Tuesday, February 14, 2017

Riverdale (or how I scandalized my teenager)

[it's been so long since I last wrote an entry here, I have quite literally forgotten how it is done.  It's been a time thing, me not doing reviews anymore.  I just don't seem to have the time.  It's hard enough to find the time to watch and/or read and/or play and/or create anymore, nevermind discuss at length in written form. So many things competing for time and attention.  Not to mention how frivolous talking at such lengths about movies and TV and such seems in our current political and social climate.  I used to be really good at compartmentalizing, about letting the world play out without too much concern...but it looks like the bad stuff is winning.  We're all at fault, in some way or another.  We need to make a change, but change is hard. We want someone to do it for us without really requiring us to do any of the work involved.  We would much rather be distracted, by sport and entertainment...to separate ourselves into times, places, societies, worlds, universes not our own than really change and be wholly invested in our own reality.  What do we actually need to do to make things different, what do we need to give up.  I kind of feel I know the answer, but I'm waiting for someone to tell me I'm right.  I'm waiting for a movement to tell me I'm not crazy, or alone.  I'm waiting for a plan, some kind of guide that will take us to the next level of humanity.  Instead all I'm seeing is regression, going back to things that haven't worked before; fear and hatred, power and oppression.  Dark times....Anyway....]

2017, CW/Netflix (Thursdays @ 9)

I'm wondering if there's many people born in North America in the past 80 years that don't know who Archie is.  The ubiquitous red-headed all-American boy who hangs with his gluttonous (yet scrawny) best friend and can't decide between the raven-haired rich girl and the blonde, girl-next-door can still be prominently seen in supermarket and department store checkout lines, the last remnant of comic books as a consumable (and not collectable or niche-market) product.  Archie Comics (by which I mean the product line, not just those books focused solely on young Mr. Andrews as a main character) have a reputation for wholesomeness and a generally sunny disposition.  They're humour books foremost with a teen romance thread extremely lightly stitched throughout.  They're throwback books, where even as they get modernized with genuine attempts at diversity and inclusiveness, they're wholly unrealistic in their quaintness.  They're an ideal that has long since left the United States, which may be part of the reason for their continued success.  Archie Comics remain a fantasy world, a bubble of Americana, of hope for a brighter tomorrow.

In recent years, the editorial staff at Archie Comics have tried to shake things up, to broker some relevance into the world of Riverdale.  Recent efforts saw a Sliding Doors type ongoing story of parallel worlds in which Archie finally chooses, and in one reality marries Betty, while marrying Veronica in the other.  This all culminated in the highly touted "Death of Archie" storyline, which had the precise the company's editorial staff desired, people and the media were talking about Archie.  At the same time, the company introduced a "mature readers" book Afterlife With Archie, which capitalized upon the Walking Dead phenomenon by placing the Riverdale gang at the inception of a zombie outbreak.  Beyond that came new monthly series for the main Riverdale gang, telling ongoing, continuous stories of Archie, Jughead, Betty and Veronica, rather than the short 4-12 page sketches that populate the newsstand digests.  In many ways this is the Archie renaissance, an awakening that the format the character has been resigned too aren't actual limitations.  In the same way Batman can survive countless different interpretations, so too can Archie and the Riverdale gang be flexed into any kind of storytelling.

Which leads us to Riverdale, a new co-production between the CW and Netflix, coming from creator Robero Aguirre-Sacasa.  Aguirre-Sacasa is a long-time TV and comics writer and has been for a few years now the chief creative officer at Archie Comics.  If anyone was going to launch Archie and the gang into the realm of live action TV (of which there has only been one prior, unfortunate instance) it makes sense it's him.

But if you were expecting that surreal, Pleasantville-type "all-American" ideal that the newsstand digests presents, or even a modified facsimile of it, you're in for a shock.  The early word was that Riverdale was shooting for a Twin Peaks vibe (and calling to it with TP's Madchen Amick playing Betty's mother), which it attempts only in gentle measure.  It doesn't want weirdness, but it certainly wants drama.  It's taking a page from teen dramas of the past -- be it Beverly Hills 90210 (extending the connection by hiring Luke Perry as Archie's dad), Dawson's Creek, or The OC -- but it has the distinct advantage (or disadvantage) of playing with known quantities and of subverting expectations.

