I may have miscategorized this. It’s easy to see how Archie: To Riverdale and Back Again happened. It rode the tide of wildly successful feature length “reunions” of 60s TV shows, like The Andy Griffith Show, Leave it to Beaver, and The Many Loves of Dobie Gillis. Archie may have never been a live action show, but it was still a benchmark moment in Baby Boomer pop culture, so why not give it the same treatment? What is baffling are the numerous decisions that were made to turn an innocuous comic book series about small town teenagers into an insufferably smug, occasionally downright seedy comedy for grownups.
The movie opens on the weekend of Archie and the gang’s fifteen year high school reunion. I don’t know that people often celebrate their fifteen year high school reunion, nor do I think many high school principals get involved in the planning of said reunion, but for Mr. Weatherbee it’s clearly the event of the year, as he promises “field trips, parties, a carnival, and a concert featuring Riverdale’s biggest band…the Archies!” I got stuffed shells at a catering hall hosted by a DJ wearing a Hawaiian shirt at my reunion, but perhaps your experience was different.
As he eagerly awaits the arrival of his best pals, it’s also Archie’s last weekend in Riverdale, as he’s moving to “the city” (which city is never specified, it’s only referred to as “the city”) to become a partner in a law firm and live with his yuppie fiancée. Riverdale is a town eerily trapped in amber, and none of the characters, now in their thirties, seem to have emotionally matured in any perceivable way. Archie (Christopher Rich, hair dyed orange so that he looks like Joe Pesci playing David Ferrie in JFK) is still a gee whiz nice guy. Betty (Lauren Holly, giving Rich a run for his money in a blonde bubble wig that makes her look like a hostess on The 700 Club) is still a mild mannered good girl. Veronica (Karen Kopins) is still a spoiled, sexually aggressive rich girl. Reggie (Gary Kroger) is still an unrepentant asshole. Jughead (Sam Whipple) is the only one who seems to have changed, and not for the better–having recently gone through a nasty divorce, he’s now a depressed, neurotic psychiatrist who can’t connect with his obnoxious adolescent son, and wastes his patients’ appointments talking about his own problems. When Archie asks Jughead how he’s doing, he answers “Not great at all. I’m horrible, Arch, I’m really lonely.”
Isn’t this fun so far? Isn’t it wonderful to reconnect with these beloved characters from our childhood? Hang on, it doesn’t stop there. The viewer is expected to buy that, despite evidently not having seen or talked to each other in over a decade, both Betty and Veronica have spent the last fifteen years of their lives pining for Archie, never getting over the fact that he was incapable of choosing which one of them he wanted to take to the prom. When Archie tells Veronica that he’s about to move in with his fiancée, she repeats “Fian…cée?” in a quavering voice that suggests he’s just told her he has colon cancer. Meanwhile, Archie himself smolders with barely restrained jealousy and hostility towards Betty’s smarmy boyfriend (Matt McCoy), while Betty looks like she’s constantly on the verge of a swooning nervous breakdown in Archie’s presence.
Veronica’s father (James Noble), coming off as Riverdale’s resident mafia don, threatens Archie if he even attempts to date his 35 year-old daughter, who has been married four times and appears to have no source of income other than the Lodge Family fortune (as opposed to Archie, who, as we’re told a number of times, is now a Very Successful Lawyer Who is About to Move to the City). His chauffeur/henchman interprets these threats as meaning he should literally attempt to kill Archie, first by cutting the brake line in his car, then by giving him a bomb disguised as a gift. Nevertheless, Veronica is so thirsty for Archie that she breaks into his house and tries to seduce him, wearing a trenchcoat with only lingerie underneath it, while Jughead’s son, who initially behaves like a serial killer in the making, peeps at them through a window.
I mean, come on, isn’t this just the most heartwarming thing you’ve ever seen? What a delightful blast from the past!
Archie, in about as wishy washy “Gee, I don’t want to hurt these gals’ feelings, but I also kind of like that they all want to ride my crank” a manner as possible, turns Veronica down. It’s Archie and Betty, both of them as sweet, white, and boring as Twinkie filling, who are clearly meant to be together, which makes the scenes in which they stubbornly refuse to admit that they still have feelings for each other all the more interminable. Fully a quarter of screen time is dedicated to their stammering, looking longingly at each other as they reminisce over old times, almost kissing, and yet insisting that they are very happy with their current partners even though they are clearly terrible people thank you very much. The B-plot, in which Reggie, working together with Veronica’s father, intends to tear down Pop’s Choklit Shoppe in order to expand his gym, is almost a relief, if it didn’t ultimately tie into the film’s message that growth and progress are undesirable, and that one should strive to maintain a life hopelessly tied to the past.
