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John Doyle: Riverdale is a subversive, dark take on Archie Comics universe

It's hovering around 9 a.m. on Sunday. I'm in a room with a couple of hundred people who write about television. A man on the stage is jawing on about the importance of keeping critically acclaimed but low-rated series on the air. It makes sense, he says, because the acclaim eventually draws in viewers who might watch others shows.

The man is Mark Pedowitz, president of the small, feisty CW network. The CW has such long-running series as Supernatural and in recent years delivered the strange but wonderful Crazy Ex-Girlfriend and Jane the Virgin.

Yes, I'm at the midseason press tour for TV critics. It goes 14 days, every day, almost 24/7 and I'm here for a few days of it.

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Pedowitz started by saying, "I'm not competing this morning, thank God, with any presidential-elect tweet. So things are good there." This brings a laugh. Getting attention for any new TV production is difficult enough in an era of 450 scripted series airing across all platforms in the TV universe.

But there's another side to the remark – one of the reasons for coming here is figuring out how U.S. TV will respond to the species of populism illustrated in Donald Trump's victory. Is TV on board or acting as part of the resistance?

Television takes time to create and produce, but at any time it certainly acts as a reflection, sometimes twisted, of what the public is feeling.

Riverdale, a CW show that arrives on Jan. 26 (in Canada on Netflix), has been in development for a couple of years, first at Fox and now landing on the feisty CW. How it illustrates what's happening in the United States is open to interpretation. Certainly, though, it is the first talked-about and advance-acclaimed new drama of 2017.

It falls into the category of "Is nothing sacred?" See, it is based on the characters in the Archie Comics, but bizarrely, shockingly so. Pedowitz called it "The O.C. meets Twin Peaks." And that isn't the half of it. It's not a high-school show. It's startlingly adult, subversive and near-Gothic. It's sexy, funny and very creepy. It is, frankly, an amazingly ambitious, daring drama.

Anyone who thought that the wholesome quality of the narrative of Archie, Betty, Veronica and Jughead might simply make for a new 90210 for this decade was wrong. There's a scene in the first episode in which Betty (Lili Reinhart) asks Archie (K.J. Apa) if he has feelings for her. Archie hesitates and the viewer knows why. It's because he is having, but can't explain, a passionate fling with Miss Grundy (Sarah Habel). In Riverdale, Miss Grundy is not the white-haired schoolteacher of the comics. She's a siren of a music teacher quite ready to indulge in an intense sexual affair with a student.

As for the classic love triangle of Archie, Betty and Veronica (Camila Mendes), it certainly exists, but this Veronica is more like the sultry brunette vixen from an imagined pornographic twist on the Archie Comics. Watch the first hour and you're ready to believe that the dynamic between the trio is highly erotic and a threesome is on the cards. Especially after Veronica and Betty indulge in a passionate kiss in their cheerleader uniforms. I swear I'm not making this up.

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Once the shock wears off, the bones of Riverdale become clear. It's a tangled murder-mystery set in a small town where evil lurks. What happens is that Cheryl Blossom (Madelaine Petsch, who is wonderful as the school's main mean girl and dangerous she-devil) and twin brother Jason are boating out on the lake. Jason drowns. Accident? Obviously not, in this world where everybody is hiding something. Most characters barely pretend to be wholesome. Me, I'm no expert on the Archie Comics universe, but I know enough to recognize that this is the Archie universe on acid.

There is a remarkably textured, blurry twist on the retro-vibe. The reference to Twin Peaks – which, interestingly also returns, rebooted, this year – is supported not just by the tone but by the casting of Madchen Amick, who was the abused waitress Shelly Johnson on Twin Peaks, as Betty's mom. This mom is, mind you, closer to the crazed mother of Carrie, Margaret White, in Stephen King's story, than to Betty's mom in the comics.

And then there's the nod to Beverly Hills 90210, with the casting of Luke Perry as Archie's dad. This show is a very heady concoction. As one critic put it to the Riverdale cast and creators here, it's like Happy Days was rebooted and Fonzie was actually a dangerous gang member.

Asked if he's anticipating a backlash against this perverse twist on the old, familiar comics, CEO and publisher of Archie Comics, Jon Goldwater, was amused. "Backlash is good," he said. "I don't think there's going to be anything but a great backlash."

Admittedly, the Archie Comics line was relaunched a few years ago with more mature themes and there was the novelty of a comic featuring Archie fighting zombies in Riverdale. But for most Americans, Archie Comics and its iconic characters are apple-pie wholesome.

The tale of how Riverdale came into being is a tangled one and offers an insight into the sheer weirdness of the TV business here. When the series was in development, executive producer Roberto Aguirre-Sacasa says there were mind-boggling suggestions from one unnamed executive. "He said, 'I want you to think about time travel, Archie travelling through time,' " Aguirre-Sacasa told us. Then came another suggestion: "Portals are huge," this exec said. "A portal to another dimension [for Archie]" And then came the wildest idea: "What if Louis C.K. is Archie?" Aguirre-Sacasa described the situation as, "Like something out of an episode of Entourage."

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The show's creative team then settled on what they truly wanted, a surreal, noir-ish Archie Comics. "It became a loss-of-innocence show," Aguirre-Sacasa explained.

This Riverdale revels in irony, perversity and ambiguity. It has the look of a drama set in the recent past – that period to which Donald Trump refers when he brays about making America great again – but it is emphatically set in the present. A present in which Veronica can be designated as looking like Betty Draper in a certain season of Mad Men. And a present in which the perceived serenity of the recent past is recast as a fraud, and then is remounted as a world utterly lacking in traditional morality.

Coming immediately after a topsy-turvy year, Riverdale feels like a gesture of disenchantment. In that itself, it's popular culture with a Trump-ian twist – a complete loss of innocence, as its producer asserts.

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About the Author
Television critic

John Doyle is The Globe and Mail's television critic. His column appears in the Review section Monday to Thursday and on Saturday. He has been the paper's critic since 2000. More

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