For most of their 76 years of existence, Archie, Betty, Veronica, and the rest of the gang from Riverdale have been among the most static ongoing characters in popular culture. The situations, conflicts, and characterizations stuck to such a strict formula that the only way a reader might be able to differentiate a story written 1952 from one written in 1972 to one from the early ’90s would be from the fashions. (And even there, progress was slow, particularly for the guys.)
And yet, the world of Archie and its characters have proven surprisingly elastic when the occasion called for it. In the ’60s, Archie became the frontman of his own rock band, The Archies, who (after getting their own cartoon show) scored a real-life number one hit with “Sugar, Sugar,” while an early ’70s cartoon sent sister band Josie and the Pussycats into outer space. (For that matter, the Archie universe has room for Sabrina the Teenage Witch.) Over the years in the comics, the kids have been spies and superheroes, faced off against both the Punisher and the Predator, and were even the unofficial inspiration for a great arc (“Last of the Innocent”) of the noir comic Criminal, which more or less imagined what would happen to Archie in middle age. (This was better than the attempt to do something similar in the 1990 TV-movie To Riverdale and Back Again, whose horrors include Jughead and his son doing a hip-hop version of “Sugar Sugar.”)
Recently, the comics have grown more adventurous, with tales of Riverdale facing a zombie apocalypse (Afterlife with Archie), the introduction of out gay character Kevin Keller, another series (Life with Archie) simultaneously depicting different timelines where Archie marries either Betty or Veronica, and a move away from the familiar thick-lined art style that’s defined the characters for decades.
Really, the characters and the set-up — particularly the love triangle between Archie, Betty, and Veronica — are so elemental that there are few stories or genres where they wouldn’t belong with the right amount of finessing.
By placing Archie and friends at the center of a small-town potboiler, filled with murder and sex and other intrigue, the CW’s Riverdale (it premieres Thursday night at 9) isn’t some kind of defilement of the sacred comics text, but another example of how these characters can be and do anything.
But if Riverdale — created by Roberto Aguirre-Sacasa, the writer responsible for Archie’s recent comics renaissance — isn’t an affront to the source material(*), it also illustrates some of the limitations of characters this basic and broadly-defined. It boldly commits to its campy, overcast aesthetic — and it’s here I’ll note that I’m not naturally inclined toward teen melodrama, but can be drawn in if the execution’s great enough (like The O.C., or Everwood, whose creator Greg Berlanti is an executive producer here) — while struggling at times to turn its characters from archetypes into individuals.