Sunday, March 26, 2017

Life, and Death, with Archie: The CW's Riverdale

Cole Sprouse (as Jughead Jones) and K.J. Apa (as Archie Andrews) in Riverdale on The CW.

 This review contains some spoilers for The CW's Riverdale
The Archie comics of my childhood were comfort food: safe, unchallenging and so predictably consistent that issues could recycle old stories practically word for word without disappointing. Without any pretence of continuity, in one story Betty and Veronica would be inseparable BFFs and in another "arch" rivals (terrible pun intended). At one point, my sister and I tried to catalogue how many individual Archie comics we had, and they numbered over a thousand. Thumbing through them now (they still sit in several boxes in my parents' basement), every story is somehow both familiar and forgettable at the same time – which, as I recall, was precisely their appeal. In recent years, the comic has taken some decisive steps towards reinventing the 76-year-old franchise, largely under the helm of its new Chief Creative Officer, Roberto Aguirre-Sacasa. Aguirre-Sacasa was tapped for the role after the critical and popular success of his "for mature readers only" series Afterlife with Archie, which placed Archie and the gang into a post-apocalyptic, zombie-filled Riverdale. These firm steps into the 21st century notwithstanding, for me the world of Archie Andrews remains the one I was brought up on: a timeless, largely consequence-free universe with cheerleaders, chocolate malts and burgers, 50s-era morality, and innocent adolescent love triangles. At least that was the case until Riverdale, The CW's new teen drama.

Riverdale premiered at the end of January, but I confess it took me until this past week to finally check it out, my curiosity finally getting the better of me after I discovered that the broadcast series was streaming on Netflix here in Canada. (Canadians can view the first half of the season there, with new episodes appearing weekly.) Created by Aguirre-Sacasa himself (who, in addition to his work in comics, has also penned episodes of Glee and Big Love, as well as being one of the credited screenwriters for 2013's Carrie remake), the new series takes Riverdale High's familiar characters (Archie, the typical American teen; Jughead, his best pal; Betty, the sweet girl next door; Veronica, the spoiled rich girl) and throws them headlong into a Riverdale that has more in common with Veronica Mars's Neptune, California, than the town I'd grown to love as a kid. If you, like me, have only sugar-coated memories of idyllic, sunny suburban Riverdale, what you'll find on Riverdale will likely shock you – but stick around, because that shock with quickly turn into a unique, multi-textured delight.

Riverdale introduces us to Archie and the gang at the start of their sophomore year at Riverdale High, after an eventful summer – the most significant occurrence being the mysterious death of the school's golden boy, Jason Blossom. Over the summer, Archie (New Zealander K.J. Apa, donning newly-dyed red hair) has discovered music and begun an illicit affair that has alienated him from his two long-time best friends, Jughead (The Suite Life of Zack & Cody's Cole Sprouse, donning newly-dyed black hair) and the literal girl next door Betty (Lili Reinhart). Jughead is a brooding, anti-social teen working on his novel over late nights at Pop Tate's Chocklit Shoppe. (That novel also provides the story's voice-over narration which, along with the dimmed and neon-lit Shoppe, gives the proceeding an unapologetically neo-noir feel.) Betty's older sister Polly, who had been involved with Jason, has suffered an apparent emotional breakdown and been institutionalized. And Veronica Lodge (Camila Mendes), fresh from the scandalous arrest of her financier father, has moved from cosmopolitan Manhattan to small-town Riverdale. (It's fun to imagine that Veronica has basically walked straight off the set of Gossip Girl.) We, like Veronica and her mom, arrive in town just in time to watch its surface tranquility turned on its head as a result of Jason's death.

