Riverdale isn’t your father’s Archie Comics…and it’s not any good for kids, either.
To Americans of a certain age, the names “Archie,” “Jughead,” and “Betty and Veronica” conjure up images of bright, upbeat four-color comics depicting a happy world of carefree teenagers having clean, wholesome fun. To such Americans, the CW’s Riverdale, a dark, edgy reinvention of Archie and Co., will be anathema – and the show doesn’t do younger viewers any favors, either. For aiding in the destruction of a beloved American icon, the Thursday, January 26th premiere of CW’s Riverdale (9:00 p.m. ET) is the Worst TV Show of the Week.
A lot of digital ink has been spilled agonizing over Riverdale, and the way it corrupts the Archie legend. Make no mistake: Riverdale definitely tarnishes the memories of Archie as the clean, wholesome, all-American boy familiar from the comics of the 1950s through the 1980s; but as a TV show airing in 2017, the program is less transgressive than it is tiresome and tedious.
As one example, when they are ordered to “bring the heat” by teen queen Cheryl Blossom during cheerleader tryouts, Veronica kisses Betty full on the lips. While this would never have occurred in classic Archie Comics, in 2017, the moment doesn’t produce shocked gasps so much as rolled eyes and mutters of “Whatever.”
Apparently, the show’s writers believe that a girl kissing another girl is somehow edgy and innovative. However, after Katy Perry’s “I Kissed a Girl,” Madonna, Miley Cyrus, Lady Gaga, and half a hundred music videos and awards shows featuring girl-on-girl kissing, the only thing truly shocking about this moment is that anyone would think it’s shocking.
The program is replete with other content fans of the old Archie would find repugnant, and at which today’s teens would yawn. While there’s only one outright sex scene in the episode — Archie and teacher Miss Grundy have wild, passionate sex in the back seat of her VW Beetle (apparently, Archie and Miss Grundy are also contortionists) – there are numerous other references to sex, like Reggie greeting Archie with, “You tap any cougar ass this summer?”, and Archie responding with a reproof to Reggie’s masturbatory fantasies.
Sadly, it is a sign of how degraded American entertainment has become that the only people likely to be surprised at seeing girls kissing girls, teens talking about masturbation, and underage students having sex with teachers during a TV show targeted at teens, are those who have somehow avoided exposure to all of popular culture for the better part of two decades. After the allegedly shocking Betty-Veronica kiss, even Cheryl observes, “Check your sell-by date, ladies. Faux lesbian kissing hasn’t been taboo since 1994” – a remark that’s a little too on-the-nose for a program that itself is little more than a retread of the 1990’s series Dawson’s Creek.
If this program were called Small-town America and its protagonists did not bear the names of beloved icons of Americana like Archie, Jughead, Betty, and Veronica, nobody would care about Riverdale, or even notice it. The show would likely be canceled after half a season, because everything about it has been done over and over again by dozens of other TV shows and movies. If it weren’t strip-mining and raping the decades of good memories and positive imagery associated with Archie in the minds of millions of Americans, viewers and critics would easily be able to see Riverdale for what it is: a third-rate rip-off of Degrassi High, with an attempt at a Twin Peaks-style mystery thrown in.
Moreover, no one under the age of 40 even has the positive associations with Archie that Riverdale’s modern take is subverting. Older viewers who will be disturbed by the association of Archie with teenage sex aren’t watching CW anyway; while the 12-24 demographic which follows CW programming probably doesn’t even know who Archie is.
For those who don’t, or for those who remember the old comics but aren’t familiar with the changes they’ve undergone in recent years, here’s an Archie’s Digest of Riverdale’s take on the old, beloved characters:
Archie Andrews is no longer the bumbling, freckle-faced, all-American boy-next-door. Now, he’s a brooding teen with a deep, dark secret: he slept with his teacher, Miss Grundy. (Which, given he’s in the same class as Betty, a sophomore, would make Archie 16, and his tryst statutory rape. But what TV writer today cares about petty details like that?) Needless to say, Miss Grundy is no longer the elderly, white-hair-in-a-bun spinster of the comics; instead, she’s a hot-to-trot twentysomething with loose morals. Archie is also conflicted about another secret he and Miss Grundy share: the knowledge – or at least, the suspicion — that classmate Jason Blossom was murdered. Oh, and he’s conflicted over his choice of extracurricular activities: should he play football? Work for his father’s construction company? Or write and sing pop songs? Add to this his eternal triangle with just-a-friend Betty and newly-arrived vixen Veronica, and the character seems less like the fun-loving lad of old, and more like a character from a bad teen romance novel.
