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.
(*) Okay, so there’s one thing that the Archie purists should be offended by: in the second episode, “Sugar Sugar” is presented as a song written and first performed by Josie, not Archie. It’s an outrage! An outrage! Even Aguirre-Sacasa admitted at press tour (while explaining that he wanted to use the song at a point in the story when Archie didn’t yet have a band), “It’s sacred territory that we’re treading on with that.” (Albeit territory rendered permanently less sacred by To Riverdale and Back Again.)
We begin with ominous narration, courtesy of Jughead Jones (Cole Sprouse), recast here as a hipster looking to use Riverdale’s seamy underbelly as source material for the Great American Novel: “Our story is about a town, a small town, and the people who live in the town. From a distance, it presents itself like many other small towns all over the world… Get closer, though, and you start seeing the shadows underneath.”
Those shadows loom over several characters, starting with mean girl Cheryl Blossom (Madelaine Petsch), whose brother Jason’s death is the show’s initial big mystery, then extending on to Veronica (Camila Mendes), here a former NY socialite moving to Riverdale in disgrace after her wealthy father’s criminal activity was exposed, and even to the usually bright and sunny Betty (Lili Reinhart), whose family was nearly destroyed by her older sister’s involvement with Jason Blossom. Every character is harboring at least two or three dark secrets, including what Archie (K.J. Apa) was up to around the time of Jason’s death.
Aguirre-Sacasa pulls off a neat trick with Betty and Veronica by making them actually seem like they could be best friends, which the comics with their eternal love triangle only occasionally bothered to justify. It helps that Archie barely even fits into the romantic equation, since he has other concerns — and other women — on his mind at the start of the story, but the friendship between the two girls, and the way that Veronica’s arrival breaks Betty out of her usual innocent patterns, are by far the strongest parts of the four episodes critics were given to review. The third installment, for instance, finds them and some of the other Riverdale girls (including Shannon Purser — Barb from Stranger Things! — as Ethel) going vigilante against football players who have taken to slut-shaming their classmates.
But initially, at least, Aguirre-Sacasa can’t solve the other riddle that’s bedeviled Archie readers for generations: what’s the big deal about the redhead himself? New Zealand native Apa, with his defined abs and cheekbones (albeit also with hair whose ginger dye only looks vaguely convincing) , fits the approach of a show that deliriously keeps asking, “What if Archie — but hotter?” (Even the kids’ teacher Miss Grundy, always presented in the comics as a sweet old lady, is now a thirtysomething knockout, played by Sarah Habel.) But not the muscles, nor his passion for songwriting (which brings him into the orbit of Josie, played here by Ashleigh Murray as a girl who intends to will herself to stardom), nor even the fact that his dad is played by Luke Perry(*) turns him into someone worth the fuss the other characters, and his position in the story, keep giving him. Jughead’s also a drag; Kevin (Casey Cott) is the only major boy character who’s anywhere near as vibrant as the girls.
(*) Most of the adult characters are played by actors who first gained notoriety playing teen characters themselves, including Madchen Amick from Twin Peaks as Betty’s mom, Marisol Nichols as Veronica’s, and Skeet Ulrich as the leader of a motorcycle gang from the bad side of town. Though the focus is mainly on the kids, this is a teen soap that pays more than lip service to being interested in the grown-ups, and the casting is an easy way to suggest that all this has happened before, and it will all happen again.
Though it’s Aguirre-Sacasa’s vision onscreen, the presence of Berlanti can’t help conjure up images of Dawson’s Creek, especially since the Riverdale kids speak in dialogue every bit as arch and pop culturally aware as Joey and Pacey back in the day. Veronica in particular has the perfect reference for every occasion. She bursts onto the scene by announcing, “I’m Breakfast at Tiffany’s, but this place is strictly In Cold Blood,” and later cuts Cheryl down to size by telling her, “You may be a stock character from a 1990s teen movie, but I’m not.” (In a self-deprecating, meta moment in the fourth episode, Jughead tries quoting Tarantino, which prompts Kevin to interrupt, “Please, no more Quentin Tarantino references!”)
Aguirre-Sacasa and his collaborators pile on the references, the plot twists, and the Vancouver mists with glee, never wavering from this vision, even if they’re more successful bringing some characters to life in this new context than others. Riverdale is fun in moments, too much in others (Cheryl Blossom is exhausting from minute one), but it is a consistent, clear vision. Archie can be anything it wants to be, and in 2017, that means it’s a CW show dialed up to 11.
Alan Sepinwall may be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org