I can certainly sympathize with the reasons why viewers may be disinclined to seek out the series. On the one hand, your concern could be that the new series is just another craven attempt, in this 'reboot' culture we appear to be living in, to cash in on an enduring cultural product without any respect for the source material. Or, on the other hand, perhaps it could be that the show is an unthinking translation from one medium to another designed solely to flatter existing fans and thereby unappealing to anyone without that pre-investment. I can sympathize because I had both these fears, which contributed to how long it took me to finally tune in. But when I did (in fact, binging all seven existing episodes in one sitting), I was thrilled to discover that Riverdale is neither of those things. Even if it wasn't the case that the show's creators and producers are directly invested in the long history of the comic-book characters (its past and future), the show they've created more than demonstrates their powerful connection to the original work and to its new medium. (A small clue as the series' genuine televisual ambitions can perhaps be found in the casting of Archie's father Fred, played by 90201's Luke Perry, and Betty's mother Alice, played by Twin Peaks's M├Ądchen Amick.)

Camila Mendes (as Veronica Lodge) and Lili Reinhart (as Betty Cooper) in Riverdale.

The writing is consistently smart and clever, with the teens possessing that quick wit and beyond-their-years cultural awareness that we've grown to expect since Buffy the Vampire Slayer first aired twenty years ago. (One tiny nitpick on that subject: while the teens' dialogue is sprinkled liberally with broad pop-culture familiarity – from Truman Capote to Apocalypse Now to Mean Girls – how is it that the guitar-obsessed Archie can still look blankly at his dad's perfectly on-point Bob Dylan comment?) Moreover, that cleverness also comes with a refreshing emotional maturity, with these sixteen-year-olds regularly behaving more adult than the twenty-something millennials populating other CW shows (see, The Flash or Supergirl): Archie and his friends speak frankly to one another, are capable of explaining what they are feeling, and frequently resolve potential misunderstandings within a single conversation – for example, thereby allowing the famous Archie-Betty-Veronica love triangle plot to be introduced and dismissed within an episode and a half. (Even though Riverdale is certainly not done with that particular romantic plotline, it was still immensely satisfying to watch the two girls seemingly quickly dispose of it in a single candid discussion.)

The ensemble cast is almost uniformly strong, though a special mention should go to Cole Sprouse, whose sympathetic portrayal of the melancholy Jughead Jones stands out. For one, though at twenty-four Sprouse is actually the oldest among the show's main "teen" cast, he among all of them most looks the right age. Secondly, though Riverdale's Jughead – still sporting his trademark beanie – is probably among the most re-imagined of all the classic characters (the top spot for most transformed would have to go to poor Chuck Clayton), he's also one of the show's most compelling. With an  alcoholic father and juvie past comes a hard-won sensitivity to the emotional lives of others that brings the welcome weight of reality to every scene Jughead's in.

With seven episodes airing, we're currently in the middle of the story that Riverdale has planned for its first season, so many elements are still being developed, most notably the relationship between Archie and "Miss Grundy" (!). While the words "statutory rape" have never been spoken, the show hasn’t flinched from calling out its illegality, but Grundy’s unceremonious departure has left me primarily with the perplexingly underplayed reaction Archie's father had when the affair was revealed.

Riverdale, in short, is a blast. It is carefully conceived, with a genuinely intriguing central mystery and a growing field of engaging secondary characters. And, every once in a while, the series throws us a bone and offers some very Archie moments: as in Veronica referring to her "Glamazon" purchases or her "American Excess" credit card – prompting a smile, as I was suddenly called back to the comics’ tendency to playfully tweak product names on their pages. (Admittedly, this does make the show's awkward CoverGirl product placement, and its lingering shots of the brand, all the more distracting.)

The world of Archie comics is no stranger to playful genre-swapping. Long before zombies ever came to Riverdale, their writers would merrily move Archie and friends into the far future, prehistoric past, and frequently thrust the gang into Scoobie-Doo-style mysteries. With Riverdale, we learn that those timeless characters are just as adaptable to the intrigue of a noir thriller.

Riverdale airs on The CW in the U.S. on Thursday evenings. New episodes appear on Netflix Canada weekly. After a brief midseason hiatus, Riverdale returns, with its eighth episode, on March 30. The first season will conclude on May 11. It has already been renewed for a second season.

– Mark Clamen is a writer, critic, film programmer and lifelong television enthusiast. He lives in Toronto, where he often lectures on television, film, and popular culture. Mark has been writing for Critics at Large since 2010.


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