In recent years, Archie, best known as the red-headed teenager on the cover of comics at the grocery store check-out line, has shrewdly swapped safe Americana for bizarre adventures and brand partnerships. Archie Andrews and his pals faced the zombie apocalypse in Afterlife with Archie; they got mauled by Predator — yes, that Predator; and they hung out with Marvel’s murderous vigilante The Punisher, the rock group the Ramones, and the cast of the TV musical series Glee.
And the series has been bold in pushing socially progressive issues alongside its more outlandish ideas. In 2010, series introduced its first openly gay character, Kevin Keller, and four years later in the Life with Archie finale, Archie literally took a bullet for Kevin as part of a plot concerning gun-control laws. Last year, Archie Comics revealed that Archie’s friend Jughead is asexual.
Now Archie has a new TV show, Riverdale on the CW. So what’s the twist on the latest take on the Archie comics? It’s traditional, surprisingly so.
Riverdale is the story of a small American town rocked by the murder of a high school student. Archie Andrews is a football player-slash-aspiring musician, the heartthrob counterpart to the perfect girl-next-door Betty and the sultry new girl, Veronica. Their foil is the rich and cruel Cheryl Blossom, whose twin brother disappeared in a boat accident the previous summer. Each character seems to carry some dark secret or tragic past. The show has long been billed as “Archie meets Twin Peaks,” a tagline clearly meant to evoke a weird and specific mix of retro camp and the horror of the strange and unknowable.
Perhaps the biggest surprise of Riverdale is how long it’s taken Archie to get the CW high school drama treatment.
Riverdale’s contemporary high school setting is the most logical culmination of the series’ long and experimental past, a return to the youth culture the comics spent decades trying and often failing to capture. In a lengthy profile on Vulture about the creation of the show, Archie writer Mark Waid nails one of the series’ major oversights: “They were comics about teenagers that teenagers didn't read.”
If any artist, writer, or corporate entity can revive the long-dead “teenage coolness” of Archie, it’s the CW. With the 18–34 demographic in mind, the CW has mastered the craft of pre-chewing pop culture for a millennial audience. The CW takes whatever genres or franchises are popular at the moment, reduces them to their most melodramatic parts, and sprinkles in hot people with an aversion to shirts for spice.
“The popular thing, but for young people” model works. Consider the CW’s long-running bloodsucker drama, The Vampire Diaries: a series of young adult books adapted for TV, it struck a balance between the awkwardly chaste Twilight and the raunchy, ridiculous True Blood. The show ends this year with an eighth season, but has already spawned a spinoff to carry on its legacy. Reign, a mystery-steeped romance rooted in (not so accurate) historical fiction has been described as Game of Thrones for teenage girls. And as the CW starts to age up, it currently has an iron grip on the episodic superhero genre with shows like Arrow, The Flash, Legends of Tomorrow, and Supergirl, which it saved from CBS. Despite their wide range of topics, these shows all share the same skeleton of drama-drenched pleasure romps.
In a time when it feels impossible to predict what teenagers will like, Riverdale executive producer Greg Berlanti seems to possess a divining rod that guides him to the next big trend. Berlanti’s impressive resume includes two hallmarks of small-town fiction, Dawson’s Creek and Everwood. More recently, he’s worked on The CW’s superhero slate, Arrow, Supergirl, The Flash, and Legends of Tomorrow.
As for Archie, Riverdale doesn't take many risks with the CW blueprint. Everyone is beautiful and sad, whether they’re lusting after a teacher or dealing with family problems. Its mean teens are exceptionally so; every burn is so snappily delivered the show could almost promote itself as a parody about puerile bullying. Why mess with a proven formula?
Riverdale is camp for a young and modern audience, where you sort of love and hate everyone at the same time. You want the rich, mean cheerleader to get dunked on, but you also can’t help but roll your eyes at the cheesy burns that take her down. The problems of unrequited love or complicated friendships are relatable, except that everyone tackles their problems in the stupidest of ways. You want to watch these fools run in circles; you’d also probably never be friends with these people in real life. Too much drama. Like any good soap opera, it’s ridiculous and eye roll worthy and built to surprise you with a dramatic twist at any moment.
Archie Comics has been around in some form since the 1940s, but as its original audience became parents, grandparents, and great-grandparents, the series struggled with its own identity: perpetually trapped in the body of a teenager from a bygone era.
Predator, The Punisher, Glee, and even a Lena Dunham contract were steps in the brands recent quest of self-discovery. And while the comics have become more popular, Riverdale feels like the beginning of what may be Archie’s return to teenage relevance — largely because it looks like teenage life in 2017, or at least teenage life as depicted on TV, soaked in mystery, smartphones, and The Hair.
All of which is to say, Riverdale doesn’t feel like a spinoff or a brand partnership — it’s a reboot. Archie Comics has chased whatever’s popular, but it turns out teenage dramas were popular all along. They just needed to fit into 2017, not 1967.