Review: Archie: To Riverdale and Back Again (1990)

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There’s a great misconception about Archie. The image is the comics are hopelessly dated, out of touch, squeaky clean comics that aren’t funny. And that’s really not true. Sure, they’re family friendly but the comics fight successfully to stay relevant and earn that. They’ve diversified early and often. There may not be on panel acknowledgement of sex but there’s way too many locker room scenes and excuses to get the women of Riverdale in bikinis to call the comics squeaky clean. As for the funny part? The comics are often perfect short doses of slapstick gold.

Too bad we’re about to get back to perceived Archie because that’s where we’re headed.

Archie: To Riverdale and Back Again is a failed pilot for a live action series that NBC had high hopes for but with dismal ratings canned. It’s the very image of what non-Archie readers think Archie is. It’s cutesy pap that’s so cloying the adult elements feel out of left field. It’s a bad idea from start to finish with stunningly weird decisions at every turn.

The premise is this: Archie Andrews (Christopher Rich) is a lawyer right on the brink of moving to the big city with his fiancee but he just needs to attend his high school reunion. That’s where he catches up with Jughead (Sam Whipple), a neurotic psychiatrist with a prankster son and a failed marriage, Betty (Lauren Holly), a teacher and aspiring writer with an asshole fiance, and Veronica (Karen Kopins), a spoiled rich socialite. Old conflicts emerge against a new one as Reggie (Gary Kroeger) tries to muscle Pop Tate (Mike Nussbaum) out with the help of Mr. Lodge (James Noble.)

This is clearly a pilot. So many threads are set up for the future, mainly the idea that in theory we’ll watch the Archie/Betty/Veronica argument for polygamy–I mean love triangle continue. We’ll see Jughead get over his anxiety with women, especially after he discovers Big Ethel is now a model. We’ll watch that rascal Jughead Jr. play pranks. We’ll get (ridiculous) flashbacks. And we’ll see Archie as a lawyer in Riverdale.

So why didn’t we? Well, it’s kinda easy honestly. The movie is structured like a reunion movie but it’s a reunion movie where we are just meeting these versions of the characters for the first time. The infinitum of reunion movies that littered the airwaves from the 80s to the extremely recent Parks and Recreation special had actors we liked in roles we knew. We were getting more than characters we’d read comics about.

And that covers up a big flaw of reunion movies which is they’re hollow exercises in nostalgia. They’re nothing more than “hey, remember this!” And if you don’t have something to say about nostalgia like Danny Boyle and John Hodge did with T2: Trainspotting, you’re just being fond for the past and that’s pathetic. And if you don’t have real nostalgia, you wind up with this film which is like cotton candy made from splenda.

Look, this is a tv pilot. Asking it to be more than fluff is useless. Too bad it’s got some seriously odd decisions.

First, for an Archie adaptation this is as thinly researched as it gets. Archie wouldn’t go into law. Veronica had depth beyond being a rich girl. Betty wasn’t a pushover. Reggie was an asshole but you at least got the impression he had some ability to give a shit. Mr. Lodge wasn’t Doctor Doom. And for the love of god Jughead was a sarcastic wit who didn’t put up with anything, not a trembling nebbish loser.

It also blows the love triangle. Archie is supposed to be divided and with good reason. Both girls present appealing choices. But here? Betty is the clear choice for him since she actually seems pleasant and is written with affection. Veronica is written almost spitefully with a disturbing bitterness. Also Archie and Betty have an arc with Betty gradually admitting that yes, they had sex.

So let’s get into that element that so does not work here. This movie is horny as a triceratops. Both Betty and Veronica try to blatantly have sex with Archie. Jughead has issues with women until he encounters Big Ethel in a bikini. His son tries to stare at Betty’s ass at one point and is clearly turned on by Big Ethel because that was apparently funny in 1990. You don’t want to watch this movie. You want to tell it to cool it because all the leering gets pretty old. As I said, Archie comics aren’t sexless. Dan DeCarlo wouldn’t be an icon if they were. But they’ve got enough taste you only notice it when you’re older!

And this feels weirdly between audiences. I think it’s for families but as I said, it’s sexed up. Kids are I guess supposed to laugh at the wacky car chase and Jughead Jr. while adults are supposed to care about the yuppie plotlines. But nothing works which highlights that this is for nobody.

But despite all this the film works at times, entirely because of the cast. Rich is incredible casting as Archie. He’s likable and funny, a million miles from the wall of creeps he’d become known for. Despite her writing, Kopins actually shines as Veronica as does Kroeger as Reggie. I can even accept Whipple as Jughead in name only since he is funny. Holly is the only weak spot as a half asleep Betty.

Ultimately not getting this as a series is no great loss. This is a weird mishmash that just doesn’t land. It’s not even really fun as an Archie fan since it gets so much wrong. Hell even Howard the Duck got the tone right. It’s on youtube but I say pass.

However if you want the good version, there is one! The comic adaptation which is mostly drawn by the legendary Gene Colan and written by Ambush Bug creator Robert Loren Fleming is a dramatic improvement. Fleming’s script cuts so many ghastly moments while Colan crafts some frankly stunning visuals, even casting a gothic quality on things. That’s the take to seek out, an interesting what if in comic form.

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