It’s time for you to catch up on the Archie Comics renaissance.
It’s gotta be incredible to be someone who watches Riverdale for the first time completely unaware of what it is. Like, the suspicion has got to creep up on them slowly—okay, teen murder mystery in a Twin Peaks-y small town, cool, this person would probably think. They’d be right, it is kinda cool, with a gloom-and-neon aesthetic that looks really distinct and moody and eye-catching.
And speaking of eye-catching, that’s probably the next thing this theoretical viewer would notice: The lead character’s hair is REALLY red. His name is Archie? That’s… no way, this viewer would probably chuckle softly, completely dismissing the idea that the guy on their screen is the Archie Andrews they would occasionally see in magazine racks at the supermarket. This guy on TV has abs! And he has sex! With his teacher! But then they’d meet Betty and Veronica and Josie and the Pussycats and the ridiculous truth is completely impossible to deny once Jughead shows up: This is an Archie Comics show, motherfucker.
Unless of course, they’ve never been exposed to Archie Comics. That would be a shame.
Archie Comics have a perceived brand. They are wholesome, old-fashioned stories about idyllic teen life that hearkens back to the small-town America of the 40s and 50s, projecting a sort of innocence that’s become inseparable from the iconography of the era. At their core, they’re stories about a kid who always wants to be a decent person and have a good time, but he doesn’t really quite know how to do that. So he tries to help, and often screws things up. He can’t choose between Betty or Veronica, and often just ends up hanging out with Jughead. Stuff like that. They’re full of aw-shucks sentimentality and Looney Tunes-esque slapstick, and if you’re miserably sick in bed and not feeling modern dark and complex storytelling, there’s something comforting about that.
Archie Comics also have an actual brand, and it’s one of the boldest, strangest, and altogether one of the most interesting publishers in comic books. Since roughly 2011, the folks behind Archie Comics have staged a full-blown revival, upgrading the gang’s style, introducing an openly gay character, Kevin Keller (a major part of the Riverdale cast), throwing them in full-on Zombie stories, and even putting them up against the Predator. All of this works because, again, these are stories about kids who want to be decent and have a good time, but they don’t always quite know how to do that. That’s the genius behind Archie, and why the characters have endured for 75 years—they’re archetypal teenagers with just enough distinct characteristics to be recognizable, and also blank enough slates that they can be dropped in almost any context and still work.
Lots of people will probably be upset about this saucy new Archie, but that’s missing the point. Archie works because he’s malleable.
Riverdale brings the Archie revolution to TV, and it’s kind of incredible. Dark and sexy and ridiculous, there’s nothing quite like it. Check it out for the pure spectacle of it, and whether or not you stay is up to you. The show’s not great so much as it is ballsy; it’s admirable in its willingness to go there, making decisions both brilliant (the way the show handles Veronica and Betty’s relationship) and not-so-great (Archie’s affair with a Ms. Grundy, who is much younger than she is in the comics). Lots of people will probably be upset about this saucy new Archie, decrying it as a sign of pop culture’s moral decay, but that’s missing the point. Archie, as we’ve established, works because he’s malleable.
There is, however, a critique of Riverdale‘s changes that’s a bit more concrete, and it’s the show’s biggest departure from the source material: Everyone’s so serious. It’s hard not to think that the show should have a bit more levity. But it’s also self-aware, wearing its influences on its sleeve. To see Riverdale turn Archie Comics into a teen soap genre pastiche is both entertaining on its own and in a very meta sort of way—while Archie isn’t necessarily the first teen soap, it’s an early one, and it’s downright fascinating to see Riverdale emerge as a weird Frankenstein of teen soap operas. A Pretty Little Gossip Archie 90210, if you will.
There’s also the fact that Riverdale manages to pull off what’s possibly the greatest trick in television: The one where it leaves you with no idea as to where it will go next.
Riverdale premieres at 9 p.m. Thursday, January 26, on The CW. You can also catch it streaming for free all day Friday via The CW app and website.