Riverdale, the delectable new CW series based on Archie comics, has been described by its creator as “Archie meets Twin Peaks.” You can wedge “meets” between any nouns you want and get something that scans grammatically, but the bubblegum Americana of the Archie cartoons goes with the surrealist Americana of Twin Peaks like a baby chick with a Dadaist manifesto. Riverdale, instead, is the product of a series of transformational meetings with things that are not Twin Peaks: Archie meets live action, Archie makes the acquaintance of PG-13, Archie learns about the monetary power of a name brand intellectual property, Archie exchanges clothes with innumerable teen dramas (Dawson’s Creek, Pretty Little Liars, Gossip Girl), and then, and only then, does Archie meet Twin Peaks, or rather, glance at it from across a room before going back to talking murder mysteries with Pacey Witter and Blair Waldorf.
Riverdale, an enjoyable and moody teen series for adults who love teen series, a group of which I consider myself a member, is a fascinating splash in the ongoing remake deluge. On its face, it is everything that is irritating and needless about reboots. Reviving cheery Archie and its cozy world of malt shoppes and jalopies as a tale of unsolved homicide sounds like remaking the day as night. Why would you do that? Anyone longing for darkness only has every other comic book adaptation to turn to, nearly all under the inky sway of Christopher Nolan’s grim Batman. Must the Caped Crusader’s hideous case of vocal fry infect even Jughead Jones?
But Riverdale is not all that dark—or rather it is dark for a G-rated comic strip but not so much for the comforting genre of which it is really a member: the aforementioned teen shows that used to be the stock in trade of the CW (and before that, the WB), in which a group of attractive and well-built twentysomethings crack pop culture jokes in high school hallways while grappling with grandiose revelations, the most theatrical of which tend to be their feelings. In recent years, the Archie comics have taken on alternate timelines, zombies, and The Predator, all to good effect.
So why not high school? Archie comics turn out to be ideal for reinvention because, despite existing for decades, they are so schematic, full of archetypes and not characters. Who is Archie Andrews, exactly? All-American, girl-crazy, redhead next door is not a personality type; it’s an outline. Riverdale, full of murder, corruption, and bad parenting, could have been an entirely original series but then you wouldn’t know everyone’s name or get to see Betty and Veronica reimagined as besties with depth. What are you, a Reggie?
Archie, unlike other members of the funny pages, has always been a soap opera: a happy-go-lucky tale driven by hijinks and love triangles. It is now a not-so-happy–go-lucky tale driven by hijinks, love triangles, and murder. As the show begins, a minor character has been found dead, everyone knows more than they are saying, and nothing in the once idyllic-seeming Riverdale will ever be the same, at least according to the portentous narration provided by Jughead (Cole Sprouse), reimagined as a literary loner.
Archie (K.J. Apa), who now has six-pack abs and an illicit relationship with a teacher, lives with his dad (Beverly Hills: 90210’s Luke Perry) and next door to Betty Cooper (Lili Reinhart), still a blonde good girl but now with a witch of a mother (Mädchen Amick). Betty pines for Archie and consoles herself about his lack of interest by hanging out with Kevin Keller (Casey Cott), the gay high-schooler introduced in the comics in 2010, and Veronica Lodge (Camila Mendes), still a sassy brunette, now half Hispanic, recently arrived in town after her father’s disgrace. Also present and accounted for: Josie (Ashleigh Murray) and the Pussycats, now an all-black girl group; Ms. Grundy (Sarah Habel), now a sexual predator; Moose Mason (Cody Kearsley), now a closet case; and Cheryl Blossom (Madelaine Petsch), twin sister of the deceased, and now a caricature of a mean girl who hangs over the show like a poltergeist imported from a Ryan Murphy series.
“You may be a stock character from a ’90s teen movie, but I’m not,” Veronica tells Cheryl in a bit of winky pop culture dialogue that is representative of the series’ overall tone. And Veronica is right—she’s not. (The dialogue can’t rescue everything. Veronica and Betty share a kiss during cheerleading tryouts that Cheryl rightfully mocks. “Check your sell-by day ladies, faux lesbian kissing is so 1995,” she says, and I wish the writers had taken their own note, even if the kiss is a fan-fic in-joke.) Riverdale proves what you already knew: that the most memorable Archie characters are Betty and Veronica even if, in the comics, they were perpetually trapped on the virgin-whore, blonde-brunette, nice-naughty, catfights-for-everyone merry-go-round. Riverdale is too progressive to keep Betty and Veronica at each others’ throats. Josie schools songwriter Archie, asking him if, as a white boy, he really thinks he can write to their experience; the cheerleading squad teams up to take down a football team that’s slut-shaming with no consequences; and Betty and Veronica have become tenuous allies, best friends with occasional skirmishes, some of which are over the relatively bland Archie.
Niceness is hard to put over in fiction, being so easily mistaken for boring. The difficulty of making niceness compelling is, in and of itself, part of the explanation for the age of the anti-hero. But the main quintet on Riverdale—Archie, Jughead, Kevin, Betty, and Veronica—are nice. It’s Betty and Veronica who are interesting. The character précis for Archie comes early in the first episode, vis a vis Kevin, who quips, “Archie is swell, but like all millennial straight guys he has to be told what to do.” Substitute “swole” for “swell” whenever you feel like it, and you basically have Archie’s character. (The show does accurately capture the prisoner-like fugue state boys with acoustic guitars put teenage girls into: Betty spends too much time staring longingly at Archie’s proficient strumming.) Betty and Veronica, in contrast, are in a more complex relationship with goodness, with Veronica trying her hardest to be a better person and Betty regularly showing the wear and tear of being the sort to whom kindness comes naturally.
It’s hard to imagine a character less inherently intriguing at this particular moment than the goody-goody white girl, but despite her reputation as a snooze, Betty has the series’ deepest moments when we see the cost of being good, the clenched hands that allow her to turn the other cheek, the perpetual vulnerability of giving people second chances, the awful burn of having the boy you love tell you “you are so perfect, I’ve never been good enough for you,” an “it’s not you, it’s me,” that is actually an it’s you. But while Riverdale may be grounded in decency, it’s still a soap opera: By Episode 3, it’s intimating that Betty may or may not have a looming case of dissociative identity disorder, complete with a black wig. Riverdale doesn’t have to be a cartoon anymore to occasionally get cartoonish.