Thursday, April 4, 2019

We’re Not in Riverdale Anymore: How One Show Changed a Town Forever

From comic book to Netflix show, Riverdale and its small-town inhabitants have undergone some dramatic changes—for better or for worse.  ♦ 
In the summer of 2017, I became a fan of the show Riverdale. And when I say I became a fan, I mean I became a fan. I blubbered over a tub of Ben & Jerry’s when Betty Cooper proclaimed her love for Archie Andrews after the homecoming dance. I bought Josie McCoy’s rendition of “Candy Girl (Sugar Sugar)” and bopped around my apartment like she was the biggest thing since Beyoncé. I scoured the web for the lace-trimmed sweater that Betty wore in season 2, episode 13 and donned it at a fashion magazine release party. So yeah, I became a fan. One could even say I became a Riverdale Bulldog, or a River Vixen, or—wait for it—a Southside Serpent.

Then, in the winter of 2019, the show that I fell in love with, the show that I trusted to bring me happiness every Wednesday night, had me questioning everything. And how could it not? The once-relatable town of Riverdale, where teenagers grappled with everyday matters and murder in equal measure, had become a place where 17-year-olds acted more like 30-year-olds and people were in danger of being attacked by (spoiler!) bears. No, seriously. Bears. The way I saw it, either everyone in the Riverdale writing room loved The Revenant, or something had drastically changed.

My resolve worsened with each passing episode, and I began to think: Where had Riverdale gone wrong? When had Veronica Lodge’s quick-witted quips become cringeworthy conversations, and when had Pop’s Chock’Lit Shoppe, in all its burgers-and-shakes glory, become the face for Veronica's underground speakeasy? I mean, was that even legal? Could a high school student even own a speakeasy?

The answer to my first question, I think, lies in the origins of Riverdale, and even back to the beginnings of Archie himself.

As writer Audrey Bell chronicles in her piece "A History of Archie Comics" for New West Press, Archie made his debut in 1941 as a character in Pep #22, published by what was then called MLJ Comics. Superman still dominated the comic market at that time, but MLJ Comics' founder John L. Goldwater thought that a typical teenage boy would bring in as many fans as his fellow superhuman comic book character, so the freckled and friendly Archie was born. He was the all-American boy with all-American values in an all-American town. He was the guy who would help with homework and then grab a burger with friends soon after. He was the guy whom all the dads wanted on their football team and whom all the moms wanted to date their daughter. He may have been stereotypical and maybe even problematic at points, but his story was simple and relatable, and readers couldn’t get enough of him. Archie proved such a hit that, now in his own title, Archie, his world and supporting cast grew quickly, introducing new characters including Betty, Veronica, and Jughead. Readers followed along as Archie dealt with the daily ups and downs of teenage life and ate the comics up faster than a side of fries at Pop’s.

As Archie’s popularity soared, the character jumped from the comic books into other media, venturing into radio, snatching coveted comic-strip slots in newspapers, and even making his way onto the small screen. What's more, the ever-evolving times offered new opportunities for the Riverdale gang to change, too, to appeal to new generations, like when the 1960s TV show The Man from U.N.C.L.E. inspired Archie’s creators to design a comic titled The Man from R.I.V.E.R.D.A.L.E.

It was the 1970s, and my dad was a freshman at Mt. Lebanon High School in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. He and his family had just moved back from London when he first picked up one of the comics and delved into the life of Riverdale’s most popular redhead.

When asked why he liked the comics so much, my dad emphasizes the relatability of the characters. Sure, he liked reading about Superman, Batman, and the rest of the Justice League, but there was something special about seeing comic book characters who looked like him and whose lives mirrored his own.

It seemed that every new generation found something relatable and timely in the character.

“My friends and I loved the Archie comics,” John O’Hara, my dad, remembers. “We would always go to the local pharmacy, pick up some candy, and see if the newest Archie was out.

“I looked forward to seeing what everyone in Riverdale was up to,” he says. “Whether it was Archie navigating relationships, or Betty and Veronica stressing about something at school, I felt like I could really connect with the comic in one way or another.”

So, on that fateful day in the summer of 2017 when my dad discovered that Riverdale had been released on Netflix, we popped some popcorn, plopped down on the couch, and watched the first few episodes of the first season. Needless to say, Roberto Aguirre-Sacasa (the show’s creator) had envisioned a much darker, more dramatic version of the Archie than my dad had met four decades earlier.

And his reaction to the show?

“It was clever,” he admits. “And it was cool to see how they modernized the characters to fit into this soapier world where some of them were up to no good. But it was also pretty dizzying.” Then he laughs. “It got to the point where I couldn’t even keep up with the main characters. "It was like I recognized parts of their stories, but the rest of it had become so complicated. I think there is something to be said for the simplicity of the original comics. They were oversimplified at points, but there was also a lot of charm in that simplicity.”

And this, I think, is where Riverdale has gone wrong . . . which ties right back to Pep #22, to what my dad saw in the comics when he read them as a kid in the 70s, and to his reaction to the recent revival.

I use the term "wrong" loosely, because a show that performs well on Rotten Tomatoes must be doing something right, but I use it nonetheless. Why? Because Betty, the girl who once baked a banana cream pie for her friends (hi, Betty & Veronica #113), now cleans blood off the kitchen floor (hello, season 2, episode 13 of Riverdale). Because Archie, the boy who once helped Jughead find a quiet place to read on the beach (check out Jughead #292), now wanders into the woods and gets attacked by bears (peep season 3, episode 9 of Riverdale). And because Veronica, the girl who once fought for Archie to take her to a concert (read Betty & Veronica Spectacular #44), is now involved in the dealing of dangerous drugs (watch season 3, episode 11 of Riverdale).

Where is the relatability in what Riverdale has recently had to offer? What happened to the I’m-not-crying-you’re-crying moments of Betty telling Archie she liked him? What happened to Betty, Veronica, and the rest of the cheerleaders performing to poppy music during the football halftime show? And what happened to Archie struggling between his love for the turf and the stage? Basically, what happened to everything that made Riverdale a teen drama? There was nothing wrong with the mysteries of Riverdale—in fact, they added just enough spunk to make the show a guilty pleasure—but when did the creators pick absurd plotlines over accessibility? When did they decide that ridiculous drama was more important than exploring the day-to-day issues that viewers face?

Maybe the truth of the matter is that my dad and I, like other fans of Archie, are (*gasp*) getting too old for a show like Riverdale. Maybe it’s time we put down our remotes and pass the torch to another generation of Riverdale Bulldogs, River Vixens, and Southside Serpents, so that Archie, Betty, Veronica, and Jughead can live new, albeit grimmer, lives in the 21st century. And maybe, just maybe, the important thing is that the world has continued to find things to love about Riverdale’s most colorful characters.

Let’s just hope they don’t forget the simple things that made Archie great along the way.

  • About the Author
    Kevin O’Hara is a senior at Miami University majoring in Creative Writing and minoring in Classical Humanities. Kevin is the publisher of UP Magazine, Miami University’s student-run fashion and lifestyle magazine, and has been involved with the publication since his freshman year. A lover of reading, writing, and art, Kevin enjoys learning from the stories that others have to tell.

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