The CW’s Archie Comics-based television drama Riverdale is possibly one of the most polarizing shows on television today. While it certainly has a lot of dedicated fans, it also frequently faces heavy criticism online — often stemming from its outrageously over-the-top characters, dialogue and plot developments. Like any other show, Riverdale is certainly not immune to criticism, with even its own stars sometimes questioning its direction. However, what those who frequently feel to need to label the show as “cringe” — a word that has lost all meaning on the internet these days — don’t seem to understand is that being unapologetically farcical is precisely what makes Riverdale a faithful adaptation of its source material. (And yes, the books do matter.)
If there’s one thing Archie Comics fans know, it’s that the books being unabashedly over-the-top is what makes them so much fun. Let’s not forget, this is a franchise that features — among other things — teenage witches, time-travelling police officers, superheroes, aliens, zombies, werewolves and vampires, not to mention crossovers with the likes of the Punisher, the Predator, The B-52s and the Adam West version of Batman. In other words, if you go into Riverdale expecting even a remotely realistic take on high schoolers and the way they go about solving their problems, it’s safe to say you might be in the wrong place.
Once upon a time, Archie Comics’ books were simply about a group of teens growing up in the small American town of Riverdale, getting mixed up in various, generally inoffensive misadventures along the way. In the beginning, this was incredibly novel in and of itself — perhaps even ahead of its time. After all, Archie, Betty, Veronica and Jughead were introduced in 1942 — whereas a distinct American teenage culture really didn’t fully bloom until the aftermath of World War II several years later.
As time went on and carefree teenagers going about their lives became more commonplace — and less of a novelty — Archie Comics evidently realized it needed new ways to keep things fresh. One way it’s accomplished this is by being completely off the wall at times. In fact, part of what’s made Archie’s comics so enjoyable over the years — especially in the last decade or so — has been just how utterly bizarre they are.
For instance, supernatural titles like Afterlife with Archie and Chilling Adventures of Sabrina take the formerly wholesome Riverdale teens and throw them into worlds of genuine peril, death and despair. And that dissonance is precisely what it works. These comics are genuinely fleshed out horror stories that – not unlike Riverdale — outwardly take themselves very seriously. At the same time, we as readers know who these characters are and how they started out, which makes the whole thing pretty hilarious on a meta-level. It’s kind of hard not to see this similarity as intentional, given the fact that Riverdale‘s showrunner is the one who wrote these comics.
A similar phenomenon is evident in Archie Comics’ sci-fi heavy titles like Jughead’s Time Police and Josie in the Pussycats in Space. These books — again, not unlike Riverdale — take those very same small-town teenagers and put them in larger-than-life situations in which they actually handle themselves rather well, despite logic dictating they be woefully out of their depth. Yes, these stories are absurd, but they don’t pretend not to be. Rather, they take pride in it — and they’re better off because of it. To that end, while Riverdale may seem like the furthest thing from an Archie book when it comes to visuals and tone, on a conceptual level, it’s pretty darn faithful.
Plus, even though they’ve certainly seen an uptick in recent years, it’s not like these kinds of Archie stories are anything new. The original Jughead’s Time Police debuted in the early ’90s, Archie and the gang became superheroes all the way back in the mid-’60s and Sabrina the Teenage Witch first brought magic to the Archieverse just a few years before that. Legitimate witchcraft has been Archie canon since 1962.
Granted, this sort of thing exists within a very particular niche, which could serve to explain why more mainstream audiences watching Riverdale on The CW or Netflix aren’t particularly fond of how out there it can be. In fact, if there’s one thing the recent surge in comic book-based film and TV shows have shown comic fans in recent years, it’s how truly strange things they see as business-as-usual can seem to those not overly familiar with the medium.
That being said, however, Riverdale has decidedly established itself in the world of pop culture, being four seasons deep with a fifth on the way. So, at this point, criticizing Riverdale for not being realistic or particularly down-to-earth in terms of the way it depicts small-town teenage life sort of feels like criticizing a Fast & Furious movie for not being realistic in the way it depicts physics. It’s perfectly fine if it’s not your cup of tea, and you should feel free to express that however you wish. But at the same time, what exactly were you expecting? One of the show’s main characters is named Jughead, for crying out loud.
Sometimes, movies and TV shows based on comics should be allowed to feel like comics, eccentricities and all. That obviously shouldn’t make them immune to criticism, but it also shouldn’t be held against them. Take, for instance, those who are quick to dismiss Sam Raimi’s Spider-Man movies for being too campy or overly reminiscent of the Silver Age of Comics and its quirks, without stopping to consider that maybe that was the intention all along. In a similar vein, the next time a Riverdale character does or says something totally out of left field, try to at least entertain the possibility that it was written that way on purpose. After all, Season 5 could kick off with Sabrina sending Archie and the gang back in time to hang out with the Ramones, and it would still be in line with the source material.
Airing Wednesdays at 8 p.m. ET/PT on The CW, Riverdale stars KJ Apa, Lili Reinhart, Camila Mendes, Cole Sprouse, Madelaine Petsch, Casey Cott, Vanessa Morgan, Mark Consuelos, Skeet Ulrich, Marisol Nichols and Madchen Amick.
KEEP READING: 10 Archie Comic Books Riverdale Should Adapt
While some criticize Riverdale's absurdly over-the-top nature, that aspect is precisely what makes the show a faithful Archie Comics adaptation.