close reads

The Forgotten Legacy of Archie Comics’ Terrible and Delightful Made-for-TV Movie

Still from Archie: To Riverdale and Back Again.

A bevy of narrative ingredients have been stirred into Riverdale, the CW’s new prime-time drama about the venerable characters of the Archie Comics mythos: sex, murder, friendship, sports, rivalry, intrigue. But there’s one thing the show conspicuously lacks: an adult version of Jughead doing the robot while performing a rap version of the 1969 bubblegum-pop hit “Sugar, Sugar” alongside his preteen son in a public park. In this crucial respect, Riverdale lags far behind Archie Comics’ previous attempt to create a live-action interpretation of the Riverdale gang, the largely forgotten 1990 made-for-TV movie Archie: To Riverdale and Back Again.

To the extent that the film is remembered at all, it’s mostly due to the aforementioned rap, which occasionally pops up as a YouTube embed in blog posts with titles like “The 5 Worst Instances of White Rappers in TV and Movies” or, more bluntly, “WTF IS THAT!? An older Jughead makes a lame rap version of Sugar Sugar in Archie: To Riverdale and Back Again.” But, believe it or not, that hip-hop curio isn’t even the only cringe-inducing scene in the flick. There are so many to choose from: the one where Veronica tries to bang Archie by showing up to his house wearing nothing but a trench coat and lingerie, the various flashbacks where adult actors try to play teenagers, the barely explained subplot in which Veronica’s butler repeatedly attempts to murder Archie … the list of groaners goes on.

And yet, there’s something remarkable about Archie: To Riverdale and Back Again, especially when seen through the lens of geek culture of 2017. We live in an era when screen adaptations of comic books are astoundingly and unprecedentedly profitable, leading studios and filmmakers to put a tremendous amount of care into making them. The resulting products, even the most fun ones, feel focus-grouped and micromanaged to a fault. By contrast, To Riverdale is refreshingly slapdash and insane, like a weekend project made by a group of enthusiastic kids with big ideas, a decent camera, and no parental supervision.

To a certain extent, that’s not far from what actually happened, at least in terms of the screenplay. To Riverdale was the first produced, feature-length script by Evan Katz, a screenwriter now known as one of the brain trust behind the 24 franchise, but at the time a struggling journeyman in the film industry. He had little to lose, and the same was true of production company Patchett Kaufman Entertainment. “I think I was the seventh writer and they were about to lose the rights,” Katz recalls with a laugh. He had a girlfriend who worked with the company and she got him in touch with them.

For half a decade, Katz had been writing scripts on spec and meeting rejection after rejection, but suddenly, he got a green light from the president of NBC, the network planning to air the flick, and had to do a full rewrite on the most recent failed draft from a previous writer. The idea was to do a story about the Archie gang congregating in their hometown for a high-school reunion as 30-somethings, and NBC and Patchett Kaufman figured Katz was, as he puts it, “a Hail Mary” for making that happen.

But there was a catch. “The president said, ‘Can you have it by May?’” Katz remembers. “I go, ‘The rewrite?’ And he goes, ‘No, no. The produced thing.’” As in, a finished movie. In just a matter of months. “I was like, ‘What?’” That left him with no time to dive into Archie Comics, which was a problem because his knowledge of it was scattershot, at best. The youthful Katz once read an Archie comic at a barbershop, saw a character say the phrase “Wait up!” and when he repeated that phrase at home, his prudish parents said that such verbiage was “too slangy” and declared comics to be verboten. Nevertheless, Katz cranked out the first draft in a few weeks.

Of course, Katz wasn’t the only person responsible for making that ridiculous timeline work — he was joined in this white-knuckle effort by a veteran director named Dick Lowry. A middle-aged man with a six-ton Oklahoma drawl, Lowry made something of a name for himself by directing a series of TV features based on Kenny Rogers’s hit song “The Gambler,” all of them starring Rogers himself: 1980’s Kenny Rogers As the Gambler, 1983’s Kenny Rogers As the Gambler: The Adventure Continues, and so on. Those movies, of course, didn’t exactly have an Archie Comics vibe.

“Had I done comedies? None. I mean, not intentionally,” Lowry says with a chuckle. When the powers that were asked him to direct To Riverdale, he thought they were nuts. “I kept saying, ‘Are you guys sure?’ But they settled on me.” Nevertheless, that incongruity intrigued Lowry. He wanted to see what it’d be like to make what he now calls “a pretty cute little picture.”

