Thursday, March 16, 2017

A Great Place to Get Away With It All

Even if you’re not a comic book fan, there’s a story that I promise you already know about the “All-American Teen” who could never decide between which two girls he liked most. Archie Andrews has been a staple of the comic book world since his debut in 1939. He’s been imagined and reimagined in books, movies, radio, and TV shows steadily for nearly 80 years. Now, with their new series Riverdale, it’s the CW’s turn.

See? Milkshakes! Totally family-friendly, right?

It shouldn’t come as a surprise that a network knows for its teen-friendly audience would be eager to get their hands on such an iconic property as Archie. What may be new is the particularly CW-y gloss that the network has applied to the story. The Archie comics have typically been a slice of small town Anywhere, USA, with a largely non-threatening cast of characters telling innocent stories.

Like most comics which have had to figure out ways of telling stories about characters that don’t age even as the world around them does, Riverdale has attempted to keep up with the times, beginning to add non-white characters and plots while mostly keeping to non-offensive, apolitical storytelling. In that way, the crux of the characters always remains the same with the DNA of the story remaining remarkably similar to the comics.

Archie, as usual, is presented as a fairly typical boy next door. He struggles with normal teen problems like balancing schoolwork with football practice and trying to become a musician. The girl next door, terminally sweet and understanding Betty Cooper, nurses a long-standing crush on Archie. Meanwhile, rich girl from New York Veronica Lodge moves to town with her mother seeking to escape the legal troubles her financially criminal father has made for them back in the city. And thus we get the classic set up of All American ginger boy choosing between Blonde good girl and Raven-haired sophisticate.

Fact: Google's autocomplete suggestion for searching images of Betty and Veronica is "Betty and Veronica kiss"

But! A twist! This is the CW. A simple, down-home teenage coming of age story was never in the cards. Riverdale adds some new dimensions, taking us away from Pleasantville and dropping us right smack in the middle of Twin Peaks. The driving action of Riverdale is focused much less on dates to the prom and much more on the dead body of Jason Blossom, fellow teen who went missing over the summer and is found at the river with a bullet in his head. His twin sister, Queen Bee Cheryl Blossom, is cagey and also the only witness to his mysterious disappearance. Meanwhile, Archie’s affections for Betty and Veronica are significantly overshadowed by his own secret – he’s been having sex with one of his teachers since the summer and the two are struggling to stay under the radar. There are even hints that the teacher herself may not be the sweet, lovelorn sop she appears to be as her subtle manipulations of Archie begin to show themselves over the first few episodes. Meanwhile, a much more emo Jughead narrates the action, recounting the story and how it dovetails with his own falling out with his old friends in classic Philip Marlowe style.

"She smelled the way a good hamburger looks after midnight..."

Despite growing out of the wellspring of all modern teenage drama, Riverdale owes almost an equal debt to other teen-focused genre benders as it does to its source material. Veronica Mars and Vampire Diaries, two shows that also focused on the lives of teenagers told through a noir-coated lens, are particularly evident inspirations. And like those attempts at presenting more mature, nuanced teenagers, Riverdale strides confidently up to some provocative themes, albeit in a sometimes clunky way.

When Archie wants to write music for girl supergroup Josie and the Pussycats, Josie herself shuts Archie down, rightfully pointing out the unlikelihood that white boy Archie can write in the voice of three black women. “No, baby, you don’t,” Josie tells Archie when he tries to tell her that he understands that the girls face obstacles. While the set-up is a little strawman-y, it’s still significant that a primetime network showed a black girl unpacking privilege to the white boy hero of his own story.

In the same episode, Betty and Veronica confront the boys of the football team who have been dating and then ranking the girls they go out with using a secret journal after Veronica is made the butt of a social media joke by the captain of the team. “I will not be slut-shamed,” Veronica huffs before joining with a group of girls, including Ethyl, played by guest star Shannon Purser (Barb of Stranger Things) who gets a much better ending to her story than in her last series. One characters even winks to the audience at the end with the line, “Hashtag JusticeForEthyl.” And while the pushback against slut-shaming smacks of empowerment, it also lacks the courage of its own convictions. None of the girls in the players’ book, after all, actually did any of what the players said. As such, they weren’t reclaiming their right to enjoy their sexualities, merely defending their good reputations.

Riverdale’s updating of its classic themes and motifs actually isn’t without precedent. That Archie has taken such a turn away from his staid reputation actually isn’t much of a surprise when you consider that somehow, over the past several years, Archie has become one of the more subversive properties in American comics. For example, here are just a few of the things that have ACTUALLY HAPPENED in his books:

·         In 2010, Archie Comics introduced the character of Kevin Keller, an openly gay high school student who becomes part of the gang. The character has carried over into the CW series and even has a will-they-or-won’t-they storyline with Moose, another classic character from the comics.
·         Jughead officially came out of the closet in 2016 as asexual. Really, this shouldn’t be a surprise given that Judhead’s only real love stories have ever been centered on hamburgers.
·         In 2015, Archie and his friends faced off against the Predator. Yes, that one. It…didn’t end well.
·         Archie finally married Betty.
·         Archie finally married Veronica.
·         Betty and Veronica finally got sick of Archie and married each other.
·         Archie died, albeit in a future timeline. In the story, Archie is shot in the stomach saving Kevin, who has become a US Senator, from an assassination attempt.
·         Possibly best of all, the long-running series Life With Archie was cancelled and somewhat replaced with a new series called Afterlife With Archie, in which a zombie outbreak occurs in Riverdale (thanks to Jughead) and the crew must contend with a Walking Dead-esque future. The series is played for straight-up horror, not an ounce of camp to be found.

So it’s not crazy that Archie, typical American teenager, finds himself in this iteration at the forefront of murder, intrigue, and not a little sexual tension. (Seriously, Archie’s abs are actually a plot point in multiple episodes.) The show leans into the camp factor, fully aware that it’s occupying the middle space in the Venn diagram of teenage love stories, 80s-era evening soap operas, and modern social awareness. And while it may not be the most innovative thing on television, it’s proving highly watchable.

Archie DAAAYYM-drews

Riverdale airs Thursday nights on the CW.

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