Friday, March 5, 2021

On Ya Like Veronica

As well as driving down my engagement with every other game I was playing a month ago, Valheim has cut into the time I spend watching TV. shows. Watching television (whatever we mean by that, these days) is something that had been very much on an upward trend for me until then. From a low base of nothing at all just a few years ago, my hours spent staring passively at a screen have grown steadily, until this last pandemic year saw me goggle-eyed for as much as three hours a night, more often than not

Despite staying up later than normal these past few weeks so as to chop just one more tree or, more likely, recover just one more corpse, I've still been managing an hour or two most nights and what I've mostly been watching has been Riverdale. I was going to wait until I'd seen all five seasons to post about it but honestly, if I wait that long, I may well be too confused to say anything at all.

Last year, largely as a result of a passing comment by XzzySqrl, I think, although whether that comment was about the new show or the old I now have no idea, I started watching The Chilling Adventures of Sabrina. That one started out a lot darker and, well, more genuinely chilling than I was expecting. After the first episode I put it away, maybe for later and maybe for not at all.

It wouldn't stop nagging at the back of my mind so I went back sooner than I imagined I would and ended up watching the entire run, all of which I loved, once the shock wore off. As the seasons progressed the initial darkness gave way to something closer to the hyperstylized camp I was expecting, although thematically the really-quite-disturbing overtones (can't call them undertones) never entirely went away. 

Maybe I just got used to the idea of ritual cannibalism as a normal part of small-town life. God knows after a while it seemed like the least of Greendale's problems. There is that about a long-running television show; the things that stand out at the start always recede into the background as the milieu deepens and settles. You acclimatize or, perhaps, are assimilated.


I was well aware that Greendale was connected to Riverdale. I am a comics fan, after all. Just not an Archie Comics fan. That probably goes without saying. As Sheldon derisively replies to Penny's ex-boyfriend Zack, when he asks where the Archie comics might be found, it's "In the bedrooms of ten year old girls, where they should be". 

Yes, I'm also watching the Big Bang Theory. I realize that's a controversial choice. I'm not planning on having a debate about it but I will if I have to. I can hardly pretend I don't care for it. I'm watching it on Netflix but I own the first seven seasons on DvD. 

Some of the seasons I own several times because I started buying it after the first. I was an early adopter at least in U.K. terms. It began to be packaged in seasonal bundles and some years it was cheaper to buy a bundle than to buy just the newest season alone so now I have several copies of some of them. Don't you hate marketing? 

I used to work in marketing, by the way. It was a long time ago. I didn't do anything bad. That I remember now. Or would admit to.

Even though I own seven seasons I stopped watching at the start of season six. The show went downhill around then. Or so I heard. Since I didn't watch it it's hard for me to say. I'll know soon, though, because a few weeks back I began again from the start. I'd just finished How I Met Your Mother and I needed another sitcom that would take a few months to get through. The choice is diminishing. I get though the things like candy. 

How I Met Your Mother: now that's a polarizing show. Or it should be. I can see why Big Bang Theory raises hackles but How I Met Your Mother frequently made me consider buying tar and feathers. Metaphorically. I probably didn't need to clarify that.

But I didn't come here to rant about HIMYM (Fed up of typing the whole long-ass name). I considered coming here and ranting about it many times while I was watching it but I didn't and it's a bit late now. Suffice it to say I did get to the end, somehow, and I thought the final episode was exactly what the show needed, which was something I wouldn't have said about some of the more heinous episodes. 

I only mentioned it because there's not a great deal that happens in HIMYM that rings true to life but Sheldon's comment on Archie Comics is so impeccably accurate it could very easily have been something I heard a friend say at a comic convention in 1985. I nearly got into a fist fight with someone once just because I said I didn't hate Disney and admitting to not seeing the point of Corto Maltese was tantamount to committing social suicide in my circle. Comics fans are tribal.

The irony is that Sheldon's comment, which was made maybe a decade ago, now has to stand in the shadow of Roberto Aguirre-Sacasa's re-invention of the Archieverse. And it's a dark, dark shadow.

I sorta-kinda knew about it before I started watching TCAOS (yes, I'm going to abbreviate all these multi-word titles). I'd picked up something about Riverdale being retooled as Twin Peaks for Teens a few years back. I'd even added the DVD of Season One to my Amazon wishlist (this was in my pre-Prime, pre-Netflix life).  

Mrs Bhagpuss bought it for me one Christmas and we watched the first episode together. It was pretty much what I was expecting. I liked it but not so much I wanted to watch the rest right away. It went on the shelf with all the other scores of unseen discs.

When I ran out of Sabrinas (they really should have kept making them - it was just hitting its stride) the obvious next step was backwards. I rewatched the first episode of Riverdale (nice short name, no need to accronymize that one) and it was as I remembered. The whole first season was what I thought I was getting: Teen Peaks

I'd seen Sabrina. I should have known where things would go. Off the rails, that's where.

The second season was almost in sync with the cartwheeling trajectory Twin Peaks itself carved out back in the super-early nineties, when David Lynch took his hands off the wheel and the show veered crazily from one side of the lost highway to the other until he came out of his daydream and took back control. I loved that ride. I know a lot of people didn't but I went with it all the way.

