When you read Archie comics as children, did you ever think that decades later Archie Andrews and friends and Riverdale would be a lesson in journalism ethics and “slut-shaming” and a commentary on the world? I’m guessing not. I remember reading Archie comics for a short period of time in my early teens. It was the prototype of small town America—safe, decent, innocent. The characters were very black and white. Good boy Archie Andrews, the even more good blue-eyed blonde girl Betty Cooper, their raven-haired snooty friend Veronica Lodge, rich boy Reggie Mantle, the laid-back Jughead and his geeky girlfriend Ethel, the good-natured jock Moose and his petite sweet girlfriend Midge. Principal Weatherbee and the frumpy teacher, Miss Grundy. Archie-Betty-Veronica formed a love triangle with Archie mooning over Veronica and Betty mooning over him and he in return being Betty’s best friend bordering on boyfriend.
Nothing traumatic happened in the comics. Neither did anything exciting happen. It was what we called “timepass”. And didn’t read too much of, if you didn’t want your grey cells to deplete quickly. It inspired Karan Johar’s Kuch Kuch Hota Hai, so you understand how deep and intellectual it was.
But all hail Netflix. Because they’ve just started airing Riverdale, a new series based on the Archie Comics characters, and it is a study in bleakness, good scriptwriting and creativity. I started watching it with zero expectations, but I couldn’t have been more incorrect in what I was expecting.
There is nothing safe, decent or innocent about Riverdale or its inhabitants. Set in today’s America, the characters are in the final year of high school, but there are no black and white characters or cookie cutter characters. This is a study in human behaviour, frailties and devastatingly good plot twists. While the worst that happened in Archie comics was that Reggie and Archie had a fallout over the affections of Veronica Lodge, what happens in Riverdale is a little darker.
A brother and sister—twins—go out for an early morning boat ride. But only the sister returns, the brother she claims has drowned. His body is soon discovered with a bullet-wound through his forehead. The sister is the school bitch, Cheryl. She is the quintessential mean girl. Her brother, it soon turns out, was the school mean boy and bully. The series is about the unfolding of this murder investigation.
Other than the murder, there are many departures from the comics. Archie Andrews is not the all-round American boy here. He has his foibles, along with a relationship with someone whom he really shouldn’t be involved with. Veronica Lodge is not the bad spoilt girl. She’s the new kid in town, daughter of a millionaire who is in prison for embezzlement, and is the rich misunderstood girl who values her new friendship with Betty over everything else. Betty Cooper is far from the blonde blue-eyed sweetheart she was in the comics. Here, she is brittle, seemingly always on the verge of a nervous breakdown and has a sister, Molly, who has been sent away for actually having a breakdown. Jughead is the observer, Archie’s good friend, and is writing a book about the murder. Moose is a jock and a closet gay. Dilton Doiley is head of the cub scouts, but is also a diminutive power-hungry survivalist. There is also a new openly gay character, Kevin Keller, who is the sheriff’s son and one of the most interesting of the lot. In a clear sign of self-awareness, Cheryl (the twin who survives) is referred to as “a stock character from a Nineties teen movie”.
As a nod to the Nineties version of Archies, Beverly Hills 90210, Luke Perry is back as Archie’s very dishy dad. And Robin Givens is the black female mayor of Riverdale and mother of Josie of the Josie & The Pussycats. There’s also Betty Cooper’s mother, Alice Cooper, hardcore journalist with no ethics within a mile of her, and Veronica’s mother, Hermione Lodge.
Riverdale is no longer just white folk from the right side of town. There are blacks, homosexuals, biker gangs. All sorts of topics are touched on. Slut-shaming. Inter-racial relationships. People coming to terms with their homosexuality. Murder most foul. Stolen identities. Class divides. Life on social media. The cesspool of frailties and ego that high school is for many. The boundaries of teacher-student relationships. Exploitative journalism. The concept of siblings taking on each other’s characters. Parents in absentia (Archie’s mother who left the family is slated to return over the next few episodes.) Racism and sexism.
There are many references to pop culture and history. Diablo Cody. Being a Frida Shallow. Quentin Tarantino’s films. Fast And The Furious. The Salem witch trials. The psyche and persona of “Hitchcock blondes”. Ferris Bueller.
This is brilliant scriptwriting—and acting. To be able to look at Archie Comics, which was a study in vanilla vacuousness, and build such a dark, nuanced and gripping narrative out of it and its characters is simply genius. The first four episodes of Riverdale are up on Netflix India and it seems episode 5 will be up this week. Watch it for the sake of intelligent entertainment. And if you’re a writer, to learn what great writing is.