Why Can't We Get Enough of Riverdale?
Making waves these past weeks has been Riverdale. A modern interpretation of the classic Archie comics produced as a weekly release on Netflix.
For some context, I grew up reading my dad's collection of old Archie comics. They were full of fun, light stories about a quaint little town where everyone got along no matter the varying degrees of animosity in any given story. For decades the town of Riverdale was immortal to time. Regan era fantasy of America in its idyllic form.
Now we have Riverdale, a series that takes the town of Riverdale and sets us into the real modern world. The premise of the series appears to be simple: if you took the actions of the various characters in Riverdale and made them real, what would they be like? In the comics, Archie is the leader of their band, a star football player, a social butterfly who gets along with everyone, and the center of affection for both Betty and Veronica. In Riverdale they imagine this to be a young man unsure of what he wants from his life who is emotionally torn between a girl he thinks he's not good enough for and the new woman in his life who is different from everything he has ever known. This sort of thing makes a lot of character actions from the comics make more sense. Why is Veronica hung up on Archie and his circle of friends in the comics when she is monstrously wealthy and doesn't share much in common with them? In Riverdale, it's because she is trying to reinvent herself. She doesn't want to be the spoiled rich girl anymore even if bits of that personality still spill out. Betty is the wholesome, perfect girl with amazing grades because her mother is horrifically overbearing. All of these changes to character make real what was the fantasy of the comics.
The REALLY interesting part? An established narrative.
The events of Riverdale surround the disappearance of Jason Blossom shortly before school begins again and Veronica and her mother move into Riverdale. Everyone's social circles are shaken up by both the disappearance as well as the new face in town. As we go on more and more about these characters is revealed we still circle back to this core story: what happened to Jason Blossom and who was involved?
Now the Archie comics themselves are no strangers to established narratives. 2010 saw the publishing of the multi-part stories in which Archie marries Betty and Veronica in two parallel story lines, and we explore what their lives together are like. Things continued and explored the Death of Archie Andrews, its affect on Riverdale and the lives of his friends. These stories were a MAJOR shakeup for Archie comics since the series never followed any continuity. As such the comics could get away with the one-dimensional characters that populated it. Without a narrative, you don't need character growth.
This is why the series Riverdale couldn't work as a mirror of the comics. Shy of making a sketch series about a wholesome good time (yeah, right) you can't do the comics on television or in film since while the medium does allow for it, there's not much meaning to it.
But what is it about this show that has made it so compelling to so many people?
Riverdale does not stand alone as an updated version of an older work. It is one of many as the upcoming release of Beauty, and the Beast can attest to. The past several years haven't just seen these films return to screens as live action versions of their former selves, so far they've come packaged with new insights and updated character construction. Maleficent showcased a story where our assumed villain had been abused and betrayed by someone she trusted. Jungle Book expanded massively on its lore creating a far better interplay between characters, showcasing Mogli's ingenuity, and making Khan into a chilling villain. Even Snow White and the Huntsman along with its sequel did a decent job of telling already well-known stories differently.
This is where a lot of fans are finding the entertainment value for these sorts of projects. In the internet age, we can easily re-experience what we already know. But to see those same stories and characters be modified so that they are still recognizable, but presented in a different way, it provides a fresh take on what would otherwise be familiar.
At its core, this is what makes Riverdale so successful. It isn't that the show has a particularly compelling story or characters, it's that it is both familiar and different at the same time.