I went with Riverdale's sophomore season, too. It's basically one, long serial-killer arc. That apple's not falling far from the tree. 

It also starts to speed up, something I've noticed happening to most 21st century American drama series. The pace can feel almost glacial to begin with but once inertia's been overcome things get moving, fast. You have to hang on tight and hope.

Honestly, I feel sometimes like there are single episodes where enough happens to pad out a whole regular series of British TV. Our runs always used to be much shorter, so that would only be six or eight episodes, but even so... 

If it was just hyperactive pacing, that would be one thing, but it's the plots, the writing and, especially, the characterization. Characterization? What characterization? Superheroes, conceptualized and dialoged by a dozen different writers over a couple of decades, have more consistency than Archie, Veronica, Cheryl, Jughead and the rest. 

I kind of want to exempt Betty, who does actually stay moderately close to someone you could recognize as the same person episode to episode... always assuming you can parse the pony-tailed girl-next-door as Louise Brooks wannabe dominatrix and serial-killer's ammanuensis dichotomy in the first place. But any slack you might want to cut the show in terms of believabilty goes straight out the window in Season Three.

Season Three is batshit crazy. I'm sorry but there's no gentler way to put it. The Twin Peaks/serial killer motifs don't go away, they're just crushed by the avalanche of insanity that pours out of every script like flying monkeys in an acid flashback. It isn't even the extremity of the irreality that fractures the illusion; it's the conflicting conceits.

For one thing, someone decided back at the beginning it would be a good idea to have Jughead frame every episode as a kind of story he's writing. Someone calles him Riverdale's own J.D. Salinger at one point but Jug himself clearly takes Truman Capote circa Cold Blood as his model. He's documenting his own reality but how much he's heightening it, who can say?

That does add some kind of filter. It might even go some way to explaining the frequent lurches into pastiche, parody and homage. Of course we have the musical episodes that have been obligatory in all teen shows since Buffy pulled it off so utterly brilliantly back in the nineties but we also have point for point remakes of Chinatown or The Breakfast Club to contend with along with parts of Riverdale apparently existing in entirely different time periods for absolutely no reason whatsoever.

Pop's Chock'lit Shop, where the gang all hang out, reflects the Archie Comics traditional obsession with the 1950s, a sock-hop and milkshake take that jars grindingly with an alternate 1950s also present, one that puts a Philip K Dick style fallout shelter in the woods for the gang to take turns hiding out from the authorities after the many and various murders they may or may not have committed, or just to enjoy increasingly exploitative, if always determinedly soft-core, sex. 

Meanwhile good-bad girl Veronica (no, wait, Cheryl's the good-bad girl. Or is it Betty?) runs a 1920s speakeasy, Jughead struggles to control a 1960s biker gang, the Manson family are moving in from The Farm and Cheryl's mother has a whole floor of the hotel set aside as a brothel. Why no-one even raises an eyebrow at a character called Alice Cooper defeats me. It suggests a level of self-restraint entirely absent from literally any other aspect of the show. I'm working on the theory that never mentioning it is in itself an act of supremely confident metafiction.

At times it's hard to remember with so much happening but there is some kind of season arc involving a roleplaying game called Griffons and Gargoyles that may or may not have actual supernatural effects. It may or may not (Again. Actually, always) be the instrument of a malevolent entity known as the Gargoyle King.  

You might be tempted to assume this would all have a Scooby Doo ending where the hood gets pulled off to reveal it was the janitor all along only by halfway through the season the hood's already been pulled off twice, revealing two different janitorial impersonators (oh, wait, that was the Black Hood in  Season Two. No, as you were, it's both of them!) and yet the Gargoyle King's still out there. And anyway, don't forget Riverdale is just one town over from Greendale, where the actual devil hangs out, along with more witches than you can shake a broomstick at.

Greendale, by the way, is the place Jughead drives Penny (not the one from the Big Bang Theory, although that's a crossover I'd pay good money to see) so he can take out a bowie knife and carve the biker gang tattoo out of her arm. Torture, mutilation and, particularly, branding with hot irons are recurring leitmotifs of this happy-go-lucky, teen-friendly show. 

We've come a long way from the kind of Archie comics Sheldon was deriding in the comic shop back in 2010. And I'm only halfway through Season Three. Where will it all end? I have no frickin' clue but I want to be there when it happens.

I can only manage one episode of Riverdale a night. Mostly because that's all Valheim allows time for. To decompress from the crazy I sometimes take in an episode of Kid Cosmic, an absolutely gorgeous work of line art set in motion, with a rockin' soundtrack and a blessedly U-certificate rating. 

The mesmerizing backgrounds remind me of any number of ligne claire classics but the true inspiration appears to be American also-ran comic-book imprints from the fifties and sixties like Harvey and Charlton. Contemporaries and competitors of Archie Comics, in fact.

Sheldon Cooper wouldn't have had any truck with those, either.

Your loss, Shelly.


  1. This post made me chuckle multiple times so thank you! It also made me want to pick back up Sabrina and Riverdale as I bowed out early for some reason I don't recall.

    1. It's odd that I also bounced on both first time around. I'm very glad I went back for a second bite.


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