Impressions of Riverdale

I’ve been a fan of Archie comics since I was a kid. I loved those bright colors, cheesy jokes and the perpetual love triangle (Team Betty all the way!) that permeated every page. While much about Archie has remained the same over the years, what has changed is the tone of some of the titles. When I was a kid, the most serious Archie would ever get was an ‘afterschool special’ type of story with a moral message at the end. Yet over the past decade, the publisher has branched out into more modern thrills, such as with the popular Archie vs. Sharknado, Archie vs. Predator, Afterlife with Archie and The Chilling Adventures of Sabrina titles. With this shift being so well received, it’s not surprising that there is a similar overtone to the newest incarnation of Archie: the Riverdale television series, which premiered on January 26th on the CW network.

Betty and Veronica make the cheerleading squad

Being intimately familiar with Archie, I was expecting to see the characters I know and love. And having seen the trailers (and having been to the Archie panel at San Diego Comic Con last year) I understood that this new show was going to be more like the newer titles, with a darker storyline. In both cases, I didn’t quite get what I expected.

The characters are definitely there. A couple of them have changed their physical appearance somewhat, a couple were notably absent (although who’s to say they might not appear in future episodes?) and there were a couple who were entirely different. The storyline was definitely darker as well, with the entire series beginning with the death of Jason Blossom. Yet then things took more of a turn for the ‘normal’.

Despite the ominous beginning, Riverdale turned out to be a high school drama. And that’s not a bad thing. The fresh take on the stereotypical teenage setting, combined with familiar characters and the backdrop of Jason’s death, was worth watching, and I enjoyed the episode very much.

Spoiler Alert: the remainder of this article contains spoilers for episode 1 of Riverdale. You have been warned.

Archie and his father

Given that Riverdale was aired on the CW, you would naturally expect that the program would be filled with beautiful young people. Check. But to be fair, that was always true of Archie comics as well, where the teenagers are always good-looking, unless they have a specific character reason to be less appealing (such as with Big Ethel). Yet these ‘teenagers’ looked much older than the characters they were supposed to portray. The majority of the gang in Riverdale is supposed to be in sophomore year of high school, meaning that they should have been about fifteen years old, yet they appeared to be in their early twenties. Perhaps as a nod to this irony, Archie’s father, Fred Andrews, is played by Luke Perry, best known for being a thirty-something playing the role of high school student Dylan McKay on Beverly Hill 90210.

During the episode, Betty reveals a humiliating moment from her past: when she was turned down for the cheerleading squad because she was too fat. Only on the CW would Betty Cooper be considered overweight. Yet this moment let us glimpse the change in Betty. In the comic books she is self-assured, intelligent and good at pretty much everything. It is only in her affections for Archie that she ever feels any self-doubt. But in Riverdale, Betty has a full slate of issues. She’s not only insecure in her feelings for Archie, but she isn’t the most popular girl in town, having only her best friend Kevin Keller for company. She is taunted by Cheryl Blossom, which clearly damages her self-esteem, and has an unexpectedly domineering mother (a far cry from the warm character of Alice Cooper in the comics) who pushed her older sister Polly over the edge and into psychiatric care. These flaws only serve to make Betty more real, allowing her to connect with an audience who might never have read an Archie comic before. 

Veronica arrives in Riverdale

While Betty has changed from her traditional character type, Veronica has changed even more. Gone is the bitchy, snobbish girl who has to constantly show her superiority in everything. In Riverdale, that girl is in Veronica’s past, and is someone she no longer wants to be. Veronica wants to be a better person, and she does that by actively trying to be a friend to Betty. Even when she slips up and kisses Archie, she immediately regrets it, telling him to go after Betty instead, knowing that her friend loves him. I rarely liked Veronica in the comics, yet I respect her character in Riverdale. She clearly has many layers to her, and I am looking forward to seeing them unfold.

The third member of the infamous triangle has changed as well. While Archie has red hair, he is definitely not the goofy guy comic readers have come to love. Thanks to spending the summer doing heavy manual labor at his Dad’s construction company, Archie has physically bulked up, much to the visual delight of Riverdale’s women. His angst is less with romantic concerns than with his future: he has discovered that he wants to be a musician, and is struggling to find validation from others in this choice, so that he can fully embrace it himself.

From a romantic standpoint, Archie is still involved in a love triangle, only Betty is no longer the third part. Indeed, at the end of episode 1, Archie makes it clear to Betty that he loves her as a friend only, and doesn’t think of her that way at all. Instead, he carries a lingering fascination with Miss Grundy, (who is about fifty years younger than she is in the comics) his high school music teacher with whom he had an illicit affair over the summer. Still, it is clear that he is instantly attracted to Veronica, and finds himself drawn to her whenever she is around.

There are a few other changes to familiar characters. Since when did Moose Mason experiment with homosexuality, or Jughead become the unobtrusive loner? Yet despite these things, we can still see elements of what brought us to love these characters in the first place.

Tying all of this together is the story of Jason’s death. His sister, Cheryl, claims that he fell from a rowboat and drowned. Yet Archie and Miss Grundy, while engaging in their illicit affair, heard a gunshot at the apparent time of death, although they chose not to reveal this to the police, worried about keeping their own secrets. However the jig is up when Jason’s body washes ashore at the end of episode 1, a bullet hole clearly visible in his forehead.  It is clear that solving his murder will be the overarching storyline of season 1.

While Riverdale wasn’t entirely what I expected, it was both familiar and intriguing enough to keep me watching. I’ll be tuning in next Thursday at 9 pm on the CW.

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Transmute Jun

Transmute Jun has an addiction to pop culture conventions, and attends as many as she can each year. When she's not traveling, she likes to stay at home reading a good book, playing a video game, or binge-watching a TV show. She can be bribed with pizza, Coke Zero and Belgian milk chocolate.