Quick, name an Archie Andrews personality trait. Yes, he’s red-headed and red-blooded, a horndog naïf with hashtag sideburns who is forever battled over by beauties he can’t be bothered to get anywhere with. But beyond that — who is he? Sometimes he’s in a sugar-sweet pop combo. Sometimes he tools across town in a hiccuping jalopy. In recent years, as his publisher has expanded its comic book line beyond its traditional offerings of wholesome cheesecake, he has faced down zombies, married both his sweethearts (in alternate future timelines) and met The Ramones.
In the strong current flagship Archie comic, written by Mark Waid, his perennial gals-and-pals cock-ups play as serialized romantic drama rather than gag-strip comedy. (He faces actual emotional consequences for his dithering between girlfriends.) And now, in The CW’s gorgeous/ridiculous high school noir, Riverdale (premiering Jan. 26), the once-bowtied innocent has become a steel-abbed, un-virginal hunk who has to cover up his affair with his music teacher, Miss Grundy. K.J. Apa, the actor playing “America’s Favorite Teenager,” sports a burgundy dye job that reflects artist Fiona Staples’ recent redesign of the character for the comics — but also suggests a porn-dude parody of Conan O’Brien.
That’s no betrayal to the core of the character, because the character has never had much core. You can’t say much about who Archie is, beyond his gals and pals. Creator John Goldwater first sketched the young man in 1941, inspired by a friend from high school. “I remembered Archie as one of those guys that everyone seemed to like,” he told Craig Yoe in an interview printed in the charming scrapbook Archie: A Celebration of America’s Favorite Teenagers (2011). “He was friendly, without guile and always in trouble — with his parents, the principal and his teachers.” Something “clicked” for Goldwater when he drew that face; immediately, he knew all he needed to know about his hero.
Back then, male heroes in pop culture often lacked defining traits, as their creators assumed maleness (and whiteness and straightness) to be universally understood. Here’s longtime Archie artist Victor Gorelick explaining the character to Yoe: “He’s a pretty straightforward guy who just happens to be a little forgetful and klutzy, too.”
Goldwater knew who Archie was after whipping up one sketch. Creating Betty and Veronica, the friends and rivals who have tussled for Archie’s attention for 75 years — well, those two are specific people, so they took a whole weekend.
There’s always been more to Betty and Veronica than hair color and pinup dimensions: lovesick tomboy Betty Cooper, big-hearted, casually pony-tailed, given to causes and truly besotted with that carrot-topped blank; and swank Veronica Lodge, to the manor born, dressed to the nines, plenty spoiled and mostly after her “Archiekins” out of competitiveness with Betty. As Jughead puts it in the new series, which he ripely narrates, they’re “two sides of the same Janus coin,” and as drawn by Archie artists over the decades they do seem twinned, minted at once. Barring their clothes, from the nose down these bombshells have almost always been identical, which perhaps contributes to Archie’s indecisiveness. He sees them not as individuals but as a triumph of the theory of interchangeable parts.
Traditionally, the blonde is the nice one and the brunette the somewhat cynical wild card, a pop tradition that stretches from B&V to Marilyn and Jane Russell and right up to Mulholland Drive. (Jughead calls Betty “our friendly neighborhood Hitchcock blonde,” as if he’s providing the series’ own footnotes.) Riverdale takes inspiration from David Lynch, as David Lynch took inspiration from the Riverdale of the comics, but for all its talk of “a town of shadows and secrets,” the series isn’t interrogating the world of Archie so much as rebranding it.
We could call it Teen Peaks, referencing another drama where a murder shakes a town notable for its diners and its pulchritude, but the mystery is the inverse of Veronica’s clothes — it feels hopelessly off-the-rack, especially when contrasted with the current comics runs. Afterlife With Archie, the brilliantly titled zombie entry by Roberto Aguirre-Sacasa and Francesco Francavilla, offers more daring variations on the Archie formula and is a stronger ongoing zombie story than AMC’s The Walking Dead. Even better is The Chilling Adventures of Sabrina, by Aguirre-Sacasa and Robert Hack, a beautiful and truly unsettling witch tale that is published much too infrequently.
Still, Riverdale’s creators mash some of-the-moment angles into their pastiche. After a foul post hits Instagram, Betty and Veronica face off against a squad of slut-shaming jocks. Because it’s a soap, and because the super-wealthy no longer send their kids to small-town public high schools, Riverdale’s Lodge family has been disgraced before the pilot in a Madoff-like fraud scandal. Veronica crabs that her life was supposed to be Breakfast at Tiffany’s but is now more like In Cold Blood, a typical line in a series that continually cites its own sources. But don’t worry — Veronica’s closets still burst with sumptuous couture, and the cameras prowl her up and down seemingly every costume change. The producers achieve some parity in the leering, sending Archie across town shirtless in the middle of the night and often popping in to the boys’ locker room.
Aguirre-Sacasa also writes Riverdale, of which I’ve seen four episodes. It’s glossy and funny, appealingly acted, and has too many good qualities to write it off, including rumpled 90210 charmer Luke Perry as Archie’s dad. The chief pleasure: a glorious Betty and Veronica, played with sugar and spice by Lili Reinhart and Camila Mendes. Un-twinned at last, here B&V are more friends than frenemies, troubled individuals finding confidence together as they make common cause first against cruel head cheerleader Cheryl Blossom (Madelaine Petsch), a redhead, and then the football team.
Despite Betty’s wariness — and a strained girl-on-girl makeout joke in the premiere — these two quickly develop a delicious camaraderie, each nudging the other toward being her best self, the way that friends should. The air tingles between them, and when they’re onscreen together, egging each other on, the show becomes witty, involving, even moving. As on Gossip Girl and other CW teen dramas, the characters are smart enough to talk through the plot-driven crises that, on a dumber show, might drive them apart for full episodes. Riverdale doesn’t upend the love triangle of thousands of Archie comics so much as reorient it: Yes, Betty pines for Archie, and Veronica is smitten, but the love story here is between the young women.
That’s probably because there’s a void at Riverdale’s heart: Archie himself, embodied by Apa.
A pretty straightforward guy. Rather than a specific personality, like Peter Parker or Donald Duck, Archie Andrews has always been a vague idealization of white mid-20th-century teendom. He’s more a hope or reassurance than a character — no j.d., no punk, no hippie. He loves the girls and he wants to borrow the car, but the only thing he’d get up to in the backseat is munching burgers from Pop’s.
Riverdale Archie gets laid in a car, but most of his scenes still seem stiff. He plays guitar and writes mopey songs; he faces a moral dilemma whose resolution is never in doubt; he gets schooled on white privilege by Josie and the Pussycats, who deserve their own spinoff. (They’re here, but Sabrina the Teenage Witch is not, presumably due to complexities of licensing.) Apa’s Archie only truly compels when, at a party in the first episode, he gets shoved into a closet with new-girl Veronica for a makeout game. Out of loyalty to Betty, Veronica tries not to let the kissing start, which means they talk instead, for the first time. They connect, but as they do their mouths come closer, and — well, if you don’t know where that’s going, you don’t know all-American pretty straightforward guys.
Less than an episode later, both Betty and Veronica agree it was no big deal. Unlike their cipher of a beau, they’re people.