From the first scene of its first episode, the world of Riverdale, the CW’s popular reboot of the Archie Comics, is like no other. The opening moments of the pilot flash images that hearken back to a previous America: a boy on a bicycle tosses a newspaper to a front stoop; a wide-as-a-boat convertible drives past an old-timey diner; fall leaves blow in front of a sign for the local drive-in.
Such signifiers of traditional Americana have come to define the Archie Comics television world, now encompassing Netflix’s The Chilling Adventures of Sabrina, where at a cinema whose marquee broadcasts the single film playing (Night of the Living Dead), classic cars are parked out front and football players in letterman jackets roughhouse in the lobby.
Despite this symbolism of midcentury small-town America, we soon see markers of the present day: characters using cellphones and laptops while name-dropping places like Magnolia Bakery. The towns of Riverdale and Greendale, as envisioned by showrunner Roberto Aguirre-Sacasa, are made of old and new at the same time—an uncanny reality of memories we don’t possess from times we didn’t live through, but so culturally enshrined in our psyche that we consider them safe and sacred.
The teens of Riverdale eat burgers at the local diner and play Seven Minutes in Heaven. Milkshakes are their drug of choice, consumed in the neon glow of Pop’s Chock’lit Shoppe, the default safe space. The South Side Serpents, a leather-jacketed motorcycle gang, literally come from the wrong side of the tracks. The Riverdale Vixens, the high school dance troupe, update their image with a routine set to a modernized version of the Archies’ “Sugar, Sugar,” juxtaposed in the second season against Josie and the Pussycats singing a retro-ized version of Kelis’ “Milkshake.”
On Chilling Adventures, Sabrina’s tea-length crinoline dress plays a vital role, while her wardrobe of sweaters and pedal pusher pants assist in the creation of an old-school vibe. Students—at least those in the mortal world—attend Baxter High, a school that time forgot where there are still chalkboards, rows of classic desks, and a library complete with card catalog. There’s a similar diner-esque eatery where characters consume milkshakes at pivotal moments. Teens talk about their plans to go bowling over the weekend.
It’s not the first time television has fancied a stylized version of the period. The late 1970s and early ’80s had its own crop of stories that dealt with an idealized American past. Happy Days, one of the biggest hits of its era, began with a focus on teen Richie Cunningham and his chaste adolescent dilemmas of growing up, a wistful remembering of adolescence. While the show pivoted in its second season, moving from pathos to comedy and focusing more on cool, leather-jacketed high school dropout Fonzie than earnest Richie, the markers of nostalgic midcentury America (diners, jukeboxes, drive-ins) remained, giving audiences a taste of what would become tropes from this period. These themes were replicated by Grease in 1978, and then used again by 1985’s hit Back to the Future to create an exaggerated 1950s, cementing in the minds of generations to come what the iconic era should look and feel like.
Riverdale and Sabrina are built on a similar retrograde aesthetic. But unlike their ’70s and ’80s counterparts, the shows use it not just to create setting, but as a vehicle to address deeper contemporary issues. Their surfaces ooze with the best memories of vintage purity meant to make them feel untouchable, secure, and wholesome. But just as underneath their veneers, the towns of Riverdale and Greendale are actually filled with secrets, murders, and lies from serial killers to literal witch hunts, the harkened-to time period itself, that late 1950s/early 1960s heyday that conservative America loves to portray as “great,” is a lie that ignores its true history. The longing for a romanticized past ignores the era’s segregation, sexism, and homophobia (or maybe it longs for those things, too, but never out loud). Instead of ignoring these issues, Riverdale and Sabrina lean into them—hard.
In Riverdale, hidden under the soft-lit hues of a yesteryear sock hop, plotlines delve into some very real, very current issues. The home for “troubled girls” is revealed to be conducting conversion therapy—the horrific practice, banned in some states, of trying to change an individual’s sexual orientation from homosexual to heterosexual. Season 2 draws from the reality of the drug addiction crisis that has ravaged small towns throughout America. And a year before the #MeToo movement swept the cultural zeitgeist, Betty and Veronica were having their own moment, bringing members of the football team to justice for slut-shaming and sexual assault.
Likewise, Sabrina, in spite of its benign twee styling, highlights contemporary issues that play out in the background of its main clash between mortals and witches. Sabrina’s friend, Susie Putnam, is one of the few non-binary characters on television, and their character arc was influenced and molded by real life non-binary actor Lachlan Watson, who fought for a more realistic, ambiguous trajectory toward a sexual identity instead of the typical linear coming-out narrative. There’s a great sideline about the school banning Toni Morrison’s classic The Bluest Eye, a title that’s perennially on the American Library Association’s list of most challenged books. Sabrina and the Weird Sisters’ revenge on the school’s football players for their torture of Putnam has a homophobic edge out of keeping with the rest of the show; the football players agree to stop harassing other students out of fear that pictures of them kissing—brought on by a spell—will be shared with the rest of the student body.
But there’s a much better, quieter #MeToo-inspired scene in the bookstore, when Aunt Hilda uses her magic to reveal the root of a bully’s torment (at summer camp, another boy did something not right to him) while reminding us that in this age of disgraced men seeking redemption for past behavior, even if something happened to you, it never excuses the abuse of others.
In using these modern-day problems to flesh out their worlds, Riverdale and Sabrina become conduits for exposing the romanticization of the past. Underneath their campy plots, Riverdale and Sabrina become callouts of that era, a reminder to viewers that the “good old days,” as much fun as they may be to play in, were not all that good—and their problems are still very much with us, no matter how many feel-good period pieces want to assure us they’ve long since been resolved. In the timeless, placeless worlds of Riverdale and Sabrina, America is still struggling to square its idealized, simplified self-image with its uglier and more complex past and present.