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Television / Riverdale

Riverdale and the High Art of Commercialization

Over the last year, following the success of Riverdale, the CW has being doing everything in its promotional power to establish the show as Gossip Girl for the new generation. For better or worse, this approach has worked. The absence of the crown jewel that was Gossip Girl left a vacuum in the heart of the network, and thus far Riverdale has been successful in allowing the CW to re-corner the market on teen drama.  Chock-full of messy relationship dynamics, earth-shaking scandals that graduate from catfights over the title of “queen of New York” to murder, and megalomaniac characters that at times make Serena van der Woodsen seem like Mother Theresa, Riverdale is every bit the spiritual successor of Gossip Girl. This, however, has brought it directly into conflict with its source material, The Archie Comics.

The world established within the comics in no way resembles the murder-brimmed, neon aesthetic of the town we now see on the small screen. This dissonance is emphasized as the show strays even further from its roots in pursuit of commercial viability and fulfilling the network’s dream of the show being Gossip Girl 2.0, which, in many ways, is antithetical to the very premise of what Riverdale should be. Much of this dissonance stems from what The Archie Comics are and what Riverdale is not. All properties run into the problem of adaptation–or the translation of textual narratives to screen–when making the jump between mediums. While this jump always poses serious difficulties, it does not necessarily doom projects for the kind of failure many longtime fans of The Archie Comics view Riverdale as being.

If the CW show acts as a dire warning on what adaptations should avoid doing, it is essential to dissect the show so that we as an audience can identify the problems Riverdale runs into and become more critical media consumers. During this current industry push towards the creation of distinguishable properties, such as Harry Potter and The Hunger Games, we must not be passive receptors of the content being produced and reward the creative mediocrity of industry juggernauts with fistfuls of undeserving cash. Instead, we must demand the kind of quality programming that is deserving of an intelligent and creatively blooming viewership. If not, adaptations like Riverdale will mark Hollywood’s departure away from art in pursuit of lucrativity.

Don’t misunderstand, I enjoy consuming the hot dumpster fire of a mess that is the CW’s Riverdale. I would even go so far as to say I love the show. But I don’t love it because it was based on the Archie Comics I love it in spite of that. The Archie Comics reflect the quintessential American experience. The comics are wholesome and distinctively speak to American middle class sensibilities. That direct appeal to suburbia is not coincidental. Archie is very much a child of the insecurity of the 40s bred by World War 2 as well as the cultural conformity of the 50s.  Idealizing a picturesque American town and a hopelessly endearing American teenager who hilariously finds himself trapped in a love triangle he just can’t seem to find his way out of. And beyond Archie, endearing is the term that best characterizes his relationship with his friends and his friends themselves. Whereas the comics always focused on this perennial love triangle centered around Archie Andrews, and the conflict it created between best friends Betty Cooper and Veronica Lodge, Riverdale centers around the murder of one of the local town’s kids, Jason Blossom.  The Archie comics are wholesome, and Riverdale exploits this established basis of propriety in which the comics operate within to explore a grittier, “realistic,” version of Riverdale. In the cultural context of the 2010s, the CW show adaption of the comics makes sense. We, as a society, have become obsessed with the idea of the nonexistence of innocence or innocence as facade for some underlying darkness. But it is in this exploration that the fundamental problem with the adaption exists.

Riverdale assumes that to operate in the modern world, the Archie characters must be plagued by an unspoken inner darkness. But the truth is that, from alien invasions to brushes with the occult, the characters in the comics always remained consistently good at heart.  At its core, the Archie Comics are about a group of good kids who, despite their flaws and sometimes complicated relationship dynamics, fiercely love and protect each other. Kids who always do the right thing. The characters are all normal, decent, morally-upright citizens, who often find themselves in over their heads. This is not the case within the world of the television adaption of the series however.  In Riverdale, Cheryl is physically and emotionally abusive to her mother and closest friend. Archie neglects to consider the feelings of those he cares about and elects instead to engage in behavior that is often selfish at best and morally questionable at worst. Ms. Grundy, their supportive teacher and grandmotherly figure in the comics, has been turned into a hypersexualized child predator. And most egregiously, Betty, a complicated and dynamic female character has been reduced to a shell of herself, whose primary characterization centers around the fact that she has a “dark” side that involves drugging and torturing one of her classmates, self harming, and occasional complete mental and emotional unhinging.  Riverdale’s fundamental misunderstanding of where the heart of the Archie Comics lies makes the show near unrecognizable to longtime fans. In the comics, the characters compose the heart of the narrative. In the show, it is the town.

