Thursday, March 30, 2017

RIVERDALE is one of the most interesting new shows of this season

It recently hit me how unusual it is what RIVERDALE has been able to pull off. Can you imagine the CW hyping a new SUPERMAN show and then delivering a series based on SUPERMAN: RED SON, a graphic novel that posits what would have happened if Kal-El's rocket landed in Russia and he was raised Communist? Or perhaps promise a JUSTICE LEAGUE series and then unveil it as an adaptation of KINGDOM COME, a series that casts most of DC's heroes in middle age and in conflict with each other and a much darker world around them? Even given the popularity of those stories, it feels like Warner Bros would deem it too risky to make these outlier stories into the mainstream face of their properties.

Yet that's just what RIVERDALE is pulling off by transplanting the familiar Archie Comics characters into a new Twin Peaks-eque teen drama. When I first heard about the project, I suspected they might push Archie Andrews and friends to a more slightly mature DAWSON'S CREEK world, but the creepy atmosphere and darker vibe goes far beyond that. The archetypes the characters from the comics represent are there, but they've been complete and consumed into this unsettling world where one of the classmates has been murdered and no one - not even his family - seems above suspicion. Themes of corruption hang in the air constantly, whether they're wafting from the storyline of Veronica's mother cutting backroom deals with the mayor, or from the more personal corruption in progress as Archie's duplicitous teacher seduces him. This is a RIVERDALE so corrupt, we've seen local gangs established as influencing the town politics.

The weird thing about this is that it works rather effectively. Maybe for me that's because I'm aware of the Archie universe without being especially passionate about it. When I was growing up, Archie comics were usually the books that relatives got me when they didn't really know what I liked to read. I'd been reading Superman since the age of 6, but every now and then an Archie one would slip in. I remember them being fairly simple stories, the same kind of pre-teen comfort food you'd get from the animated DENNIS THE MENACE cartoon and SAVED BY THE BELL. There was no edge to Archie, but that was the point. They were easily defined archetypes: The Normal Kid, The Rich Girl, The Girl Next Door, The Best Friend, The Jock and so on.

These were comics aimed at 8 year olds so you're not going to find a lot of nuance. In fact, I'm pretty sure that I recall Betty and Veronica often changing places with regard to which one was the sympathetic "good" one and which one was more self-absorbed "wrong" choice in the love triangle. Because Archie didn't change and mature, I found it pretty easy to leave behind, even as my Superman, Batman and JLA-related collection grew to beyond 15 longboxes. It never even occurred to me that Archie meant THAT much to people until soon after I moved to LA and befriended a girl who was working for a director who was DEEP into geek culture. She didn't relate to her boss much because while he was into the DAREDEVILS and BATMANS, her passion was to be a producer on an ARCHIE movie. (The most recent comic book film around the time I learned this was CATWOMAN, so no one had much expectation at all of seeing Archie and friends appearing in live action.) At the time it struck me as odd that the simple stories resonated so much, but every now and then I'd find more people around my age with the same affection. The fanbase was disproportionately female, so perhaps this was an audience that conventional wisdom overlooked because of the assumption that "comic books are for boys."

I like that RIVERDALE is a big swing. There are no half-measures here. No punches pulled in the name of keeping the characters wholesome. The makeovers the characters get often draw on their history, but spun a completely different way. For instance, the blandly wholesome "good-girl" Betty is revealed to have a domineering mother who demands she be the perfect daughter. It makes Alice Cooper (the mother, not the singer) into the kind of paternal figure who'd be the villain of some indie movie about a teenage girl who cuts herself because she can't live up to the pressure to be perfect. Alice is rarely affectionate to Betty and even had her other daughter committed to a home for troubled youths (supposedly out of concern but CLEARLY more out of Alice's desire to keep the pregnant teen hidden from public view, thus protecting the facade of the perfect Cooper family.)

