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“Hot Archie” Isn’t an Oxymoron — He’s the Future of the CW

‘Riverdale’ brings the comics into the 21st century with plenty of familiar CW mystery and romance

(The CW)
(The CW)

The first time CW viewers meet Archie Andrews, eternal pen-and-ink teenager and ginger everyman, he’s shirtless and sexy — one might even say objectified. “Game changer,” Betty Cooper’s best friend, Kevin, says, at once breathless and a little sardonic. Not coincidentally, our straight male hero is literally introduced to us by a gay man, and he likes what he sees: “Archie got hot!”

This is Riverdale, though you’ll never be able to think of it as anything but Hot Archie. That’s the point.

Premiering this Thursday, Riverdale is the latest addition to the CW’s ever-expanding roster of comic book shows. Like Arrow, The Flash, Legends of Tomorrow, and Supergirl, Riverdale is shepherded by super-producer Greg Berlanti, whose domain makes up an ever-increasing proportion of the CW’s prime-time slate. (With Riverdale, he now runs a full third of the schedule.) Unlike its peers in the Arrowverse, though, Riverdale isn’t about superheroes. It’s about ordinary teenagers, living their ordinary lives in an ordinary town. Such has been the bread and butter of Archie comics since 1941, when writer Vic Bloom and artist Bob Montana inadvertently locked Archie-Betty-Veronica into the popular consciousness as the most iconic love triangle of all time.

But times change, and so does Archie, who now adds “solve shocking murder” to his to-do list somewhere beneath “choose a girlfriend. The characters’ onscreen metamorphosis from carefree cartoons into brooding amateur detectives is only the latest tactic in an ongoing effort to bring the comics’ quintessentially old-school archetypes into the present. The franchise has found an ideal home in a network also in the throes of change. Long known for high school dramas filled with streaked mascara and softcore sex, the CW has made detours of late into time travel, demon hunting, and musicals. Riverdale’s fusion of Archie with John Hughes, David Lynch, and Stephanie Savage fits right in. Riverdale — a self-consciously gritty, willingly campy television show based on a bubblegum comic — is a bridge between old CW and new.

Riverdale is the brainchild of creator Roberto Aguirre-Sacasa, a Yale-educated playwright who, in his other gig as chief creative officer at Archie Comics, supervises comic book Archie. (The imprint publishes Archie and fellow cultural touchstones Josie and the Pussycats and Sabrina the Teenage Witch.) Shortly after he conceived the initial idea, Aguirre-Sacasa joined forces with Berlanti; currently best known for his comic book kingdom, Berlanti also wrote for WB series including Dawson’s Creek and Everwood (which he also created), making him an ideal guide for a show that has its hyperstylized cake and eats it, too. Together, they took the show to Berlanti’s longtime patrons at the CW and found an enthusiastic collaborator.

Early in the adaptation process, though, it became clear that a direct transplant of the comics’ low-stakes kitsch wasn’t enough to set Riverdale apart from the deafening chatter of Peak TV. Aguirre-Sacasa, a television veteran who’s written for Glee, Big Love, and Looking in addition to his comics work, originally conceived Riverdale as “a much more straightforward coming-of-age show”; think Freaks and Geeks or My So-Called Life with a subtextual Madonna-whore complex. “I had always thought that the fact that it was Archie and Betty and Veronica … was enough,” Aguirre-Sacasa explained. “What we found out is that things really didn’t spark until we put those characters in juxtaposition with something that was almost the opposite. Which is to say, a world of noir elements: crime, secrets, sexuality, moral complexity.”

CW president Mark Pedowitz wasn’t just receptive to Riverdale’s counterintuitive hodgepodge — he “really, really pushed [Riverdale] to become something more than it was originally,” Aguirre-Sacasa said. “It’s a mystery show as well as a coming-of-age show.” And then it was Berlanti who suggested a dead body, the inciting incident of any number of small-town intrigue shows. Aguirre-Sacasa initially resisted the suggestion, until he realized that sex, crime, and intrigue were exactly what the pilot needed: “TV’s changed so much, and to make a show break from the white noise of it all, it does feel like you, for better or for worse, need a concept and a take that sets it apart.” So he added Stand by Me and River’s Edge to his inspiration board (Riverdale’s pilot episode is named after the 1986 Keanu Reeves indie).

The tonal shift wasn’t as drastic as it sounds. Under Aguirre-Sacasa’s direction, the Archie comics themselves went through a much-publicized relaunch a year and a half ago, with sleeker artwork and updated characters: Betty is a tomboy who loves fixing cars; Jughead is a sardonic bystander. “We were rebranding and relaunching and rebooting the comic books to coincide with the pilot,” Aguirre-Sacasa told me a few weeks before the premiere. And then, as it always does, Hollywood took its sweet time: “It took an extra year to get the pilot made and shot and all that stuff, but we’d already set the wheels in motion of the Archie-verse reboot.”