In the name of all things holy – namely commercial viability and Gossip Girl – the writers and showrunner of Riverdale have made the fatal mistake so often seen with property adaptation. They appropriate property iconicity, but fail to build upon it. Riverdale introduces by name the characters the public has come to love so well in the comics, but, in terms of character development or exploration, it doesn’t do anything with them.

Riverdale’s main characters resemble those from the comics – they share the same names and loose backstories, but have no shared character, motivations, or actions with the Riverdale Gang in the comics. The resemblance is therefore is superficial and inauthentic – an appropriation of their comic iconicity for the sake of bolstering audience familiarity with the property. Fans, then, are invested in the show is because it is a dark, teenage soap opera, not because it holds as a faithful adaptation of the comics.

In comic adaptation it is important to be able to not only appropriate the likeness of iconic characters but also the structural integrity of their ethos. Through the exploration of this adapted incarnation of properties, their movie and TV counterparts can effectively explore larger questions while satisfying the source material. Riverdale could very well have been a gritty, teen-noir about a sleepy small town’s loss of innocence, but that presupposes innocence to be lost. Riverdale fails to establish any sort of innocence as the norm before launching into the events of the show. This creative choice fundamentally undermines an effective loss of innocence narrative.  As an audience we are never shown the before of Riverdale, rather the catalyst and fallout.

The failure to establish an equilibrium then fails to establish the disruption needed to explore the misconception of Middle America as the heartland of American traditionalism and morality. This failure also translates into the weakening of Riverdale’s characters as they are never narratively presented as wholly developed people who are capable or in need of change. Instead, they are presented as half-fleshed out ideas of characters, upon which Riverdale forces undeserved and emotionally unsatisfying character arcs. The best example of this is Veronica Lodge. The audience is told time and time again through expositional dialogue that Veronica is a former bad girl and bully who is looking to repent for her sins. But never once is the audience shown Veronica being anything less than perfectly cordial.

Riverdale lacks the restraint to prioritize character driven moments over dramatic soap opera plotlines. But in doing this they rob their characters of agency in order to further the plot, leaving their characters passive and reactionary. These characters are receptive responders to the plot, not the actors who push it forward. They do not struggle in the ways that the emotional realities of their situation mandates. When not romantically interacting, Betty and Archie and Veronica merely inhabit the same spaces as their so-called friends. Riverdale tells and fails again and again to show. The CW is so caught up in the gritty dark nature of the plot that they neglect to pose challenges for their characters, forget to pose narrative questions that require authentic growth. Betty and Archie have been best friends since childhood. When Archie’s father is shot in Episode 1 of Season 2, instead of consoling her best friend, Betty pushes his new girlfriend, Veronica, to handle the ensuing emotional fallout.  It is hard to reconcile Betty’s failure to satisfyingly console him during the hardest day of his life with the fact that she is supposedly Archie’s best friend.

The writers mean to use this event as a way to strengthen the believability of Archie’s relationship with Veronica, but in the process they shortchange and undermine Betty’s character. If Betty is meant to be the quintessential girl next door, it is not enough to brand her through outfit and cast interviews as one, nor can the characters repeat it over and over as if somehow stating it aloud enough will make  it true. Betty’s actions must align with her purported character, and when they don’t the inadequacy on the part of the writer’s to establish a solid mythology becomes clear.

These characters are not of the wholesome stock seen in print – they are not the best friends they claim to be based off of their preexisting dynamic in the comics. They haven’t earned the arcs the creative team behind the show attempts to force upon the characters. They haven’t built up the relationships they flaunt on screen enough for us to truly be emotionally invested in the adaptation’s characters. Riverdale is wholly dependent on audience familiarity with the comics, and this dependency fundamentally weakens the show. Riverdale uses audience familarily to circumvent meaningfully building the world of Riverdale and take the time to establish character relations. In the small, sleepy town of Riverdale, Betty Cooper forgets to share any screen time with her best friend Archie Andrews the moment she finds a new boyfriend. In the small, sleepy town of Riverdale, Archie Andrews is sexually exploited by a teacher in a way that’s implicitly construed as romantic. In the small, sleepy town of Riverdale, the characters we see on screen may resemble those we see on the pages of comic books. But make no mistake, they are not them. If media reflects culture, then shows like Riverdale suggest that perhaps our current cultural landscape is one in which money comes before art. Betty Cooper may not exist, but that may be because she’s just a new age skin for Serena van der Woodsen.