Jughead also is radically re-contextualized here. I recall him as the goofball who eats a lot of burgers. Here, his relationships with most of the gang are strained, particularly with Archie. Jughead is positioned as the outsider, the one who scribbles pseudo-profound observations about the others and the ongoing mystery in the true crime book he's writing. He's closed off, and likely appears perpetually sullen and alienating to most of his classmates. (Recent weeks have seen him open up and relax around the others, particularly Betty, but a newcomer to the town would never mistake the old Jughead for this guy. Perhaps the most interesting wrinkle is the fact his father is the leader of the Southside Serpents, Riverdale's motorcycle gang.

Veronica might be my favorite, and a lot of that owes to the fact she's allowed to be fun. I've been trying to pinpoint exactly why this works. She's got as much family drama as anyone: her father's in jail following an embezzlement scandal and her mother is having an affair with Archie's father. Oh, and she also forged Veronica's signature on company documents after Veronica refused to abet her mother's schemes. I think what let's Veronica be the sparkplug is that she seems to actually enjoy being with her friends and participating in all things RIVERDALE. So many of the show's relationships are fraught with tension and Veronica cuts through that. With her peers, she tries to resolve or cut through tension rather than be a prisoner of it. During a storyline about the guys on the football team slut-shaming the girls of the school, it's Veronica who spearheads the revenge scheme rather than pout or stew over it. When Betty is on the outs with Betty over (who else?) Archie, it's Veronica who works to clear the air and actively works to save the friendship. At its worst, the teen drama can turn into a lot of pretty people whining to one another "I can't believe you would do this to me!" over that week's misunderstanding. Veronica is defined by her refusal to be a prisoner of those cliches.

Which is not to imply that the others don't confront their conflict and demons, they just go about it in different ways. Several other characters push back against their parents, but lack the self-confidence Veronica displays. Surely there will come a time when fortunes will reverse (it's just the nature of drama) and Veronica is the one being kicked while she's down, but for now I'm enjoying this dynamic. I didn't expect that at this particular time in our culture that it would be easy to empathize with the "poor little rich girl" but RIVERDALE's finding ways to deepen the character beyond her two-dimensional depiction without making her unrecognizable.

I guess this brings me to Archie, who I'm finding to be a much more loaded character to discuss. In any ensemble like this, the central "normal guy" character is deceptively difficult to get right. Some of this is unfair. They have to be flawed in order to make good drama, and as the central figure, they don't often get a week off from screwing up or making mistakes. With extreme examples like Dawson Leery, the character tips too far, and one too many ventures into unlikability could cause us to question everything we enjoyed about the character in the first place. (Though I don't agree with it, "Kevin Arnold is a Dick" is a pretty good example of this kind of evidence logging.)

Thus far, the show has been cautious about wading into the Archie/Betty/Veronica triangle. There's plenty of groundwork for the show to use later, but it hasn't been foregrounded to the degree many other teen dramas would have by this point. It's a wise move that let's the characters be more fully formed before the triangle consumes them (and it almost always does.) By developing Archie/Betty, Betty/Veronica, Archie/Veronica on their own first, it'll give more weight to when the series decides to go full-hog into that romantic drama. To use a DAWSON'S CREEK example, think of how much better season 3's Dawson/Joey/Pacey triangle worked than the initial Joey/Dawson/Jen one did.

But it's impossible to discuss Archie without touching on his initial big plot. We learn in the pilot that he's been hooking up with his music teacher, Miss Grundy, since the summer. This kind of plot is always going to be a hot button for me. I absolutely loathe the romanticizing of teacher/student affairs on TV. Everyone jumps to Pacey and Miss Jacobs as their comparative, but I'm not someone who wears rose-colored glasses for DAWSON'S CREEK season one. It was an awful plot then and it hasn't aged any better in the years since. That show had nothing interesting to say about such an affair or the emotional impact on the underage participant. It was cynical shock value, with the novelty being that the teenage Pacey was the predator. "DAWSON'S did it" is not a good enough answer to pursue this kind of story.

