So far, Riverdale’s Jughead Jones has yet to consume a single hamburger. He’s not a loyal sidekick. He doesn’t even seem to be particularly good friends with Archie Andrews. He’s a self-righteous, beanie-wearing, untalented aspiring novelist. He’s nothing like the Jughead of the Archie comics, and he’s not just Riverdale’s crowning achievement. He’s the best teen character on TV.
Both Riverdale and the comics that inspired it trade in adolescent archetypes: jock, cheerleader, queen bee. One of the greatest strengths of the show and the rebooted comics, both supervised by Archie Comics chief creative officer Roberto Aguirre-Sacasa, is the way they update those stock characters to reflect the contemporary high school experience. Archie is still a sweet, boring dude, just one who’s having an illicit affair with a teacher. Betty is still a girl next door, just with a hyper-controlling mom. Veronica is still a rich girl, just one whose father is a disgraced Madoff stand-in. Everyone is basically their character from the comics, plus an additional layer of CW gossip and secrets.
Neo-Jughead, though, is by far the most radical reinvention: a take on the self-styled young intellectual. Most high school dramas still give us nerds firmly in the Freaks and Geeks mode — bespectacled, precocious, yet to grow into themselves. Jughead represents something else: the kind of kid who saw shows like that and learned to be proud of their brainy outsider status. Or as actor Cole Sprouse put it in an interview with Vulture, “[I] think he’s the narrator because it flatters him. I think Jughead’s a selfish character. … It’s quite vain to think, I’m so cool and on the outside of society that I can write about everybody. That’s not common at all among teenagers.” Take it from Jughead himself:
“Our story is about a town,” Jughead intones in the series’ opening voice-over. “A small town. And the people who live in the town.” As the character whose literary stylings provide the show’s framing device, Jughead shapes our perspective of the setting — and thanks to his, uh, developing writing skills, what we see is mostly a litany of clichés: “From a distance, it presents itself like so many other small towns all over the world: safe, decent, innocent. Get closer, though, and you start seeing the shadows underneath.” You mean this suburban idyll isn’t as perfect as it seems? Cool story, bro!
Riverdale’s specialty is dumb dialogue written by smart people, a tightrope its writers walk with Jughead’s corny, pompous prose. The novel-in-progress that provides much of our exposition is inspired by the very much unsolved death of golden-boy quarterback Jason Blossom. What kind of person is arrogant enough to attempt the definitive account of a still-open case from his regular seat at the local diner? A teenage boy, obviously.
Jughead is the kind of guy who’s so busy congratulating himself on his own insight that he never quite notices that the people around him are capable of thinking too. He’s @GuyInYourMFA’s origin story. He’s fake deep. (He finds the perfect extracurricular outlet for his indignant superiority, too: Our boy is a staff writer at Riverdale High’s student paper.) The parody more than makes up for the loss of the gluttonous slacker we all know and love. In Riverdale’s most recent installment, Jughead is positively outraged by the impending closure of the local art-house drive-in, because of course he is. Mid-tirade, his shtick teeters from irritating to unbearable: “As the godfather of indie cinema, Quentin Tarantino, likes to say — ” “Please, god,” Kevin cuts him off. “No more Tarantino references.” Even by the standards of Riverdale’s already reference-saturated dialogue — Toni Morrison! Truman Capote! — the line is perfect, putting the pop culture literacy that can sometimes feel like name dropping for name dropping’s sake in the service of a good own (not to mention a self-own on the part of the writers’ room).
This being a CW show, Jughead isn’t exempt from the soapy drama that envelops the peers he tries so hard to distance himself from. Turns out there’s an ulterior motive to his hipster umbrage: He’s actually been living at the theater, because his silver fox of a dad is the leader of a T-Birds-esque greaser gang called the Southside Serpents. (Riverdale loves to deploy ’50s iconography for maximum camp.) And the casting of Suite Life of Zack & Cody alum Sprouse has the same meta quality as having Twin Peaks’ Madchen Amick play Betty’s mom or 90210’s Luke Perry play Archie’s dad, just tailored for a younger generation. Jughead’s pretension adds an extra layer of fun to Riverdale’s heady mix of irony and suds, but he’s very much an extension of the show’s strengths. Riverdale excels when it’s tweaking our inherited images of teens and small towns alike. As Riverdale’s would-be chronicler, Jughead offers a spot-on sendup that also showcases his show at its artfully cheesy best.