Archie, who, as we’re frequently reminded, is A Very Successful Lawyer, takes Reggie to court on Pop’s behalf. Unable to find legal footing to stand on, he instead appeals to the judge’s emotions, insisting that Pop’s Choklit Shoppe should remain open largely because Riverdale thrives on never, ever changing. “If Reggie evicts Pop, he might as well throw away our souls while he’s at it!” Archie declares, as if the town is being faced with the closing of an orphanage, rather than an ice cream parlor that could probably reopen across the street.
Meanwhile, in what barely qualifies as a C-plot, goofy, awkward Jughead attempts to find a common ground with his sociopathic son. He finally manages to do so by performing a “rap” version of the Archies’ hit “Sugar, Sugar” in the middle of the town square, updating the lyrics so that they sound a little more “street.” I challenge you to get through this scene, the whole thing, without your body cringing itself into a sentient ball of embarrassment by the end. Does everyone in the town square treat this as a humiliating display of white nonsense? No, they love it, and so does Jughead’s kid, who looks upon him with nothing short of heroic idolatry after that.
To wrap up this very long movie (actual high school reunions don’t feel as long): Pop’s Choklit Shoppe, of course, remains open, and all is forgiven between Archie and Reggie by the end, even after Archie accidentally blows up Reggie’s gym (ask ye not, child). Realizing that she doesn’t share his moist eyed wistfulness for old root beer bottles and varsity jackets, Archie ends his relationship with his fiancée, while Betty dumps her boyfriend. “Small town sentimentality!” he sneers, to which Archie’s now ex-fiancée replies “I know what you mean.” Drawn together by their villainous desire to be functioning adults without pathological attachments to their youth, they immediately fall for each other.
Newly single, Archie decides to stay in Riverdale, where he truly belongs. Not only that, but Betty, Veronica, and Jughead all instantly decide that they’re going to give up their lives elsewhere and stay as well. While Betty and Veronica initially demand that Archie make a decision regarding which of them he likes more, his golly gosh flailing over it is still so charming that they’re content to wait just a little longer, as they continue fighting over who gets to sit next to him at Pop’s.
With the gang back together, and falling back into the same roles they had as teenagers, Pop commemorates the moment with a picture. “Don’t move!” Pop says, holding up his camera. With a knowing grin, Archie says “I don’t think anyone ever will.”
It was then that the movie ended, and I proceeded to blow my brains out.
That may be a bit dramatic, and yet if you can think of anything more existentially depressing than being the same person you were in high school, doing the same things in the same town, I will send you one crisp dollar bill. Considering I write a blog reviewing television from my childhood, clearly I have an appreciation for misguided nostalgia. However, Archie: To Riverdale and Back Again engages in the worst kind of Boomer pandering for a time that few of its viewers ever experienced, when you hung out at the local soda shop with the prettiest girl in town on your arm (or two, if you’re a swingin’ dick like Archie Andrews). Life peaks in high school, so do what you can to maintain that facade for as long as possible, even if it means staying in your tiny, nowhere little hometown palling around with the same people you palled around with when you were sixteen, because those are the people who know you best.
It’s very heavily telegraphed that Jughead, Veronica and Betty’s lives have been unsatisfying and often unhappy not because that’s the way life works sometimes, but because they made the mistake of leaving Riverdale, a magical snowglobe of a town where there’s not a problem that can’t be solved with a malted and a ride in the ol’ jalopy. Most people would look at moving back to their hometown in their thirties as a personal failing–here, the message is that you should never try to leave in the first place, putting a decidedly creepy, Stephen King-esque edge on an otherwise lighthearted, silly plot. If the movie ended with Jughead casting his son into a volcano to make reparations to the dark gods of Riverdale, it wouldn’t be surprising.
Earlier this year, the CW debuted Riverdale, a dramatic series that put the now requisite “gritty edge” on Archie and the gang. Critics (and no small amount of viewers) grumbled about the “this ain’t your daddy’s Archie!” tone to the show, in which Archie, a high school sophomore, has a passionate affair with a young and sexy Miss Grundy, and lovable lug Moose is bicurious. It’s only fair to point out that Archie: To Riverdale and Back Again features a scene in which Jughead’s son concocts a scheme to force Betty to bend over so he can see her panties, which comes off as way more smutty than hinting that Betty and Veronica might engage in some innocent same sex experimentation in the new show. Inserting what amounts to a Porky‘s gag, along with a later scene in which both Betty and Veronica show up at Archie’s motel room all but begging him to fuck them (“Make me a woman, Archie. Make…me…wild,” Betty purrs) in this otherwise warm cup of schmaltz is as calculating and cynical as, well, everything else about forced nostalgia.
Original airdate: May 6, 1990
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