Archie comics have always been an ubiquitous part of every grocery store checkout line, right beside the magazines and newspapers. As a kid, I read these tiny digests voraciously without thinking much of them, but looking back, I think these comics were doing something impressive. They sent kids (the presumed audience) a message that despite class differences, teens of different backgrounds could be friends.* The 2017 CW drama Riverdale takes the world of Archie and dumps a lot of great details from the comics. Yet ultimately, it keeps the spirit of the comics alive, promoting narratives on class and friendship.
Riverdale is a drama that follows Archie Andrews, a small town football star, as he struggles to balance his social life, football practice, and his blossoming music career. Sigh. He’s just so busy. Meanwhile, his best friend Jughead is literally homeless, his childhood sweetheart Betty is dealing with her institutionalized sister, and newcomer Veronica must sort through her feelings about her recently incarcerated father.
Oh, and there’s also a murder.
The show revolves around the murder of Jason Blossom, another local football star, but as the series progresses his murder seems to be less important than the simmering drama surrounding the other Riverdale teens. And oh is there drama. In the first episode, Archie’s love affair with his teacher comes to light, which may be surprising for fans of the more wholesome comic book. The rollercoaster of plot twists skyrocketed from there, but where can they go from here?
Spoilers to follow, after the cut.
Last week’s episode featured the big reveal of Jason’s murderer (it’s exactly who you probably thought it was) as well as a suicide by said murderer. Jughead also had to make a big decision to stay in Riverdale (and stay homeless) or move in order to live with his mom and sister. I’m not sure where the show has to go, plot wise, from the solution of Jason’s murder, but that’s what makes Riverdale so wonderful. The meat of my interest in it has little to do with the plot. Instead, I’m gripped by the character relationships, the subplots,** and yes, the melodrama.
To fully understand my obsession with Riverdale, and why I think the CW show deserves so much praise, we have to step back and take a look at the comic books that serve as the basis for the show. Archie Andrews may be having ~a moment~ in pop culture, but he’s been around since the 1940s, starring in zany, innocent adventures alongside Jughead, Betty, and Veronica. The original run of the comics lasted from 1942-2015 with very few changes to the characters or Riverdale along the way. Kevin Keller, the first gay character in the Archie universe, wasn’t even introduced until 2010. In 2015 however, Archie comics rebooted their brand, starting with a new series headed by acclaimed writer Mark Waid and Saga artist Fiona Staples. With Staples’ breathtaking art and Waid’s solid writing chops, the comic captured a lot of what made the Archie series fun to begin with. The first volume followed Archie through his usual high school hijinks, chasing after Betty and Veronica for the most part. The reboot gained enough attention to warrant a spinoff title, Jughead, written by Chip Zdarsky of Sex Criminals. The new series established character traits never before explored by the more conservative incarnation of Archie. For example, Zdarsky famously revealed that Jughead is asexual (which makes a lot of sense when you think about it). In other words, the new comics are a mix of the old Archie comics and what Riverdale is trying to achieve with its edgier take on teen life.
In many ways, Riverdale is the sexed up version of Archie. The first episode alone features a teacher/student romance, murder, and so, so many dramatic looks from its young, attractive cast. The show gets a lot of things right, though, including the attention to class that the comics have always hinted at. Jughead specifically takes on a more prominent role in the television series, graduating from class clown to troubled loner. For most of season one, Jughead is homeless, living in the drive in theater where he works, then a closet at his high school, and eventually at Archie’s house. Jughead has little money (as he always has in the comics) and frequently bums food off of his friends, but he also gives viewers the impression that he’s highly intelligent, if a bit brooding. When Jughead and Betty eventually begin dating, my hopes of Jughead being asexual sank, hard. But still, Jughead clearly isn’t like his other Riverdale friends. His parents are from the “wrong side of town” and he comes from a broken home. He isn’t really wanted by his family, yet he tries his best to fit in where he can. In other words, he’s poor—both in financial terms and in love. Where the rest of the characters are solidly middle and upper-middle class, Jughead has nothing.***
But that doesn’t seem to particularly matter in Riverdale. Betty does date Jughead, and Archie does remain his friend (although, to be honest I kind of hate Archie all around, so it’s hard to admit he does anything good). Even Betty and Veronica, who act as foils for each other, are more interested in their friendship than the potential of dating Archie. Though Veronica openly admits (several, several times) that she comes from New York aristocracy, she never seems to hold it over her friends’ heads.
Many of my friends can tell you that I’m typically against any show that airs on the CW (I know, I know, there are some good ones), but Riverdale is worth picking up, even if you’re late to the game like me. I, for one, will be watching the finale tonight with baited breath, and belief in the true power of friendship.
Things Riverdale Gets Right:
- Betty and Veronica are more friends with each other than lovers of Archie (and good riddance because he’s a skeez).
-Jughead is more than just comic relief. In fact, he drives the show as its narrator.
-The show provides an interesting (though not-so-nuanced) view of how teens can unite together in ways adults can’t. For example, the show’s adults spend a lot of time arguing over what part of town they hail from, but the teen characters don’t seem to see that as a problem.
Things Riverdale Gets Oh So Wrong:
-Archie isn’t really about parents, yet the show is full of them. The parents are just as visible as their children, with their own plots and drama.
-Jughead doesn’t get the girl in the comics—and that should be OK. A lot of Jughead’s development as a character should be attributed to Zdarsky and his decision in labeling Jughead as asexual. The show sort of erases that.
-Queerbaiting—while there’s a canonically gay character on the show, the more compelling queer relationship (in a lot of ways) is the one between Betty and Veronica. The two share a sexy kiss and a weird shared-seduction scene that gives fans just enough hope that they might get together. Of course, part of the reason for queerbaiting might be because it’s a CW show. (The CW has a bit of a queerbaiting problem.)
*They had a variety of great messages, really. Female friendship plays a huge role in the comics and in Riverdale, so more on that later.
**Most notably (and I could write an entire blog post about this), Betty and Veronica team up with Ethel Muggs (played by Shannon Purser of Stranger Things fame) to get revenge on a football player who systematically slut-shamed half the school. The girls dress in lingerie and lure him to a hot tub, only to handcuff him to the tub and threaten to either boil him alive or drown him. It’s pretty badass.
***Ok, last footnote. He does have some things, like his super snazzy clothes. Originally, Jughead’s signature whoopee hat might have indicated his lower status. Whoopee hats were made out of repurposed men’s fedoras and were often worn by young men.
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The authors of this blog are four women with opinions about pop culture. That's all you really need to know.