You may well have heard some of the rather scandalous things the show has done with the characters, most notably placing a murder-mystery in the thick of it (probably the most direct Twin Peaks connection) and giving Archie an illicit relationship with a seriously aged-down Miss Grundy.  To be fair, for any Archie reader, these things are quite shocking.  Beyond that there's Betty's chemically controlled mental disorder, Veronica Lodge's father's absence (he's in jail for mismanagement of investor funds if not outright theft or embezzling), Moose's closeted sexuality (whether gay or bisexual is unclear), and a great deal of 100% OK race-bending (Riverdale is taking the opportunity to be a lot more bold in its inclusiveness than the comics have allowed).

My 15-year-old is a huge fan of Archie.  He's an avid consumer of the digests, and he has totally bought into the fantasy of the traditional Riverdale as it's presented in its simplified, four-colour world.  I knew that showing him TV Riverdale would drag him kicking and screaming into the world of "adult" melodrama, the kind he doesn't actively subject himself to, or understand all that much.  In that regard, Riverdale is actually quite fascinating, as it doesn't just present dramatic stories, but it presents their emotional consequences.  Archie's affair with Miss Grundy isn't a "cool fantasy" but represented as unsettling and predatory.  There's no question Archie has been scandalized and manipulated.  Likewise, the third episode of the series dives head-first into the concept of slut-shaming and how the popular and beloved football heroes can seemingly get away with whatever they want without consequences.  In that same episode's B-story, Josie explains to Archie (now a wanna-be songwriter) that a white man, no matter how well-intentioned, cannot possibly understand the reality of a black woman, but they both also learn that a fruitful partnership can still be forged.  By bringing real-world(ish) scenarios (albeit extremely sensationalistic ones) into a world of funny book characters it sets a very specific tone. Jughead, who is writing an "In Cold Blood" style novel based on the murder of Jason Blossom, even calls out the fact that the sleepy, idyllic town has irreversibly changed. 

Poster art by Francesco Francavilla, one
of my favourite comic artists working today
It's not just the emotional entanglements of the kids here, however, the parents likewise have a very tense relationship with each other, some of them stretching back to their own teenage days.  And the sins of the parent often are transferred to their children.  Despite's Jughead's assurances otherwise, the dark undercurrent of Riverdale has always been there.  It's just a murder that's bringing it all out into the open.  Likewise, this is a coming-of-age story, where the teenage set of Riverdale High start to learn that their actions are no longer those of children, but have real consequences, for themselves and others.

It is by no means a perfect show, and certainly not a perfect adaptation of Archie Comics, but it is an engaging and intriguing show, the cast quickly proving themselves adept at all it demands of them.  My 15-year-old kept proclaiming (throughout our viewing of the first three episodes, and for days after) "It's so weird".  He was rather flummoxed by it all.  It throws for a loop everything he knows about Archie, which, as I've said, isn't a bad thing.  The character traits are there... but tweaked: Archie is a good kid (but gets in over his head easily), Betty is perceived as perfect (but wants to shake the image), Veronica is the new girl, rich, with expected Alpha traits (but is working against type...Cheryl Blossom plays the evil rich bitch role typically given to Veronica in the comics), while Jughead is a mooch (but not the comic relief). 

My exasperated preamble at the top of this page, my feelings of darkness, of doing things wrong...that is, in a sense, well represented by this interpretation of Archie.  The idyllic world we want, the world we know and love, is not the world we get.  These Archie Comics characters are showing perseverance through the darkness, just like we have to.

I can't say I love the fact that Archie has "gone dark" but it's doing so with the best of intentions.  And it comes out both thought provoking and entertaining.  There are definitely worse things than that.