The reboot involves plenty of selfies and making Riverdale’s population more diverse than the comics’ 75-year-old vision of small-town America. To the basic, combustible arrangement of Archie (K.J. Apa), literal girl next door Betty (Lili Reinhart), and new heiress on the block Veronica (Camila Mendes), Riverdale adds a student-teacher affair, a lecture on branding from Josie, and grown-up drama between Archie’s rugged, single dad and Veronica’s socialite mom straight out of Gossip Girl’s Rufus-Lily playbook.

It also layers on the sort of ’80s teen nostalgia that, in a happy coincidence, became all the rage while Riverdale was being developed. The Americans, The Goldbergs, Halt and Catch Fire, and Stranger Things are all set in the decade, probing its aesthetics and late–Cold War cultural environment with 20/20 hindsight. Riverdale takes the same approach to its vision of adolescence, and adds an extra dimension of anthropological irony. Pep rallies and proms are already bizarre; it just takes the heightened unreality of life-or-death stakes and comic book characters to help us see it. That’s how you get Riverdale’s eyebrow-raising logline, most recently touted by Pedowitz at this month’s Television Critics Association press tour: The O.C. Twin Peaks.

Attractive young people cycling in and out of love is the shared foundation of Archie and any number of past CW shows alike. A concept carried over from the WB — along with UPN, one of the two networks that combined to form the CW in 2006 — series in the vein of Gossip Girl, Gilmore Girls, and 90210 are still a fundamental part of the just 10-year-old network’s identity. Bringing Archie into that lineage would barely require reformatting; just cast a few 20-somethings who could semiplausibly pass for teens, add hair dye, and go. Adding murder to the mix, however, adds an extra degree of difficulty. Splicing Archie’s blue-skies idyll with a whodunnit sounds like a tonal mismatch worthy of The Young Pope, not so much impossible as overdone. (How many “X, plus frowning” adaptations does the world need?) But, Aguirre-Sacasa argues, “the sweet spot of the show is where those two genres come up against each other.”

Like The Young Pope, Riverdale works better than it has any right to, in no small part because it’s aware of its own absurdity. Riverdale pokes fun at its counterintuitive mix, starting with its inversion of the Dead Girl Show trope (simply put: a show that revolves around the disappearance of a deceptive-yet-vulnerable teenage girl). On Riverdale, the Dead Girl is a Dead Boy: Jason Blossom, a golden child with skeletons in his closet that finally caught up to him — a role typically occupied by girls, except in Riverdale.

Fear not: Riverdale isn’t a gender studies tome, nor is it a dizzying meta deconstruction that forgets to have fun. The stern, white-haired schoolmarm from the comics — named Geraldine Grundy, for God’s sake — is now a glasses-wearing, tight-bun-unraveling sexpot teacher, and the show features an actual Twin Peaks cast member (Madchen Amick, who plays Betty’s mom) in an attempt to set its own tone before onlookers can. Riverdale gives us permission to go along with its sillier impulses, because we’re in the capable hands of storytellers we can trust. “I don’t mind mixing tones, and I don’t mind mixing drama with comedy, and I don’t mind mixing earnestness with sarcasm or undercutting, sardonic humor,” Aguirre-Sacasa said. “I love all the things [Riverdale] is. It’s like the kitchen sink.”

That kitchen sink throws together strains of the CW’s traditional DNA with the direction it’s taken since its early days as a WB extension: younger-skewing, but also more genre-oriented with Berlanti’s shows, sci-fi like Supernatural, and telenovela Jane the Virgin. Riverdale instantly feels at home with its own weirdness, and in the CW’s Berlanti empire, too. Explaining his decision to pick up the sort of high school show his network has pivoted away from in recent years, Pedowitz told his TCA audience, “We’ve broadened ourselves out to where we can go back to a genre. … For us, it was very simple: We had grown enough that we could go back into a genre we thought we’d edged up a little and put it in our programming mix.” In other words, Riverdale takes the CW’s new approach to its old material — in this case, material older than the CW by a cool 65 years. Archie’s omnipresence makes it simultaneously ripe for revision and easily palatable. “The truth is that all these characters really are established, well-known archetypes, even if people don’t know the names specifically,” Aguirre-Sacasa said. “Even when people didn’t know who Archie Andrews was, people always knew what we meant when we say, ‘Are you a Betty or a Veronica?’”