riverdale, I can say the description of Dawson’s Creek-meets-Twin Peaks is more than accurate. It won’t be a show for everyone — including Archie purists — but if you enjoy Afterlife with Archie for picking apart the characters to see what makes their core personalities tick, then Riverdale is for you. But while the rich visual palette and scandalous murder mystery set the backdrop for a subversive ride into psychological thriller, one throwaway moment from the first episode, “Chapter One: The River’s Edge,” stands out to me as having potential to shift the paradigm of one of Archie’s primary relationships: the kiss between Betty Cooper (Lili Reinhart) and Veronica Lodge (Camila Mendes). The kiss received coverage long before the series premiere and was even featured in the trailer, leaving fans who have long wished the girls would just ditch Archie and date each other hoping Riverdale was just off-the-beaten-path enough to allow the relationship to become canon in at least one form. But instead what we got was a gratuitous faux-lesbian kiss that, to add insult to injury, was the butt of a joke about how faux-lesbian kissing isn’t shocking anymore. However, the look on the faces of both Betty and Veronica as they disentangled from themselves left the door cracked open to explore the sliding scale of human sexuality in future episodes. It’s one I hope Riverdale chooses to explore.
I’ve spoken before the importance of queer representation in entertainment media. As a bisexual woman, it’s exhausting to see queer women used as either a scintillating moment of shock or given short, meaningful character arcs only to have them fall victim to the Bury Your Gays trope. A slightly hedonistic alternate universe interpretation of Archie Comics is the perfect place to explore queer sexuality, either by having Betty and Veronica fumble through the stages of a baby gay’s dawning realization they like girls or — even more “controversially” — using the ongoing love triangle between the girls and Archie Andrews to showcase a happy, functional polyamorous relationship on broadcast television.
Think about it. Archie, Betty, and Veronica have long been engaged in a slightly toxic polyamorous-lite relationship. Archie openly dates both girls, the girls remain friends even if tensions over Archie’s attention occasional boil over. The comic has even had storylines where Archie was on a date with both Betty and Veronica at the same time. One of the most iconic (and recreated) Archie covers off all time has the three characters sharing a milkshake. The groundwork is there. All Riverdale has to do is connect the dots.
But if that’s a little to out there for The CW, there’s always the fall back option: Betty and Veronica are queer. Riverdale has gone out of its way to say the girls are more than their relationship to Archie (K.J. Apa). With the titular redhead engaged in some illegal sexual shenanigans with Miss Grundy (Sarah Habel), Betty and Veronica are free to explore a friendship not predictive to their low-key feud over a boy. Normally this alone would be enough to satisfy me as nontoxic female friendships are few and far between on television, but after heavily promoting the gym kiss, settling for platonic friendship leaves me cold. In a world where faux-lesbianism is passé, so too is making it into a joke. Much like Chekov’s Gun, 21st century television needs to implement Chekov’s LGBT Kiss: Should two characters of the same gender kiss, it’s incumbent on the writers for that to mean something beyond cheap titillation of the audience for ratings. Queer characters deserve better.