Monday, March 6, 2017

Life with Archie

I read a lot of comic books in my youth (back in the 60s and 70s), mostly DC superheroes lines, but my guilty pleasures were the Archie comics. Since Archie has, against all odds, retained a presence in current popular culture, I assume I don't have to go into a lot of detail about his background. Suffice to say that the stories focus on red-haired high school student Archie Andrews, his off-and-on girlfriends (the rich and bitchy Veronica Lodge, the perky and innocent Betty Cooper), his buddies (the slacker Jughead and cocky jock Reggie), and his misadventures at Riverdale High. The details in the comics have changed to keep up with the times, most notably with the addition of gay student Kevin Keller, but the overarching themes remains the same: trouble with girls, trouble with teachers, trouble with money, etc.

The new CW series Riverdale takes these iconic characters (they've been around since 1942) and puts them not only into the 21st century, but into a small-town gothic atmosphere. Much has been made of the show's resemblances to Twin Peaks, and that is certainly true on the surface, though the surreal dreamlike quality of that show has not been carried over here. I liked the show quite a bit in the beginning, mostly watching how they were both updating and honoring the original characters. Archie was a likable but clueless kid; here, he's likable but sensitive, playing football but also concentrating on his songwriting hobby, which he takes seriously. Veronica is the rich girl who has, had to move from Manhattan back to her mom's hometown because her rich father has been jailed on fraud charges. Jughead is less a doofus and more a loner. Betty is the closest to being like her comic book self, blonde and perky and carrying a torch for Archie; they're best friends but he can't quite see her has a partner in romance. Kevin is delightfully and openly gay (happy, not tormented); Reggie has become downgraded to a bullying bit player, and other side characters like Moose, Dilton Doily, and Josie and the Pussycats are also present.

Even bigger changes have happened to the adults. In the comic books, parents are basically background dressing (except Veronica's dad). Here, they all have backstories, mostly sad ones. The most disturbing change is in Betty's mom, who doesn't like Archie or Veronica, and Betty's dad, whs, who may be implicated in a murder. The prim elderly teacher Miss Grundy has been turned into a mild-mannered music teacher who seems to be a cougar at heart--she has a torrid affair, if short-lived, affair with Archie.

All the characters, young and old, now lean toward depression and brooding, largely because, as in Twin Peaks, the overarching narrative involves an unsolved murder, that of Cheryl Blossom's brother Jason. The first few episodes were an interesting mix of humor and whimsy (watching how the characters and situations would be adapted) and creepiness (the weirdness of the parents, the almost incestuous vibe between the Blossom siblings). Veronica and Kevin (pictured below) had a funny "meet cute" moment; Josie and the Pussycats snuck in a snatch of the Archies' 60s hit "Sugar, Sugar"--BTW, the Archies are another guilty pleasure of mine, perhaps the greatest bubblegum group of the era; the Archie-Betty-Veronica triangle was played around with a bit before being dropped completely; and Veronica actually called Archie "Archiekins."

I was really enjoying the show for a while, but now, six episodes in, the glow is fading. The humor and whimsy levels have dropped precipitously and it's becoming just another gloomy show about teenagers. I don't like TV shows that focus on teens, but teens seem to be a major market for the CW (Vampire Diaries, lots of DC superhero shows) so I guess I should have expected this. The acting in general is fine: KJ Apa is a surprisingly hunky and handsome Archie, Lili Reinhart and Camila Mendes are note-perfect as Betty and Veronica, Casey Cott is an appealingly snarky Kevin, and the adults (Luke Perry as Mr. Andrews, Marisol Nichols as Mrs. Lodge, and Madchen Amick--an actual Twin Peaks alumnus--as Betty's mom) are all fine. I also have to mention Cole Spouse as Jughead--when I realized that he played Ross' son Ben in Friends, I felt incredibly old! I'm just wishing the scripting was better, that the blend of mystery and humor that worked so well in the first few episodes had been sustained. I'll stick with it for the season, which may be as long as it lasts given the ratings drop it's experienced lately).

[BTW, the product placement involving Cover Girl is out of control. In almost every episode, in addition to ads for Cover Girl featuring Reinhart and Mendes, we get a lingering close-up on a Cover Girl product being used by Betty or Veronica. I'm not categorically against this kind of thing, but a little more subtlety would be welcome.]