A Dark Day in Suburbia: Riverdale Season One

I never thought I would see the day that the modern teen was invested in Archie Comics. Miraculously, that day has come, and much to my surprise, it’s actually not bad. For being a high school teacher, I’m pretty out of touch with what “kids these days” are familiar with. For many of my generation, Archie comics was still a frequently enough referenced entity to be familiar. Additionally, Sabrina the Teenage Witch was insanely popular as a television show in the 90’s and early 2000’s but many were unfamiliar with its affiliation to the Archie name.

Despite this lag in generational interest, it shocks me just how quickly Riverdale caught on. I was excited at first, but the promos didn’t look promising so I held off watching until the beginning of the summer, after all the episodes were released. My greatest surprise was that I liked it. I binged it towards the end of the school year, assuming I’d be able to multitask while I did and found myself not getting as much grading done as I thought (or would have liked). I was compelled for once by the actual plot line. I’m a sucker for whodunnits, as my interest in Twin Peaks probably attests, and I wanted to know who killed Jason Blossom. That kept me watching long enough to find my enjoyment of the updated characters that populate the Archie universe, and gratitude at the ways in which they were updated while remaining faithful to the nature of the source material.

Surprisingly, Riverdale seems to be using its platform to warn against a variety of teendom dangers and hardships – sex, drinking, drugs, bullies, homelessness, gangs, sexual assault, pregnancy, posting things on the internet…The list goes on. Unlike the comics – slave to their origins in the repressive 1950’s – the characters are often self aware on a level that I generally don’t expect from television, much less the CW. As a high school teacher, I interact with people supposedly the age of the “Core Four” on a daily basis. While I can definitely attest to the fact that this is a hyperbolic account of high school life, it is also not far enough from the frequent truth for comfort.

Archie continues to be the quintessential All-American ‘dudebro’. Happy-go lucky at the best of times, and self-absorbedly depressive at the worst, Archie remains the generally harmless, well-meaning, and unthinking titular character. His highs and lows are perhaps the most down to earth, despite his inappropriate relationship with teacher Ms. Grundy. He struggles to balance his schooling with his extra curriculars, deals with peer pressure, the fallout of his parents separation and  the strain of he and his best friends growing apart, while romantic relationships become more important to them. All these things feel more realistic than almost any other aspect of the show.

Despite being the comic’s titular character, Archie shares the brunt of his screen time equally with the rest of the main cast.   The role painted for him by the comics is difficult enough to transcend without altering who he truly is. Additionally, For the narrative that the show runners have chosen to tell, it is important that Archie remain mired in the typical difficulties of teenage life while the plot spirals out of control around him. He is an accurate, if exaggerated at times, example of a typical ‘jock’ teen: equal parts hidden sensitivity, arrogant adrenaline, all wrapped up in a great big ball of hormones.

Riverdale S1 poster

It’s difficult to reconcile Archie’s character. I want to like him, and, in some respects, I do. A major criticism I have of Archie’s character is that, during season one, he seems to keep Betty in his back pocket, an option when he runs out of dates. All the same, it is an important aspect to include. This misogynistic behaviour isn’t something he does consciously, but it does seriously affect his relationship with not only Betty, but his other friends as well. Nor does Archie often think about consequences before acting.  Archie isn’t a bad kid. He’d just that: a kid. And sometimes, he doesn’t know any better.

Betty is all pastels and ponytails and sweetness, just as in the Archie comics, but I loved her all the more this past season for her development as a fierce and determined person despite the role carved out for her by her overbearing mother. She’s exceedingly driven, almost to a dangerous point and provides backdrop for the dangers of parental pressure, which isn’t discussed near enough. Through her role as the town’s aspiring Nancy Drew, she seeks to uncover the secrets that led to Jason’s demise while actively sticking up for her equally oppressed sister. Betty is the one dedicated to solving the mystery from angles which the police won’t investigate.

For a show, the source material for which is from the 50’s, there were infinite dangers in how to handle the traditionally accepted tropes from the comics regarding the characters. Betty’s update is a relief because it focuses on her individuality, and her power to act as an individual despite the oppressiveness of her situation.  Whoever thought that Archie comics would be culturally relevant? Not me.

Jughead eats a surprising and unfortunately low number of cheeseburgers on Riverdale. I doubt I was the only one to feel this way. He’s the voice of the show and also a good deal of the emotional center. He’s always been my favourite character, and is seemingly most people’s favourite, for a variety of reasons, not the least of which is his absolute refusal to do or be what is expected of him, or in turn, his occasionally fourth-wall breaking antics, paralleled by the fact that Riverdale’s Juggie narrates the show. Riverdale does a good job in capturing at least that element, and, like with the others, rounds his character out a considerable amount by giving him an affiliation via his father with the Southside Serpents (who have come a long, dark way from their origins in the “Little Archie” comics about elementary school age Arch and Co!). By placing him in this role, he serves as the connective tissue on a lot of the themes and plots.

