Archie Andrews isn’t looking like his old self. Sure, the funny-page version of America’s eternal teenager still sports the same cross-hatched carrot top and flashes one giant tooth whenever he smiles. But things have been changing for the incarnation of the character that lives in comic shops, where Archie, Betty And Veronica, and Jughead’s reflections of 2017 go beyond awkward lip service to modern technology. Perhaps you’ve heard that today’s Jughead is asexual? (His passionate love affair with hamburgers, however, continues unabated.) More shockingly, this bastion of stodgy, small-town wholesomeness is putting out some of the most exciting sequential art on the market.
And then there’s this part, articulated in the opening minutes of the new TV take on the franchise: “Archie got hot.” Out with the cartoonish look of the newspaper strip, in with physically idealized character designs that resemble the sort of absurdly telegenic talent that populates the many comic book adaptations produced by Greg Berlanti. Archie’s Riverdale has become a CW show in print, and The CW’s Riverdale brings that evolution full circle, returning Berlanti to his Dawson’s Creek and Everwood roots in the process. It’s also a murder mystery with serious David Lynch undertones, jumping off from the apparent drowning death of high school quarterback and all-around golden boy Jason Blossom (Trevor Stines).
Overseen by Berlanti productions and Archie Comics honcho Roberto Aguirre-Sacasa, Riverdale is the ultimate expression of The CW aesthetic. A map of the show’s influences would mirror the pushpin-and-yarn conspiracy board tracking the Blossom case, a web of young-adult entertainment that finds its origins in Archie titles dating to the 1940s, but which is spun primarily around TV of a post-Beverly Hills, 90210 vintage (a debt repaid by the casting of erstwhile Dylan McKay as Archie’s dad). It’s the entire history of The CW (and, by extension, The WB) crammed into a single show, which makes sense because so much of the blueprint for this type of show was laid out in the pages of Archie Comics. Archie’s wheelhouse is The CW’s wheelhouse: everlasting love triangles, small-town settings, the notion that the lives of teenagers are interesting enough to sustain a long-term narrative. Riverdale spins the basics of the subgenre into pop-art cotton candy—with all the stickiness, instant gratification, and substance that implies.
The show is helped along by the fact that the canonical versions of these characters are such thinly sketched archetypes that they can be reshaped and remolded in dozens of ways yet still retain their essence. Jughead is a nonconformist who haunts diner booths; in Riverdale, the Jughead played by Cole Sprouse (one half of the twins from Big Daddy and The Suite Life Of Zack & Cody) sucks down coffee at Pop’s Chock’lit Shoppe while chronicling his town’s secrets in a true-crime novel. Girl-next-door Betty (Lili Reinhart) and affluent Riverdale émigré Veronica (Camila Mendes) still tussle for the affections of Archie (KJ Apa), but Betty has a complicated backstory and a controlling mother (Mädchen Amick), and Veronica’s dad is a white-collar criminal who’s too busy being incarcerated to indulge in his comics counterpart’s favorite preoccupation: fretting about his daughter marrying that Andrews boy.
He’d be given reason to worry here: Apa can (and does) brood as much as he wants, but Archie’s too much of a blank slate for even Riverdale’s eccentricities (and a “Don’t Stand So Close To Me” scenario borrowed from Pacey Witter’s Dawson’s Creek storyline) to enliven. The other main characters are far more fun—Mendes and Reinhart’s scenes together raise the question, “Why isn’t this just a Betty And Veronica adaptation?”—and there are more colorful personalities to be found in the supporting ranks, be they Casey Cott’s energetic rendition of Kevin Keller (the franchise’s first openly gay character) or the soap-operatic highs of Madelaine Petsch as queen bee Cheryl Blossom. Archie’s defining characteristics could be written out on a birth certificate; even indulging his flirtation with songwriting puts him in the shadow of Riverdale’s driven Josie (Ashleigh Murray) and her committed-to-their-craft Pussycats (Hayley Law as Valeri and Asha Bromfield as Melody). It seems only right that The Pussycats get to play The Archies’ one good song, “Sugar, Sugar,” at a second-episode pep rally.
The murder-mystery material, the Lynchian peek beneath the well-manicured lawns—Riverdale mostly uses these for film-noir texture, like the never-ending fog and gray skies of its British Columbia shooting locations. It’s not especially novel, though its high-stakes sudsiness gives the cast the excuse to play the citizens of Riverdale like the cartoon characters they are. Consider Amick’s Mommie Dearest act a warm-up for her return to Twin Peaks, even if she occasionally veers into Invitation To Love territory.
That’s exactly the type of densely packed allusion that Aguirre-Sacasa and his team might put in the mouths of their characters. In the year of Archie Comics’ 75th anniversary, if there’s anything that Riverdale nostalgically harkens back to, it’s the hyperverbal heyday of The WB, when the teenagers spoke like pop-culture-addled grown-ups and the grown-ups had conflicts that wouldn’t seem out of place in the classroom. The students at Riverdale High (especially Veronica) make references that suggest no one on the writing staff has interacted with an actual teen in five years, but that just contributes to the heightened reality of the series and the idea of Riverdale as a cloistered little hamlet just slightly out of step with real life. A topical storyline involving social media, slut-shaming, and the conspicuous involvement of a Stranger Things cast member connects Riverdale to our current cultural moment, yet Cheryl bows out of a conversation in one early episode with the out-of-fashion salutation, “Follow me on Twitter.” (Don’t they know that all the kids are on Kik now? Or WhatsApp? Or maybe Snapchat? Seriously, we don’t know anymore than Riverdale might—we just know Twitter is for the olds.) Perhaps she’s just reaching out to the viewers who are only now learning that Archie’s been hot since at least the summer of 2015.