And You’ve Got Me Hating You
It is a canard often, and falsely, leveled at Hollywood that it has no new ideas. In fact, Hollywood has innumerable new ideas; they’re just all bad. If you’re in the television or film business and have a really shitty idea that nobody asked for or could possibly want, you can make gobs of money, especially if your garbage pitch can somehow be attached to an existing property, regardless of how tenuous the connection (“It’s an old-time western, involving time travel and gross-out comedy…with GoBots!”). This is the mysterious process by which we end up with shows like Riverdale.
For the uninitiated, Riverdale is a new CW show based on the long-running Archie comics. The elevator pitch for it was undoubtedly “Archie meets Gossip Girl by way of Twin Peaks“, although a more honest appraisal would have been “Archie set in a version of Twin Peaks that has been subject to decades of lead poisoning, with a desperate attempt to pander to 90210 nostalgia”. For the life of me, I can’t figure out who the demographic of this show is supposed to be; fans of over-the-top teen drama can get their fix any number of other places without all the cornball baggage, Twin Peaks lovers are likely to be turned off by its utter lack of nuance and general witlessness, and Archie devotees will be annoyed at the casting, the retconning of the characters, and the overall lack of anything resembling a sense of humor. And yet here we are. This is the culture we’ve made, folks, no sense in asking questions.
I’ve tuned in to this darkest-timeline Archie from the very beginning, and it immediately joined Gotham as a show I can’t stop watching even though it is measurably terrible on pretty much every level. Contrary to what I said at the outset, I’ve never been able to generate much interest in my Archie rock opera with music by John Prine where Moose Mason has a meth habit and Patton Howitzer has severe PTSD from his stint in Iraq and screams under a table anytime Mr. Weatherbee makes a P.A. announcement. But I’m still really attached to Archie and its mythos, its rich array of well-crafted stock characters, its weird blend of kids-today hipness and vanished Americana, and its beautiful art, embodied most memorably in the gorgeous line-work of Dan DeCarlo in the ’50s and ’60s which became the template for years to come.
In the Riverdale version of the Archieverse, which takes place in a town so small there is only one place to eat and yet somehow maintains an economy vibrant enough to keep a discotheque for teens in operation, Archie Andrews is his usual bland self, only now he fucks. Everybody fucks in Riverdale. Archie fucks Miss Grundy, who has been promoted from stern septuagenarian to sexpot music teacher. Jughead, who previously didn’t display sexual interest in anything other than cheeseburgers, fucks Betty, enraging people who insist he is asexual by virtue of the canon established about four months ago. Veronica fucks Chuck, leading to a confusing public shaming involving digitally manipulated images of maple syrup (hey, maybe that’s what the kids are into these days, who knows). Kevin fucks Moose, for some reason. Fred Andrews fucks Hermione Lodge. There’s even a severely ham-handed implication that Jason Blossom fucks his sister Cheryl. (Cheryl Blossom is portrayed in this show as a sort of anorexic mean-girl Cobra Commander, and even though she fucks, she’s not nearly as much fun as her off-brand incarnation as Cherry Pop-Tart.)
With all this fucking going on, you’d think it would be possible to care about the relationships between these characters, but sadly, it is not. Much like its spiritual predecessors, Riverdale somehow manages to make the concept of attractive young people having passionate sex boring, largely by sucking every ounce of joy and fun out of it. It’s true that Archie comics have been ‘dark’ before, in everything from a Punisher crossover to a whole line of horror comics, but they were all, at heart, essentially goofy, silly fun, utterly unwilling to take their own premises seriously. But Riverdale is played with the straightest of faces, asking us to take its preposterous romances at the same value as we take the idea that no one is fat in a town where the only available sustenance is burgers and milkshakes. Similarly, it’s impossible to generate a spark of interest in the mystery of Jason Blossom. We cared about who killed Laura Palmer because Twin Peaks attached creepy occult significance to her murder, and because she was seemingly such an innocent and beloved figure that we were intrigued to learn about her dark past. Jason Blossom, on the other hand, just seems like a total dick, so who cares who shot him? I wouldn’t be surprised if the whole town got together and had a lottery drawing to see who had the pleasure of putting a draft through his dome.
None of the other characters manage to rise to even that level of indifference. Josie and the Pussycats have become boringly woke; Betty is the world’s least convincing sociopath; Reggie Mantle barely exists, leaving Archie no one to play against, which only serves to remind us that on his own, Archie Andrews is deeply uninteresting. A few ideas have potential (Dilton Doiley as a right-wing doomsday prepper is some left-field fun), but they never get developed; the main cast of teens stays lily-white, while all the authority figures (Coach Kleats, Pop Tate, Mr. Weatherbee, the mayor) are given to black actors, allowing the show a pretense of diversity while never actually giving minority characters any good lines or interesting roles. Worst of all, Jughead — Jughead! — is robbed of all his personality and humor, a decision that’s already insane because he’s literally built to be comic relief; as the great movie podcast Travis Bickle on the Riviera noted, you can make him as pretentious and moody and pseudo-intellectual as you want, but he’s still named Jughead. But it’s even worse considering that otherwise, this show is utterly devoid of humor. It tries to drop pop-culture references, but like most shows about teenagers written by people in their 30s and 40s, it fails abysmally, and we’re left with Veronica asking Jughead “Are you familiar with the works of Truman Capote?” Folks, if you’re writing a contemporary teen drama, and I get all the references, you’re doing it wrong.
Of course, none of this keeps me from watching the goddamn show, so who’s really fucking up here? It’s visually pretty stunning, its constant missteps and incomprehensible dialogue are almost camp enough to make me laugh, and it has Luke Perry telling dad jokes. But mostly, it’s just a classic example of what Hollywood does so well — and has always done so well, going back to the hit song “Sugar Sugar”, by none other than the Archies: make something that’s profoundly bad and stupid, but just catchy enough that you can’t stop paying attention.