Last fall, I moved and started a new job that requires a lot of travel. I intended to establish new cable service once I got settled. But I got busy, the election happened, and after a few months I realized that I don’t miss having a TV at all.
I attended the pilot screening for The CW’s Archie Comics adaptation “Riverdale” at San Diego Comic-Con in July 2016, and while I puzzled over the odd pacing and some of the characterizations, the final scene, in which openly gay Kevin Keller and closeted Moose Mason sneak off into the woods to do the nasty, only to have their coitus interrupted by the body of Jason Blossom washing up right in front of them, had me all in.
Then I had to wait until January to start watching the 13-episode first season. Having now done so via the CW website, I can report that, while the series kept me interested, if not riveted, it was rife with lazy plotting, suspect choices, and painful dialog delivered by a mostly inexperienced cast.
Let’s address the show’s worst sin first. The murder of Jason Blossom was concocted as a device to introduce the cast and establish the core relationships to a wider audience. It was promised that the killer would be revealed by the end of the first season, and he was. Show creator Roberto Aguirre-Sacasa admitted during his 2016 Comic-Con panel that the murder was Warner Bros.’ idea, and that once the pilot sold and the writer’s room was filled, they were going to sit down and figure out who did it. [Full disclosure: I pitched myself to Roberto at New York Comic Con (2015) to join the writer’s room and he demurred.] At the panel, there was also fair amount of grumbling from concerned fans about Archie’s affair with Miss Grundy, now a nubile music teacher rather than the septuagenarian depicted in the comics. Roberto promised that Archie’s choices would have consequences.
The big reveal [SPOILER ALERT] was that Jason’s father Clifford Blossom killed his own son for reasons that remain murky but may have had something to do with Jason’s unwillingness to run the Blossoms’ maple syrup business as a front for its drug cartel. The reveal was surprising, but only because it came out of nowhere and made no sense. A good reveal would make you reconsider the information you’ve received up to that point, and see it in a new light. This did none of that, and tied up the murder only because it was time to tie up the murder and move on. Who made the videotape of Clifford shooting Jason? Why did they send the tape to Betty instead of the police? Since Jason just wanted out and had no intention of exposing his family, why would Clifford kill him and then kill himself? The writers don’t care.
Miss Grundy was an early suspect in Jason’s murder, but the gun in her possession was justified as protection she needed from her vengeful ex-husband, and when her true identity was exposed, she explained that she assumed the real, deceased Miss Grundy’s identity as part of her do-it-yourself witness protection program. When her affair with Archie was revealed, she was run out of town and never heard from again. So much for consequences.
Here’s what should have happened: Fake Miss Grundy’s jealous ex tracks her to Riverdale, and exacts his revenge by killing the boy-toy she took up with after she left him. Except he mistakes Jason for Archie – they’re both redheads, they both wear the same letterman jacket – and shoots Jason while Archie and Fake MG are making out within earshot. When the killer is revealed, Archie is crushed to learn that Jason’s murder was an unintended consequence of their affair. This would have tied the whole season together and restored our faith in Archie as a good kid who made a bad choice and learned an indelible lesson.
The show’s second-worst sin is in its depiction of the parents. While the kids at least look like their comic-book counterparts, and possess some of their superficial character traits, the intact, salt-of-the-earth families of the comics have been mostly replaced by younger, single parents who are free to have affairs with each other while also acting batshit crazy most of the time. It makes you wonder how the kids turned out as well as they did, and also what kind of twisted relationship Roberto must have had with his parents. Betty’s mother Alice Cooper, in particular, seems to have wandered in from Twin Peaks, the way she controls her daughters, emasculates her husband, and has no qualms about throwing bricks through windows. When Betty invites Jughead over for dinner, Alice keeps mocking his name, as if she forgot that he’s been Betty’s friend since childhood and his name should be nothing new or special by now. Like her namesake from the rock world, this Alice Cooper would be completely at home biting the heads off snakes. And in this version of Riverdale, she’d have plenty of snakes to choose from.
The show sets up and squanders so many opportunities that it appears to be written on the fly, with complete disregard for consistency, continuity, and structural basics. As one example, it was established in the pilot that a rift recently developed between childhood friends Archie and Jughead, but it had yet to be explained. As far as I can tell, it never got explained; it simply got dropped as the season progressed and Jughead moved in with Archie. As a more egregious example, at the end of Season 1, Archie spends the night at Veronica’s house to consummate their relationship. At this point we also know that Veronica’s father Hiram Lodge is about to be released from prison as Veronica’s mother Hermione is preparing for his arrival. Since one of the core relationships in the comics is Mr. Lodge’s loathing of Archie, I was anticipating that as Archie tries to sneak out of the house in the morning, he would run smack into Mr. Lodge, establishing an instant and compelling justification for Hiram’s loathing. (In fact, this would be stronger than in the comics, where Hiram simply believes Archie to be unworthy of his daughter’s affections.) But no, Archie just sneaks out undetected, and neither Hiram nor Hermione is any the wiser.
What works about this show is a much shorter list: it begins and ends with Cole Sprouse. A consummate actor, a stickler for canon, and the glue that holds the show together through his wry, noirish narration, Sprouse enlivens every scene he’s in. He has expressed disappointment that “Riverdale’s” Jughead has not been established as asexual, leading to his current pairing with Betty. In fact, “Bughead” seems to be the most buzzed-about couple on the show. Chalk this up to the chemistry Sprouse enjoys with simply everyone, elevating the performance of whoever his scene partner happens to be. In fact, considering that Archie has already plowed through every girl and woman on the show except Ethel Muggs (that we know of), and that Jughead has spent most of the season sleeping in Archie’s bedroom, my vote for the show’s cutest couple goes to “Jarhead.”
Archie, as played by KJ Apa, is certainly easy on the eyes, although his come-and-go American accent can be a bit distracting and his performance runs about as deep as a bottle cap. In interviews, Apa appears much more charming and jocular when speaking in his native Kiwi accent. The requirements of the role appear to be straitjacketing him into giving a mannered, self-conscious, frequently shirtless performance. I understand that this role was the hardest to cast, but I think it would have benefited the show to have an American actor play such an American icon.
Speaking of Americana, when a property such as Archie Comics has been around for more than 75 years, a present-day adaptation presents unique challenges. One of the biggest challenges is that, in the comics, all the main characters are white. “Riverdale” overcomes this challenge in various ways. Dark, alluring Veronica has been reconceived as Hispanic. Reggie has been cast, and now recast, as Eurasian. Peripheral characters such as Pop Tate and Mr. Weatherbee are now black. The biggest change from the comics is that all three Pussycats, not just Valerie, are now black. (This is a bit jarring considering that Archie also launched a new Josie & the Pussycats comic book last year, with Josie and Melody looking like their traditional white selves. But that book is about to be cancelled, so I guess it doesn’t much matter.) For me, the larger question is why Josie & the Pussycats are in “Riverdale” at all, considering that in the comics they lived in a different town and only crossed over for “very special episodes.” Riverdale has so many iconic characters – Reggie, Dilton, Ethel, Moose, Midge – whose surfaces were barely scratched in Season 1.
Here’s hoping that with more runway to plot out a 22-episode second season, and with the murder of Jason Blossom firmly in the rear-view mirror, we might see a stronger show that builds more faithfully on the Archie canon while also planting “Riverdale” squarely in the 21st century. The history of television abounds with shows that went on to critical and ratings acclaim after rocky first seasons. As a lifelong fan of Archie Comics, I hope this turns out to be the case for “Riverdale.”