With the Archie Comics gang poised to return to television in January with “Riverdale,” a new CW drama that promises dark secrets, forbidden relationships and fractured friendships, we thought it would be interesting to revisit the last time the characters appeared in live-action: the 1990 TV movie “Archie: To Riverdale and Back Again.”
Released on video as “Archie: Return to Riverdale,” the peculiar, largely forgotten NBC movie brought the world of Archie Comics to television at a time when comic book adaptations weren’t common on the small screen. It isn’t a trailblazer, but it’s certainly worthy of reflection. Plus, it’s weird as hell.
The strangest thing is that, for an Archie TV movie, it doesn’t feature the characters as we know them. It’s set 15 years after the gang graduates from high school, and depicts all of our favorites — aged up — as they return to Riverdale for a class reunion.
Everybody’s there — Archie, Jughead, Betty, Veronica, Reggie, Moose, you name it — but they’re all roughly 35 years old and … sad. It seems nobody’s life turned out how they thought it would, as the gang has drifted apart over the years, and they’re all locked into unhappy relationships, or in Jughead’s case, stuck with a monster of a child.
The message: Nobody’s dreams come true. Archie (played by Christopher Rich, later of “Reba” fame) isn’t truly in love with his fiancée, Jughead (Sam Whipple) is working through a toxic divorce, Betty (Lauren Holly of “Dumb & Dumber”) randomly wants to become a writer, Veronica (Karen Kopins) remains greedy and reliant on her father — it’s like a “Black Mirror” version of the Riverdale, and it’s truly terrifying. We do get to see the characters as their younger selves, but only in brief flashbacks that are far, far too cheesy (and blurry).
Beyond the reunion, the film deals with the eminent closure of Pop’s, the beloved hangout spot for the gang, because Reggie (“SNL” alum Jeff Hochendoner) — who owns the building for … whatever reason — wants to take over the lot so he can expand his health club empire. So, because the now-grown-up Archie is a lawyer, he takes it upon himself to save Pop’s and prevent the expansion of Reggie’s franchise.
It’s an awful plot that has very low stakes. There’s no reason for us to care about these characters, as they barely resemble the comic book creations we know and love. In fact, the movie is a cartoonish mockery of the characters, as it imagines, terribly, what an adult version of the Archie-Betty-Veronica love triangle would look like. We end up with home-wrecker takes on Betty and Veronica, and a truly scummy version of Archie who couldn’t care less that he’s engaged to someone.
But there are a handful of ridiculous moments in “To Riverdale and Back Again” that are worth touching on in particular.
Archie Almost Kills Jughead’s Son
When Veronica seduces Archie the first time in the movie, Jughead’s son attempts to catch them in the act by sitting atop a ladder that looks directly into Archie’s bedroom window. Archie, noticing, opens the window and pushes the child back into a tree, not caring what happens. It’s messed up.
Hiram Lodge Tries to Kill Archie — Twice
We get it: Veronica’s dad doesn’t like Archie — at all. But we didn’t realize he wanted Archie’s death. It turns out, according to this film, he does — and he tries to kill the character twice over the course of “To Riverdale and Back Again.” The first time, Mr. Lodge arranges to cut the brakes of Archie’s car, causing him and Jughead to crash into a building. And the second time, hands Archie a bomb disguised as a present from Veronica. What the hell, man?
Jughead’s Unusual Therapy
Jughead is easily the saddest character in this movie. When we’re introduced to him, he’s in a therapy session, seemingly getting help, until we learn that he is in fact the therapist, and his technique is to talk about his problems to his patients so they can feel better about their own lives ….
It’s Kind of Sexist
Betty and Veronica have absolutely no agency in “To Riverdale and Back Again.” The male characters make sexist jokes on more than one occasion and relegate the women to trophies. When Archie describes his love triangle to Jughead, they joke, “What if Betty, Veronica and Pam mud wrestle over you?” It’s really lame, and not funny at all, yet totally presented as a joke in the movie.
Jughead & Son Bond Over an Atrocious “Sugar, Sugar” Remix
This one’s pretty self-explanatory, and has to be seen to be believed. Over the course of the movie there’s crazy tension between Jughead and his son, but they do end up resolving it, becoming best buds incredibly quickly — exemplified in this dance sequence at the 1:02:33-mark …
All in all, “To Riverdale and Back Again” is worth checking out just so you can experience what a bizarre movie it is, and how badly it messes up Archie and the gang. It moves at a snail’s pace, but the so-bad-it’s-good moments are definitely worth taking the time to watch. But, be careful — you might get sad. Very sad.