My wife watches PRETTY LITTLE LIARS, and so I've seen a fair amount of those shows, which contains a teacher/student affair where the student is a teenage girl. This one raises my hackles because this pairing is eventually presented as one of the couplings we should be rooting for. It normalizes statutory rape and really seems to brush past the wrongness of such an affair. I don't think you have any business writing this story unless you're willing to acknowledge you're writing about statutory rape - and treat it seriously in that context. (Contrast PLL with LIFE UNEXPECTED, which seemed to be taking the wrong path with their teacher/student couple, only to throw in a late twist that forced the adult player to question the morality of what he'd done.)

I'm mindful that there's still plenty of time for RIVERDALE to throw such a twist at us, so I haven't let this one plot put me off of the show. To their credit, early on it was lampshaded that Miss Grundy was a sinister, predatory person, negating the PLL problem. With the affair exposed in Episode 4, most of the character reactions were horror and concern. No one cheered Archie with an "Attaboy!" (Or to use the vernacular of SOUTH PARK, "Niiiiiice.") However... we've not seen many emotional consequences for Archie either (yet.) This plot has all the hallmarks of something that's gonna pop up in the final three episodes to redefine the central mystery, so I'm willing to be patient.

I just question if this was the wisest plot to throw at the central character while he's being established. I've felt disconnected from Archie, and I suspect this is the culprit. He's gotten a couple interesting beats throughout, notably a story dealing with Jughead and the tensions between Jughead's father and Archie's father. The show has also done some interesting things with him trying to write songs and perform with one of the Pussycats (of Josie and the Pussycats), so I have faith that by the end of the season he'll be rounded out to better effect.

Josie and the Pussycats are also being treated with some unique shades. When Archie tries to write songs for them, they call him out on "cultural appropriation," questioning what a white teenage boy could have to say about the lives of black females. We also learn that Josie's father - a famed musician in his own right - doesn't think much of pop music and disapproves of his daughter's band so much that he can't even sit through an entire performance at the school talent show. (His anti-pop stance had me contemplating fan fiction where he meets Ryan Gosling's jazz purist character from LA LA LAND.)

So many words and I feel like I've barely scratched the surface of what makes RIVERDALE so compelling. There's a reason the show is titled "RIVERDALE" and not "ARCHIE." The creators have been establishing an entire canvas, gradually fleshing out many corner of the town. It helps the setting feel "real" in a way few shows manage early in their run. Did Capeside feel this fleshed out six episodes into DAWSON'S CREEK? Did GILMORE GIRLS get very far into establishing Stars Hollow as more than a generic quirky small town this fast?

Creator Roberto Aguirre-Sacasa, working under Berlanti Productions's Greg Berlanti and Sarah Schechter have established so much Riverdale culture that a broad variety of storylines can be launched from these origins. Arguably, this is helped by some clever casting in the adult roles, as virtually every senior member of the cast has a notable teen role on their resume. Luke Perry (BEVERLY HILLS 90210), Robin Givens (HEAD OF THE CLASS), and Skeet Ulrich (SCREAM) are just a few of the names to be dropped there. (M├Ądchen Amick is the overachiever, with her TWIN PEAKS history giving a link to one aspect of the show's lineage, and her DAWSON'S CREEK stint linking to the other half.)

And even though RIVERDALE seems to have an engine that could power it for five seasons or more, I wonder if - in the spirit of some ARCHIE reboots - we might find that each season completely reboots the context around the iconic characters. If this year is "ARCHIE meets TWIN PEAKS," what's to stop next year from being "ARCHIE meets THE WALKING DEAD" aka "AFTERLIFE WITH ARCHIE." (Yes, this exists - a comic miniseries about Riverdale being overrun by zombies, and it's written by series creator Aguirre-Sacasa.)

But for now, I'm more than happy to take in the shady, sinister vibe RIVERDALE's putting out this season. If you haven't checked it out yet, give it a look, and odds are you'll find something that appeals to you

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