“This isn’t your parents’ Archie.” Variations of this sentence in many different articles have been used to describe Riverdale in the past few months since the show’s premiere, almost as a disclaimer. The issue that I have with that isn’t even the obvious reasons, which is that all the outlets probably think they are giving us an original take. The problem is the context in which they keep using that expression. Riverdale doesn’t have very much in common with the classic sweater-vest-with-a-bowtie version of Archie, and by now, we ideally should be seeing that for the blessing that it actually is.
How did Archie Comics become confident enough to believe that long-time fans would take kindly to this subversive take on the beloved source material? Show-runner (and Archie Inc. CCO) Roberto Aguirre-Sacasa said that they believed that as long as they were “true to the characters, people would get on-board with what was happening in the world around them.” But as ideal as that might sound, a lot of the same fans haven’t been able to look past the complete contrast of an atmosphere that the show built for the plot to unfold in. After all, this Riverdale isn’t a perpetually sunny and cheery small town where Jughead eats burger after burger and Archie is clumsy and a magnet for destruction.
None of this is to say that Riverdale isn’t aware of where it comes from and what it’s getting into with the genre that it finds itself in. It tries to walk this line right in the middle of both those things. The opening scene of the mid-season episode is a testament to that fact. It’s a fantasised, hyper-colourful dinner scene, with all the characters dressed exactly (and I mean exactly) like their sweater-vest-bow-tie counterparts. With mannerisms straight out of a vintage comic book panel (exaggerated batting of eyelashes and synchronised head-tilting) all while maintaining plaster-y smiles on their faces. The narrator asks the viewer, in effort to put more salt into the wounds: “What makes a place feel like home? Is it warmth and familiarity? Some idealised, make-believe version of the American Dream?” The scene is less than a minute long, and its fundamental purpose seems to be - other than a moment of gratuitous wish-fulfilment - to scream in your face: “This isn’t your parents’ Archie.” Thank God.
Because Riverdale chose to be more than the idealised, make-believe version of the American Dream. It chose to make a few comments about the exact same dream its source material peddled to unsuspecting readers back in the day. All this happens while maintaining the humour and charm that made you love it in the first place. Nothing is that perfect, Riverdale says. And, boy, does it love saying that. With a rich neo-noir look and vibe that would make Veronica Mars want to move out of Neptune, the show musters up all its might, to turn the idyllic setting that you remember on its head, and the cast and crew seem to enjoy it. Just when you think nothing is sacred, though, Riverdale pulls out its trump card (that expression just doesn’t have the same weight anymore, does it?) and slowly slides it across to you. At the heart of all of it - the murder mystery, the very illegal relationship, the poverty, the corruption, the adultery, yada yada… - are the characters who you know and love. Sure, they’re more layered now. Sure, they might not want to fight over a boy like you’re used to (oh, yes! They shut the door on that possibility as early on as episode #2.). Sure, they might look a lot different than you’re used to (Veronica’s Latina, Reggie’s Asian, Josie and her Pussycats are African-American, and so are Pop Tate and Principal Weatherbee.). Some of them (or one of them) might not eat as much as you would like them to. However, they’re still the same people you read about but now they’re actually better.
Just by taking your familiarity with Betty Cooper’s eternal niceness as a given, the show goes on to dissect the constant internal struggle that would exist if she was created today. She can’t be a straight-A student, and a cheerleader, and still have time to be a good daughter and a good friend, all of it at 16 years old. Thanks to the writers, she’s finally 3D. Or as 3D as she can be on the CW. Archie’s still the heart-of-gold, bumbling fool you know him to be, but now you actually empathise with him. Veronica’s snarky and mean, but there’s restraint in her, now that she’s learnt a harsh lesson about being entitled. Jughead is still “sardonic”, in his own words, but he also has a lot to deal with here (arguably much more than any other character on the show). Rather than present them as pristine, cookie-cutter archetypes, the show defines these characters by how they deal with situations and, more importantly, gives them the much-needed space to make many, many mistakes. Riverdale makes you watch as it puts these characters into situations where they deal with bullying, slut shaming, overbearing parents, racial privilege, sexism, and even consequences of their parents’ actions, and it makes you learn maybe a little, too. We have come a long way from just two dates being scheduled on the same day.
Teen social commentary aside, Riverdale loves that it is, at the end of the day, a self-aware homage. It recognises the fact that in the absence of Archie Comics’ long 75-year history, it would be just another teen show trying to take itself too seriously. It revels in its own iconography, creating perfect shots with bright letterman jackets and neon diner signs and milkshakes (lots of milkshakes!), and references to other classics it is so clearly influenced by (each episode title is a spin on a timeless film of yore). Instead of replacing the legacy of the comics (which it could practically never do), it seeks to contribute a necessary shift in perspective to add to the brand’s longevity and cultural relevance. Archie and friends don’t deserve to die out in the shadows, after all. Cheryl Blossom probably encapsulates the show’s homage mission best when she says, “Some people say it’s retro. I say it’s eternal and iconic.”
Scribe: Ruchi Vasudev
Captain's Log: Ruchi is writer for Geek Fruit HQ and thinks Jared Leto should have played all the cast members of Riverdale, including Betty and Veronica, well cause frankly, he damn well could. Find her on instagram @ruchisvasudev