Let me tell you how I got to Riverdale. It wasn’t a direct route, although in hindsight it does seem like a place I was destined to go, even if I really didn’t want to.
For starters, I have a long history with the citizens of Riverdale.
I’ve not hidden the fact that I was a comic book geek from a young age. I tend to dwell on the superhero years, though, when I talk about comic books. I didn’t start there. My beginnings in the comic book realm were with what I think of as cartoon-type comics. The Harvey comic books were a big part of this phase, with Richie Rich, Casper, Hot Stuff, Sad Sack and even Baby Huey (who remembers Baby Huey?). There were also Gold Key and Dell comics in the mix. I remember reading Scrooge McDuck stories, and I’m pretty sure these were reprints. And then there were Archie Comics.
Young fans of Riverdale may be surprised to discover that Archie Andrews and the Riverdale gang have existed since 1941. In a somewhat different form than the television series, of course. If these same fans discovered that these characters were inspired by Mickey Rooney’s Andy Hardy movie series, that fact would mean absolutely nothing to them. It almost means nothing to me, in fact, although I understand the reference and the “hey, gang, let’s put on a show!” mentality.
When I was reading Archie comic books, I didn’t know the series had been around a couple of decades before I was born. But, I learned to love the characters, the perennial love triangle between Betty, Archie and Veronica, and the quaint Americana of Riverdale itself. Filmation also had a series of Archie cartoons that I watched every afternoon after school, and The Archies song “Sugar, Sugar” was a certified hit.
When the CW television series Riverdale premiered, I really wasn’t tempted to watch it. Not “in spite” of my history with the Riverdale gang, but because of it. The show was being touted as another of those slick-looking teenager soap operas, and it didn’t really appeal to me just because I knew the names of the characters. Even though Archie himself is nearly an octogenarian, the demographic for the series seemed skewed much younger than I am.
But, stuff happens. The son of a couple of my favorite customers at the post office is an actor, and he joined the cast of the series in the second season. The proud parents, with whom I bonded over our shared enjoyment of Sons of Anarchy after the mother came up to the counter wearing a SAMCRO T-shirt one day, encouraged me to watch the show their son was in. I said I would. They probably didn’t believe me because I didn’t really believe it myself.
And then my 12-year-old granddaughter, Taylee, began watching the series and became a fan. She was impressed when I started reciting some of the names of the characters. When she started encouraging me to watch the series as well, I had to finally relent. I mean, I’m the one who got her the signed publicity still of my customers’ actor son. What’s a man to do?
I’ve now watched the entire first season of Riverdale.
It’s not terrible. It’s not great, either. But, mostly, it’s not your father’s, grandfather’s, or great-grandfather’s Archie, Jughead and the Riverdale gang. I was also correct about it being another slick-looking teenager soap opera. This is another show about high school kids emoting. But, there are grownups on the series as well, and they have their drama, too.
Right off the bat, Riverdale reminded me of other series I have watched that centered around high school kids. Dawson’s Creek, Buffy the Vampire Slayer, Square Pegs, Freaks and Geeks . . . to name just a few. Mostly, it has reminded me of Veronica Mars, which began as a high-school-as-noir-mystery series.
Like Veronica, the first season of Riverdale is centered around a murder mystery: the murder of Jason Blossom, high school football star and heir to the Blossom family sugar maple syrup empire. This story arc threads its way, twisting and turning along the way, through the entire season, and the mystery is solved in the penultimate episode. Personal and interpersonal drama unfolds along the way, but all of it is somehow related to the central mystery or the underlying corruption in Riverdale that allows bad things to happen.
I’m not going to spoil the mystery for you. I think the creative forces behind the series played fair with the clues along the way. I’d have to watch the entire season over again to be certain, which I don’t intend to do. The solution felt right, though.
As any good noir should be, this series is shadowy and mostly backlit with a lot of neon. Slick-looking, as I’ve already said too many times. The editing is quick and the camera almost always seems to be in motion. It’s a good-looking show. Not as bright and cartoony as the original four-color comic books, but updated and modern in appearance, even when harkening back to film noir tradition.
The actors are all good-looking, and the cast of characters is much more diverse than the one I recall. Reggie, Archie’s chief frenemy, is now Asian. Josie, of Pussycats fame, is black, as are Principal Weatherbee and Pop (of Pop’s Chock’Lit Shoppe). Miss Grundy, who was a stick-thin older spinster woman in the comics, is a young teacher having an affair with Archie Andrews during the first episode. There’s also a gay student, Kevin Keller, son of the town sheriff, who was apparently first introduced in Archie comics in this century. While I had no problems with that, I didn’t like the fact that Moose was portrayed as being a closeted gay as well. I mean, Moose and Midge have been together forever, right?
This muted cognitive dissonance has been part of my issue with the series so far. These characters are all familiar, but vastly different from what I remember. I began enjoying the show more when I stopped thinking about the differences and just tried to follow the story. And, yes, it’s flawed, more than a little trashy and melodramatic, and features a lot of young people sounding disrespectful to their parents (something younger people probably enjoy more than an old coot like me).
There’s an important bottom line here. I actually enjoyed it. Sure, the final episode after the big mystery reveal seemed mostly superfluous, just setting up a “Who Shot J.R.?”-type cliffhanger for Season Two, but it was a fun ride getting there. I even liked Jughead being positioned, as the outsider kid from the wrong side of the tracks, as the narrator of the series, as he writes a story based on his deeply-flawed hometown and the people who live there. Jughead is our James Ellroy in this piece of noir fiction. My granddaughter also tells me that he used to be one of the Disney child stars; you’ll have to take her word for that.
I intend to keep watching. I have promises to keep, after all.
Plus, I kinda want to watch more.
If you twisted my arm, I’d give this one a solid B. Veronica Mars began to go downhill after we found out who killed Lilly Kane. Let’s hope the same fate doesn’t befall Riverdale.