Is Riverdale an admirably bizarre experiment? Or a desperate reconfiguration of recognisable intellectual property that darkens a cheerful vintage text as a shortcut to sexy?
A live-action TV adaptation of the Archie comics that morphs a classically wholesome piece of Americana into a teen soap murder mystery in which Archie sleeps with his teacher is certainly one of the more provocative overhauls of recent years. But if you’re a network looking for yet another comic book property to adapt and Archie is one of the few icons left, how else do you make it viable?
To be fair, the Archie comics themselves have been modernising his quaint universe for the last few years. A gay character, Kevin Keller, was introduced in 2010. A 2013 mini-series pitted Archie against zombies. And darker themes like death, cancer, and gun control have gradually been introduced in subsequent years, culminating in a 2015 relaunch that permanently brought all Archie comics into this more ambitious and relevant mode.
Archie Comics’ Chief Creative Officer, playwright and comic book writer Roberto Aguirre-Sacasa, spearheaded the upgrade. He’s also the creator of Riverdale, a new front in his mission to make Archie relevant again. At its heart, the Archie universe tells simple tales about relationships and daily life in small-town America featuring characters archetypal enough that they should be able to survive transmutation to other genres and styles. If Batman can be both a camp 60s comedy hero and a brooding, mentally imbalanced vigilante, why can’t a high school character like Archie have sex and dwell on unfulfilled dreams?
Riverdale says that he can, and based on the pilot, the result isn’t preposterous. As contemporary teen drama characters, the Archie regulars pass muster. Archie (KJ Apa) – old-fashioned name notwithstanding – can be the hot, good-hearted footballer that other characters crush on. Betty (Lili Reinhart) can be the good student with a domineering mother and Veronica (Camila Mendes) her rich, more assertive new best friend who helps her navigate high school politics. And Jughead can, at a stretch, be a reserved writer chronicling the events around him and providing unsubtle voiceovers about small town secrets. OK, the name ‘Jughead’ probably won’t stop sounding awkward, but on the whole the characters work in this edgier format.
Updating Archie this way might be enough, but Aguirre-Sacasa has gone further and added a murder mystery. He’s described Riverdale as ‘Archie meets Twin Peaks’, which is reasonable if only considering Peaks as a murder mystery in a small town whose residents all have secrets that might be relevant. We have little indication so far that the two shows will resemble each other any more than that. But Twin Peaks challenged and warped the myth of small-town America’s purity, the ultimate resolution to its mystery a blunt reminder that horrors occur behind the most normal façade.
Whether Riverdale intends to go to such lengths isn’t yet clear, with the murder itself only revealed in the final scene. Based on the conventional execution of the pilot and the onerous attempts to inject some gravity into the proceedings (graceless literary references, those cloying voiceovers), the outlook isn’t great. In all likelihood, it’ll at least be a diverting bit of mystery with teen angst and misty Vancouver atmosphere. The blasé melodrama in the pilot suggests that fortunately it’s not taking itself too seriously, but the show has yet to go beyond that and offer any greater sustenance than a self-aware guilty pleasure.
But if it saw fit, Riverdale could use its own transformation of the wholesome Archie stories and the circumstances of the crime to comment on how American society has changed in the decades since the character was created, how nostalgia for a perfect small-town past is misguided because it never existed. That may be too textured for those who just want Riverdale to be soapy escapism, but as Twin Peaks showed, a soap can feature substantial ideas without sacrificing frothy fun and thereby satisfy a range of audience demands. If Aguirre-Sacasa cites such a show as an inspiration, it’s reasonable to imagine he might aim that high.
While the acting, dialogue, and overall execution so far may not promise a Buffy-style subversion and deepening of the high school drama, Riverdale needs to be given the benefit of the doubt that such an agenda is part of the reason for its IP mining. It may be more than just a banal mystery soap given a promotional boost by audaciously messing with beloved Archie, Betty, Veronica, and friends. Episode two and the start of the who-killed-Jason-Blossom storyline may provide a clearer picture.