The updated version of the belovedly sarcastic and sardonic Juggie as a dark and brooding teen from the wrong side of the tracks fits his typically ‘loner’ angled attitude. He’s still the smartest kid on the block when it comes to the books, and, generally, when it comes to real life as well. The dialogue written for Jughead in the first seasons is a toned down version of dialogue typical for his characters in the comics and he provides a beautifully and mournfully realistic dark spot on the surface of the shiny, All American town. Too many kids are dealing with gangs and alcoholic parents while attempting to go to school. While this Jughead is definitely on a different “Angst Level”. than his counterpart, he retains all those things which manage to make the character one of the more entertaining elements of Archie Comics.

Veronica is perhaps the least altered character next to Archie. She doesn’t feel all that removed from her comic origins, and the inclusion of her father as a white collar criminal doesn’t seem all that impossible to believe even of the fifties. The nicest aspect added here is her hispanic background which I quite enjoy. At least, culturally, she’s enhanced, even if she remains the generally nice (but never sweet) little rich girl who isn’t afraid to bite back.

The single best part of Riverdale is that the Epic Love Triangle ™ is over. No more will they won’t they between Archie, Ronnie and Betty. No one needs a love triangle. This is 2017 and we’re beyond that. I hope. By removing the constant romantic tension between B and V and Arch, the friendships are instead allowed to flourish, and, in a show where the murder is (surprisingly) more important to the plot than the relationships (talk about turning the tables on expectations), allowing Veronica and Archie to develop a strong foundation for their relationship and letting Betty move on to greener pastures (Jughead) leaves room for the core friendship to keep the plot rolling instead of stifling it with infighting between Betty and Ronnie.

The further cast of characters (namely Kevin, Reggie, Josie, Cheryl Blossom and her parents, Fred Andrews, FP Jones and Alice and Hal Cooper) add a variety of levels to the show. Cheryl and her parents exist as the single most unrealistic archetype in the show, tempered by the unfortunate reality of parents like Alice and FP, and the typical sort, in Fred. Because of her family background, Veronica (on many levels) serves as a outside influence. Her arrival and her family’s arrival in town sets the stage for many of the evolving external conflicts and also serves as the most dramatically staged child/parent division. As all the kids interact with their parents, having this drastic contrast serves to delineate the nature of each of those relationships. Veronica, like Judhead, is caught between two different worlds, but it often has much grander consequences than those intimate ones on Jughead’s end.

Riverdale is, at best, thematically derivative of Twin Peaks only in terms of certain genres and elements. Parents and their kids are focus characters. It’s soapy. There are ridiculous teen romances. There are secrets galore. And there is murder. (Additionally, Madchen Amick, as the fabulous, vicious, overbearing Alice Cooper, mother of Betty). There is certainly an underlying dark current to the show, which is also reminiscent of Twin Peaks, but it is nowhere near the same levels or styles. Many of the characters plot lines revolve around the different secrets that each carries of the day that Jason Blossom (Twin to Cheryl – yes we have twinning!) dies. It’s a bit like a game of clue. Just like in Twin Peaks, each character holds a different piece of the puzzle in the greater mystery of a teenager’s death, with side-plots and various soapy elements feeding in.

I don’t typically theorize about shows, mostly because I don’t need to. Twin Peaks is like any other television in that respect. The last show I ‘theorized’ about was Broadchurch, another whodunnit with the pieces waiting to be put together. I like these but I’m usually on the right track. I played Clue often enough as a kid to put the pieces together. My collection of original print Nancy Drew volumes can speak to that, as does my undying love of Scooby Doo and Agatha Christie. What kept me going with Riverdale was that I didn’t know. It surprised me. A CW show that required more than just surface level thought? – That’s not to say that some moments aren’t entirely gumball teen pop romance drama. There’s plenty of that, and I unabashedly ate it up too. – Riverdale consistently flirts with supernatural darkness and mental darkness though it rarely goes that far. I’m happy, for once, to say that I didn’t know it was Mr. Blossom. Happy to say that my suggestion that Polly was a construct of Betty’s fractured mental state was so far off base.

When it came down to it, Season One of Riverdale just wasn’t as dark as it claimed to be, or maybe wanted to be. It’s trailers and teasers promised something entirely different than it delivered and that might not be a bad thing. I expected more of the supernatural. I got none. Instead, the darkness which it presented was human darkness. True interpersonal and intrapersonal struggles, which, while all too real for many teens, might seem fantastical to adults who are distanced from such topics. Season 2 is its own animal, but the 13 installment first season has certainly set the bar for what Riverdale is and can become, and already the darkness is growing.

Written by Eileen G. Mykkels

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