Betty Cooper is still the blond, pony-tailed teen beauty; but this iteration is both outwardly bland and inwardly so brittle, the only interest for viewers is in waiting for her to snap. Conflicted by memories of an idealized sister driven to mental breakdown by Jason Blossom, a controlling mother whose demands border on the sadistic, and a constant struggle to remain “nice” in the face of abuse by her fellow students, Betty is a caricature of the happy-go-lucky girlfriend from the comics. If, in a future episode, Betty charges into Riverdale High with an assault rifle and commits a school massacre, it will come as no surprise.
Kevin Keller is a gay teen recently added to the Archie comic-book line. While in the comics Kevin is largely portrayed as just another teenager, on Riverdale he’s a camp gay who (in the first episode, at least) is incapable of talking about anything that doesn’t involve male genitalia, prostitutes, or how hot other men are. No doubt the writers of Riverdale viewed the inclusion of a gay character as brilliantly transgressive, something to shake up those backward, knuckle-dragging hicks in red-state middle America; but the show’s Kevin is such an insulting, over-the-top stereotype that he’s actually regressive. Mincing, smirking, leering at male classmates, and making constant references to fashion and HBO dramas, Riverdale’s Kevin never came right out and lisped, “Snap! Oh, no you didn’t, girlfriend!”…but he might as well have.
Cheryl Blossom, the now-deceased Jason’s twin sister, is a nasty, bullying teen drama queen straight out of an episode of Glee. (Well, a really lame episode of Glee). And, in keeping with the Ryan Murphy mindset apparently dominating Riverdale’s writers, there’s also a hint of Cheryl’s incestuous feelings for the twin she murdered. Or someone else murdered. Or who shot himself by accident. Who knows? Who cares?
In the show’s one successful (if inadvertent) bit of clever comedy, Archie’s hamburger-loving, romance-averse best pal Jughead is hilariously recast as a wannabe gritty noir writer who scrawls overripe pulp like, “It wasn’t one heart that broke that night – it was two. And the night was far from over.” Admittedly, this is a pretty good imitation of a high-school student’s attempt at deep, meaningful writing; but the show ultimately fails in trying to position Jughead (Jughead!) as some kind of dark, artsy, emo hipster…who nevertheless still wears that dorky hat.
Surprisingly, it’s Archie’s traditional “mean girl” Veronica who gets the most – and most unusual – character development. While the 16-year-old character has, inexplicably, acquired an unlikely-to-say-the-least familiarity with the writings of Truman Capote, after being humiliated and ostracized by her rich New York friends over her father’s crimes, Veronica strives to be a “better version” of herself, encouraging Betty and urging her to stand up for herself.
Sadly, however, Veronica is the only sympathetic, or even interesing, character in the mixed-up melange of overwrought dialogue, pretentious mystery, and over-the-top teen drama that is Riverdale.
Given the current media landscape, Riverdale is not very shocking; but it is deeply disappointing that Archie Comics, which for generations represented a sweet, positive, and upbeat portrayal of happy teenage years, have been trashed for the sake of creating yet another derivative, grim ‘n gritty “reboot” featuring once-beloved comics characters. If the makers of Riverdale truly wanted to do something innovative, they would have made an Archie adaptation with all the innocence, decency, and tongue-in-cheek fun firmly intact. These days, THAT would have been something truly daring and different.
Hey! Maybe Riverdale is in fact a cunning meta-commentary on how tacky, predictable, and deriviative media aimed at teens has now become. By turning the traditionally positive and happy Archie Comics characters into “edgy” parodies of themselves, maybe the writers are actually engaging in a subtle, witty, subversive satire of the entire “dark ‘n gritty” trend in comics and popular culture. Maybe Riverdale is really a brilliant, deliberate evisceration of how degraded entertainment for teens has become! Maybe it’s…
…naaah. It’s just trash.