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There was a time when the most troubling mystery of Riverdale — home of Archie Andrews and his adolescent cohort — was what was going on with Archie’s hair. What did the weird crosshatching along its fiery sides signify? A close second, of course, was Archie’s eternal Manichean dilemma: Would his affections fall on the forces of wholesome but dull, played by Betty, or of venal but exciting, played by Veronica? A distant but salient third mystery that only occurred to me later: Why the fuck are Betty and Veronica, both strong independent women, interested in Archie anyway? Dude’s basic.
But as weighty as those issues were — and they did keep me up at night — that version of Riverdale existed in simpler times when the best part of grocery shopping was trying to convince my mother to buy the newest issue of the various permutations of the comic book tucked kid-eye-level in the checkout aisle at Genuardi’s.
But the time has come to put aside childish things. Riverdale — which premiered last night on the CW — adapts the world of Archie for grownups, which is to say, it fills that idyllic town with incest, murder, mayhem, and wifi. The new show is more River’s Edge than Riverdale.
Even in this modern dystopia, some things endure. The center of civic life in both the new and the old Riverdale is Pop’s Chok’lit Shoppe, run by Terry “Pop” Tate. In the original comics, Pop Tate’s 24-hour-diner was a well-lit, always-open third room where all the young dudes of Riverdale High gathered not just for cheeseburgers and milkshakes but for a sense of community. It was a precursor to both Luke’s Diner in Stars Hollow, Mel’s Drive-In is to the San Francisco of American Graffiti, and Central Perk in Friends.
In its Riverdale iteration, Pop’s once-comforting neon sign has been mined for all its creepy echoes of small town America. The neon flickers and what was once a beacon is now a luminous cicatrix in the dusk. The sign is a sign. The entire series operates on the premise that that which seems benign must be malign. “Our story is about a town, a small town and the people who live in the town,” says Jughead, the series’ narrator who sits laptop open at Pop’s as he writes what we see. “From a distance it presents itself like so many other small towns all over the world. Safe. Decent. Innocent. Get closer, though, and you start seeing the shadows underneath. The name of our town is Riverdale.”
The set up is the familiar high school trope. Riverdale High will soon be starting after summer break and we find each of the characters in some way dealing with the events of the summer. As per Jughead’s gimlet-eyed warning, one shady-ass thing that has happened is a murder.
We are soon introduced to the red-haired Blossom twins whose implied incestuous relationship ends in fratricide. The sister drowns the brother in a river in a murder that itself bears remarkable similarity to the kayak killer case of 2015. Then we’re in Betty’s boudoir where her best friend, Kevin, goads her to ravish her love, Archie, who we see staring into his phone in his window, directly across from Betty’s. Betty, who is similarly not wearing a shirt, is now clearly a woman. Archie — whose body is tight, bro — is a man, especially after his deflowering in a Volkswagen by his teacher, Ms. Grundy, an act itself which bears remarkable similarity to any number of criminal cases brought against female teachers who have sexually preyed on their male students.
Eventually loneliness and hunger brings him to the diner. The Pop’s of the comic books wasn’t always crowded, but it was always suffuse with good vibes. This Pop’s, like everything else in the town, is downright creepy and suffuse with dread. Apparently, it wasn’t always that way.
When the Lodges moves back to Riverdale after Veronica’s father is convicted of fraud, her mother joneses for Pop’s cheeseburgers. “I have been craving one of Pop Tate’s cheeseburgers,” she says, which implies it used to be, you know, kinda fun. In a telling retort, Veronica replies: “What is a chocolate shop and why does it sell burgers?” Typical teenage shit. But then she goes and she runs into Archie and Betty, whose milkshake is more implied than explicit — we see only a straw. And though cheeseburgers are mentioned and onion rings too, there’s no food in the entire episode.
No cheeseburgers. No pizza. No joy. No bonhomie. There is no nourishment here, just shadows. Archie might someday ultimately choose Betty, but Riverdale itself has chosen darkness. It’s not cultural conservatism or nostalgia that makes me mourn this new dark Riverdale with its solemn foreboding Pop’s Chok’lit Shoppe. Hell, darkness makes for good television. But there is something profoundly sad, to me at least, that Riverdale, a comic book town drawn with the certainty of a thick black line, a town in which everyone was basically good or clearly bad, has turned to shades of gray. Is this indulgence in our deepest fears what counts for sophistication now? The Archie Andrew, the old Archie Andrews, within me, hopes not.
In 2014, Archie the comic book character as we knew him was fatally shot defending a gay congressman against a disturbed shooter at Pop’s Chok’litt Shop. It took three years and a change in medium, but with Riverdale, they’ve finally killed Pop’s too.
Rating: Two stars out of five