A collective of bibliophiles talking about books. Book Fox (vulpes libris): small bibliovorous mammal of overactive imagination and uncommonly large bookshop expenses. Habitat: anywhere the rustle of pages can be heard.
Being very lucky, I did some of my growing-up in the US. From age 7 to 10 I lived near Washington with my parents and attended an elementary school that made Malcolm in the Middle look like a documentary. It was a peculiar insight into a privileged world, and of course it was strictly time-limited. So there is a corner of my lived experience (and my heart) that is forever late-eighties Alexandria: Judy Blume, Tootsie rolls, Thriller, TGIF, snow days, Bill and Ted, oversized sweaters, Trapper Keepers and so on. But not Archie comics, for some reason—perhaps because I left before I hit Archie’s teen-aged demographic. Maybe if I’d arrived later or stayed longer, I’d have watched Riverdale sooner. Or maybe not.
As it was, I put off Riverdale until I’d run out of Crazy Ex-Girlfriend and Jane the Virgin and Arrested Development and Lewis and Endeavour and House of Cards (I watch a LOT of Netflix) and I wasn’t quite ready to consider rewatching any of them yet. And even then I hesitated, because while I’d never got into Archie the plot was pretty familiar and if there’s one thing I’d rather avoid, it’s a story where the whole central dynamic is two girls fighting over a boy. But, thankfully, that’s not what Riverdale is about.
The Archie comic book franchise (which has, after all, been going since 1942) has always tended to transform itself to keep up with the youth. But Riverdale is something different again, a glossy shadow-version of the Archie universe with a high-camp aesthetic and dialogue that at times veers into parody. This Buzzfeed article gives an idea of just how different it is, as well as a handy overview of the main characters; the article itself has no spoilers, though I can’t vouch for the comments. But the top few do suggest that those who love the all-American wholesome-ish quasi-innocence of the original comics don’t always take to Riverdale, and I can see why.
Riverdale doesn’t stick to the plot, thank God; the Archie-Betty-Veronica thing is mostly resolved early on, though it lingers a bit, as it would. The major story is a death in a small town: a socioeconomically divided small town riddled with present tensions, past grudges and broken relationships. Cheryl and Jason Blossom, the king and queen of Riverdale High and twin scions of the Blossom maple syrup dynasty (all of them red-haired: think about the genetics of THAT for a moment), dress all in white and go boating together one Fourth of July. Only Cheryl returns, telling a tragic story of a capsized boat and a failed rescue attempt. This is the first episode, so clearly that’s not actually how it went; and our boy hero Archie Andrews knows it, because he was picnicking in the woods that day with his young music teacher, Miss Grundy. He’s not about to tell the police what he heard, and she’s not about to let him. But Archie’s ex-friend Jughead, a bright and broken soul from the wrong side of the tracks, is writing his very own In Cold Blood about what happened that summer… and he’s not going to let old loyalties cloud his vision.
What follows in the course of the first series lives up to the drama of the opening, and then some. No character gets off easy, however loved by generations. Betty Cooper—Archie’s best ever friend who, in episode 1, is shyly planning to tell him how she feels—has a home life with a whiff of fire and brimstone about it and a ‘ruined’ sister in an institution. Her comic-book love rival Veronica Lodge is the daughter of an imprisoned robber baron. Moose Mason has a secret life; Josie (of the Pussycats) McCoy is the ambitious child of two warring high-achievers, not so much driven as pushed; Reggie Mantle is pretty well implicated in the toxic sexual politics of Riverdale High’s football scene. Jughead Jones, you’ll have gathered, doesn’t have much time for food, but a lot more time for girls; one girl, anyway. And his relationship with his father, a member of a criminal biker gang called the Southside Serpents, is going to complicate everything. (Jughead is played by Cole Sprouse, and his performance is an absolute highlight of the whole thing.)
Of course, even in a free adaptation like this, a hallowed storyverse with a cast of hundreds can’t easily be streamlined into a single linear narrative. Characters come, show a bit of depth and then vanish; some don’t even get to show a bit of depth. Subplots are dropped and then much later recalled, or hastily resolved; Archie’s relationship with Miss Grundy is inadequately handled in every way possible. The structure of the series isn’t quite as slick as the paint. And it’s true, as a number of critics have pointed out, that Archie himself is rather underwritten. But that in itself doesn’t bother me, because Riverdale isn’t really about Archie. In fact, Archie is the least interesting thing about Riverdale. What’s interesting is what everyone else in this series wants from Archie, and they all want something, whether it’s love, sex, approval, loyalty, help, or the prestige of association. This might not be the Riverdale of old, but Archie Andrews is clearly still the American dream.
Series 1 of Riverdale is currently available via Netflix in UK and Ireland, and the CW in the US.