Video: New darker Archie TV reboot 'Riverdale' sheds 'gee-wilikers' roots
America’s favourite guileless redhead has parachuted into 2017, and his vibe has darkened accordingly.
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A mother forcing pills on the girl on the next door. A respectable local businessman with ties to organized crime. A sexpot school teacher carrying on an affair with one of her underage students. Yes, it’s just another day in Riverdale, the Anytown, U.S.A., that has been the home of Archie and the gang since they first popped up in comic books nearly 80 years ago.
For people who tend to think of Archie’s problems as more of the I-spilled-a-milkshake-on-my-sweater-vest-right-before-the-big-date variety, Riverdale, the dark and sexy new CW teen drama set in and around such harrowing locales as Pop’s Chocklit Shoppe, will be as surprising as a bolt of lightning from the technicolour-blue cover of a Double Digest. The redhead with freckles has grown abs and angst, and his prospective dates and frolicking pals are now embroiled in a murder mystery where just about everybody is a suspect — surely it is only a matter of time before his junky old jalopy is destroyed in a towering fireball.
The show is the most mainstream iteration of a decade-long attempt to modernize Archie that has seen the quintessential teenager gradually shed his gee-wilikers roots and step saucer-eyed into a new century. Some of this has been in the vein of unofficial remix, most notably Ed Brubaker’s brilliant deconstruction Criminal: The Last of The Innocent, which turned Archie-inspired characters into pulpy, brooding, neo-noir figures, racked with regret and sinister urges. But plenty of it has appeared in Archie Comics themselves, new management having shaken off the idealistic malaise the kept the comic chugging for more than half a century. Archie has gotten married in alternate timelines, and then travelled between them. He’s fought off zombies, and the Predator. More down to earth, he met the first gay person in Riverdale — then died saving him from an assassination attempt — has dealt with the ennui of adulthood, and his best pal, Jughead, recently came out as one of the first asexuals openly depicted in mainstream pop culture.
If the obvious motive here is profit — you can only make so much money off things people fondly remember from childhood — the tactics of bringing Archie up to date suggest some interesting things about what we’ll buy these days. As with a lot of his candy-coloured comics brethren, it’s not just a makeover that Archie has needed, but a wholesale change of milieu: a simple and idyllic world — here right and wrong are as simple as who is swinging the fist, in the case of superheroes, or where problems are no more complex than picking which of the utterly perfect partners you’ll settle on, for Archie — simply isn’t going to fill Pop’s Chocklit Shoppe anymore.
It speaks to different urges, at least on the mass cultural level. Part of why we reject the old-line Archie is that it’s so nakedly aspirational, a vision of how we might like things to be: no problem that can’t be solved with a few good pals, that sort of thing We have come to know, or like to believe we have, that things were never so simple, that a more complex world has always existed under the bright colours. And these new interpretations are still aspirational — sexy teachers, sexier abs — but now they must sneak under our defences with some commiseration, too, some nod to the fact that we are all a bit scared and confused and maybe ashamed before things basically work out the way we think they’re supposed to.
It’s become such a prevalent trope in our updates of pop culture — the gritty reboot, the darkness on the edge of the technicolor comic panel — that you almost have to wonder if we’re not ready to swing the other way. Certainly enough people in good ol’ Anytown, U.S.A. were sufficiently entranced by the promise of an uncomplicated idyll that they voted to Make America Great Again. Although they tended to be on the old side: it should probably go without saying that Riverdale is being made for a young audience, one that’s in the process of moving from the bleak, unrelenting morass of selfish teenaged anxiety toward the bleak, unrelenting morass of slightly less selfish adult chaos. The thirst for darker stories might not be a cultural shift so much as a generational one: the kids have always thought no one else understood their problems.
In which case, one day, soon enough, they’ll get to look back on the time Archie was screwing his teacher in the wake of one his friends being murdered and marvel at how simple it all seemed back then.