I recently took out a free trial of Netflix and I was soon drawn in to paying the monthly subscription. Apart from a couple of films it has been three series which have caught my attention- the sumptuous royal drama “The Crown”, the absolutely addictive drag-queen competition “Rupaul’s Drag Race” and this teen mystery series which I was absolutely delighted to see on the Netflix schedules.
I had heard a lot about “Riverdale” and it taps into a little obsession I’ve had since I was a very young child. One year on holiday in Cornwall on a visit to the newsagent’s at the end of the road where we were staying I discovered a set of American comics I had never seen before. In those days my reading habit was fuelled by comics- I would buy, borrow, swap many during the course of the week, “Beano”, “Dandy” “Sparky”, “Cor!” “Whizzer and Chips”, “Beezer”, “Buster” “Topper “, “TV Comic”, “Look In” – I loved them all. I wasn’t so keen on the football or war ones, they had to be funny, although I did used to read my sister’s “Bunty” and “Mandy”. Occasionally I would pick up an American comic from the Harvey publishers “Caspar The Friendly Ghost” “Richie Rich”, but these were harder to come by because they were imported. I loved the adverts in these as much as the stories but by the time I was in that newsagents in Cornwall I would have deemed these as a little young for me, but in a rack in front of me was something that would certainly fit the bill.
The history of Archie Comics was unknown to me. I didn’t know that the character on the cover that I was trying to get my Dad to buy alongside the “Daily Mirror” had been around since 1941 when he appeared in a strip in “Pep Comics”. The success of Super-powered Comic Book heroes had led the publishers to deduce that the market was ripe for a teenage “Everyman” to appeal to all readers and thus Archie and his group of friends living in Riverdale were developed. By 1943 he had his own national radio programme which ran for over 10 years and by 1946 (71 years ago! ) the publishers changed their name to Archie Comics and the seal was set. There were lots of spin-off publications from the range of characters (many still going to this day), there were Cartoon series (don’t think we ever had those in the UK) and most famously as the 60’s moved into the 70’s a massive US and UK#1 single “Sugar Sugar”. Recorded (obviously) by a session group led by Ron Dante, Toni Wine and Andy Kim this was not the only #1 single by an animated group but it remains the first and the best. It was the biggest selling single around the world in 1969.
Archie and his friends have lurked around in the background to my life since then. Every visit I have made to the United States has found me bringing back a small pile of the latest publications. I have an Archie comics app on my tablet, a much-followed Pinterest board and I even named my cat after the character. And now, on my TV, there is a real-life adaptation where the characters have been re-imagined and developed into a series – I’m going to watch it, aren’t I?
I’m now one episode away from the Series Finale (with Season 2 due on Netflix in the UK in October) and I do really like it. Certainly darker than the comic-book world of Riverdale this has a death at its centre of Jason Blossom, a character who was introduced to the comics in the 1980’s as twin brother of Cheryl, a more prominent character who has had a whole comic book series dedicated to her. Although these perennial teenagers have been “reimagined” it’s important to the legions of fans over the decades that this reimagining does not take anything away from the original creations. I think, on the whole, the makers of “Riverdale” have got this right.
Where they have certainly got it right is in the difficult to cast lead character. Archie Andrews (who in real terms must be knocking on 90) is played beautifully by 20 year old New Zealand actor K J Apa. It must have been a brave bit of casting to choose to play one of the ultimate All-American boys a Kiwi whose father is a Samoan chief, but he looks the part and he has become the part. I’m totally convinced by his performance.
The series is narrated by Archie’s pal, Jughead, who is more intense and less goofy than we would remember from the comics and he brings in the air of darkness which permeates the series and which works very well, making it something more than just another set of teens doing their thing. This curiously named character was there in the very first 1941 strip and has always been a little bit of an outsider. They’ve taken away the food obsession which fuelled the animated character and have developed a dysfunctional family background for him. The character and performance has developed throughout the series. He is played by one half of child acting twins Cole Mitchell Sprouse, who with his brother was one of the wealthiest children alive in 2007, from franchised products and TV shows. Thankfully, we were largely spared the Sprouse Twins in the UK. It is interesting casting which makes his portrayal of the intense, disadvantaged teen even stronger.
At the heart of the comic’s success is the eternal (70 years and counting anyway) love triangle between Archie and the two girls he cannot choose between, Betty and Veronica.
I’ve always been a Veronica man myself, with her bitchy edge compared to the sugar-sweetness of wholesome Betty. The real-life portrayals are less stereotypical and more rounded and in “Riverdale” it may be Betty who has the edge. (Incidentally, in 2009 the publishers launched two story lines of a post High-School Archie, in one “Archie Marries Betty” in the other “Archie Marries Veronica” showing that really that lack of decision which has been going on for so many years is entrenched).
Also featured in the cast are Archie spin-offs Josie & The Pussycats (who we did have as a cartoon in the UK in the 70’s– great theme tune, as well as a fairly awful 2001 movie). These have been part of Archie’s gang since 1962 and featured Valerie, the first non-stereotypical African-American regular in a cartoon series. The Riverdale version takes this further by recreating the Pussycats as an R&B trio.
The Archie comics also pushed boundaries by having the first out-gay teenage character with Kevin Keller -an important step. Kevin looks somewhat different in his TV version- but I am glad they have included the character. In fact actor Casey Cott is a closer match for the traditional representation of another member of Archie’s gang, Reggie, who is somewhat sidelined in the first season of the TV adaptation. Having Kevin as an accepted character whose sexuality is not an issue either with his friends, family or Riverdale marks a significant movement in TV’s representation of gay characters.
Casey Cott as Kevin Keller, masquerading as Reggie?
There has been some drastic reimaging in some of the minor characters. Take a look at Archie’s teacher Miss Grundy who at the start of Riverdale Archie is conducting some extra-curricular romance with……
And the TV adaptation version……..
Fits the plot better, I suppose………..
The older generation characters are interesting in that some are played by actors who a decade or two before were themselves teen heart-throbs, notably Beverly Hills 90210 dreamboat Luke Perry who now plays Archie’s Dad, Brat-packer and ex-number 1 VH1 Teen Star Molly Ringwald who plays Archie’s Mum, Twin Peaks star Madchen Amick as Betty’s Mum and teen horror classic “Scream” star Skeet Ulrich as Jughead’s Dad. This gives the show an interesting dimension and lifts it further above run-of-the mill teen fare.
Does this programme really want to make me feel old ? Presenting the parents of Riverdale
It is the darker edge that lays underneath the comic book sunniness of Riverdale which is the most potent aspect of the series. A couple of episodes in the first series forgot this and veered towards teen soap, but it got back on track and the later episodes were very satisfying . I have one more episode to watch and ends seemed to be quite nicely tied up by episode twelve, which might suggest a slightly new direction for the remaining episode as a prelude to the new series. All in all I think this has been a bold television venture which no way detracted from the source material (as so many re-imaginings do) . The Archie heritage is preserved by the TV show being developed by the company’s chief creative officer Roberto Aguirre-Sacasa and along with the other shows I mentioned more than justifies my monthly Netflix subscription.
Season 1 of Riverdale can be found on Netflix in the UK. Season 2 is due in October