Sunday, June 15, 2014

The Chronicles of Riverdale: Archie Comics on Television

Seventy years in high school? Even a Kardashian could graduate in that time, but not Archie Andrews. He entered Miss Grundy’s class during World War II and is still there, sitting next to that putz Reggie.

Given the enduring popularity of Archie Comics it’s not surprising that television would try to adapt the saga of Riverdale’s oldest teenager. 

The first attempt was a 1964 pilot that failed to receive a series order. An appealing young cast (including bubbly ex-Mousketeer Cheryl Holdridge as Betty) might have helped the show find an audience, but we’ll never know now. Of course, had Archie been picked up, William Schallert (cast as Archie’s father) would not have been available to play Patty’s “Poppo” in The Patty Duke Show, and that’s an alternative classic TV universe I’d rather not visit. Check it out:

Animation seems like a more natural way to transfer these characters to TV, but despite several attempts the Archie gang never found a proper showcase. The Archie Show debuted in 1968 and was canceled in 1969. It was followed in rapid succession by Archie’s Fun House (1970-1971), Everything’s Archie (1973-1974), The US of Archie (1974-1976) and the Bang-Shang Lollapalooza Show (1977-1978), which I guess featured Jughead joining Jane’s Addiction. 

There were nine shows in all, none of which made a noticeable dent in the popular culture (outside of their musical component, which we’ll get to momentarily). Their failure is even more glaring given that two Archie Comics spinoff shows, Josie and The Pussycats and Sabrina the Teenage Witch, fared much better.

So what went wrong? Filmation did a serviceable job with the look of the various Archie shows – the animation was basic but colorful, no different than most Saturday morning cartoons. But that’s about all they got right.

The voices for the characters were not just ill-chosen, they were atrocious. Both Archie (Dallas McKennon) and Reggie (John Erwin) speak in harsh, grating tones. Veronica (Jane Webb) sounds like Penelope Pitstop on helium. Betty (also Jane Webb) fares somewhat better, but Jughead (Howard Morris) doesn’t sound anything like the laid-back hipster of the comics.

When you think of how well the producers of the Peanuts specials selected voices for their beloved characters, you realize how imperative it was for Charlie Brown, Lucy and Linus to sound right, even if we’ve never heard them speak before. The vocal talent miscasting on The Archie Show and its successors exemplifies what happens when this crucial element is lacking.

The other misstep with the Filmation Archie shows is one that is not uncommon to adaptations of comic books in this era – the errant presumption that the studio knows what makes the characters work better than their original creators. Rather than adapt the kinds of stories that Archie fans had enjoyed for decades – getting dates for the dance, high school sports competitions, Archie trying to keep his jalopy running – the show’s writers opted for more outlandish concepts, like Reggie being chased by Bigfoot on a deserted island. When that didn’t work, Archie’s Funhouse turned the gang into a Saturday morning version of Rowan & Martin’s Laugh-In, with quick fadeout gags and corny jokes.

But let’s give credit where it’s due – the same creative team that botched everything else was much more successful with the shows’ musical component. After bubblegum svengali Don Kirshner helped launch the Monkees, he recruited singer Ron Dante and ace songwriters like Jeff Barry (“Da Doo Ron Ron”) to turn The Archies into a marketable singing group. Debut single “Bang Shang a Lang” stalled just outside the top 20, but “Sugar Sugar” sold 3 million copies, topped the Billboard chart for 4 weeks, and was the #1 single of 1969. 

While the cartoons sputtered, it’s ironic that the only effort that got it right was a live action made-for-TV movie that aired only once, and allowed the characters to do the one thing they could never do in the comics – grow up.

From 1990, Archie – To Riverdale and Back Again was set at the gang’s 15-year high school reunion. In this version, thrice-divorced Veronica returns from Paris, Jughead has become a psychiatrist, Betty a schoolteacher, Reggie a health club owner. Archie, rather like Jimmy Stewart in It’s a Wonderful Life, never left his hometown, choosing to put his own dreams on hold to help others.

While 1990 falls just outside the Comfort TV era, thankfully the world had not yet become so cynical and dismissive of the innocent charms of material like this. The movie never condescends or ridicules, content rather to embellish without changing the personalities of these familiar characters; Jughead is still a little off-center, Reggie is still a cad and Betty is still the sweetest girl in town. When “The Archies” take the stage at their reunion to perform “Jingle Jangle,” anyone who grew up with these characters will feel a wonderful nostalgic rush.

Casting was spot on, and you’ll see a few familiar faces – Lauren Holly as Betty, former Saturday Night Live cast member Gary Kroeger as Reggie, and Charlie’s Angels’ sidekick David Doyle as Mr. Weatherbee. Christopher Rich, who played Archie, now costars on Melissa and Joey…I never watched the show, so I wonder if it ever acknowledged a “reunion” between Archie and Sabrina. 

To Riverdale and Back isn’t perfect – Jughead’s rap duet of “Sugar, Sugar” with his son seems desperate, but overall the film has it’s heart in the right place, and some nice things to say about the value of friendship and remembering where you’re from. Still no DVD, but the entire movie can be watched on YouTube. 


  1. I was the right age for the Archie comics, and I was so jealous of my cousin, who was younger than me, but he had a Sugar Sugar 45, that I listened to once, when I was visiting the family in Saskatoon. A couple of years ago, I rented the Archie's Fun-house on DVD, to relive those childhood memories, and I was appalled, by how crummy the episodes were and how headache inducing the "jokes" were. Just goes to show, never trust the taste of children.

  2. It is worth noting that "Archie: To Riverdale and Back Again" was directed by Dick Lowry, who also helmed the blood-soaked telefilm "In the Line of Duty: The F.B.I. Murders." The latter movie had Michael Gross, David Soul, Ronny Cox, Bruce Greenwood, and Teri Copley.

  3. I remember seeing Archie on tv for awhile on a Nashville indie tv station when I was a teen there. It was probably ARCHIE'S FUN HOUSE, since I remember the LAUGH-IN-style jokes, with silly vaudeville touches like a pie flying out of nowhere to clobber Betty just as she told a bad joke.