Speaking of cute: They needed an Archie, and he had to be adorable. Enter Christopher Rich. A 36-year-old son of Texas, Rich had garnered fame on NBC soap opera Another World by playing one of the main characters’ illegitimate son in the early ’80s. He wasn’t a stranger to odd adaptations of children’s stories, having played a time-displaced Prince Charming on a short-lived and far-fetched ABC sitcom called The Charmings in the 1987–88 season. He had acting chops, Lowry recalls, but they were ultimately more interested in his looks. “They wanted a face man,” he says, using an industry term for a lead whose primary distinguishing characteristic is being easy on the eyes. “And Chris was a very good-looking guy.”

Rich was nervous about being typecast as an actor who plays adult versions of kids’ characters, but met with Lowry and was swayed largely because the director was “just a really, really cool guy.” “In this Oklahoma accent, he said, ‘Son, we’re gonna have so much fun with this picture,’” Rich says, giggling a little. Rich was worried that they might make the wrong visual decision by casting him, given that he lacked a key aesthetic characteristic of Archie Andrews: “I said, ‘But I’ll have to dye my hair red!’ And he said, ‘Son, that’s the least of their problems.’”

Indeed, this movie had to happen on a breakneck timeline, a threadbare budget, and with a trio of men at the helm who doubted they were even the right choices for the job. To make matters more dicey, the rest of the core cast were — whatever their talents — near-total unknowns with few credits to their names: Sam Whipple did Jughead, Lauren Holly (later of Picket Fences) played Betty, and former Miss Connecticut 1977 Karen Kopins landed Veronica. The most experienced actor in the cast was Mike Nussbaum, a frequent David Mamet collaborator, but he only appeared as diner owner Pop in a tiny handful of scenes. This team of unlikely players and creators decamped to a set near Los Angeles and set out to do their best with what they had.

Luckily, everyone was a pro, even though the movie they were shooting was supremely odd. The plot begins with the core four — Archie, Jughead, Betty, Veronica — in varying states of dissatisfaction with their lives. Betty (wearing a horrifically unrealistic platinum-blonde wig) is married to a sleazy businessman; Veronica lives a lavish-but-lonely life in Paris; Jughead is a divorced, single-dad psychiatrist whom we first meet in a therapy session (Juggie rattles off his various problems while lying on a couch, leading us to assume he’s the one in treatment, only to then say their time is up, leading the actual patient to tell him, “Hearing your problems always makes my life feel much better!”); and Archie is a dull lawyer who stuck around in his hometown and is firmly collared by his yuppie fiancée.

The main narrative driver is, as one might expect from an Archie tale, the Archie-Betty-Veronica love triangle. In this case, though, it was more of a lust triangle: The movie is astoundingly louche in its depiction of the star-crossed trio. When they convene in Riverdale for the reunion, Veronica decides she’s going to make Archie her conquest, then shows up at his house wearing nothing but lingerie concealed by an orange trench coat. (Despite it being nighttime, the front door is inexplicably unlocked.) Archie’s temptation is outshadowed only by his shock. “Ronnie, I have a fiancée!” he shouts from his bed. “Don’t worry — I’ve had 13!” she replies. Jughead’s son watches all of this from a ladder he’s leaned against Archie’s window, for some reason, bobbing his head in horny disbelief.

Although Archie and Veronica don’t hook up there, the latter is undeterred — but she later meets her match in the form of poor, undersexed Betty. She and Archie meet up over coffee and have a bizarre conversation about a stormy night they experienced as teenagers. “Our parents thought that we’d …” Archie says with a wistful smile, trailing off. “But we didn’t,” Betty says. “We did! I can’t believe that you don’t remember!” Archie replies. “Archie, I’m sure I’d remember if we’d …” Betty says, again trailing off before she can say the verb. Are they talking about sex? If so, how on earth could they not be on the same page as to whether or not it happened? She later shows up at Archie’s home and declares, “I’m sick of being Miss Goody Two-Shoes. Treat me like a woman, Archie. Make … me … wild.” Alas, this being network television, he doesn’t.

The love triangle leads to all manner of weird scenes. Veronica’s dad doesn’t approve of his daughter’s advances and asks his butler to “take care” of the ginger, which the butler interprets as meaning “kill,” leading him to take drastic actions like cutting Archie’s brakes and blowing up a building he thinks Archie is in. There’s also a series of flashbacks to high school where Rich, Holly, and Kopins all play their younger selves. (When I mention that choice to Lowry, he replies, “I did that? Oh man, I gotta go back and look at that. I have no recollection of that whatsoever.”)

And yet, the weirdest scene comes from the most asexual character, Jughead. Yes, it’s the rap. At one point, Juggie’s son encounters some girls at a park and can’t work up the courage to speak to them. Dad smiles and says he used to be afraid of girls, too, but he knows just the thing to break the ice. He hits the play button on a boom box that happens to be nearby and a Grandmaster Flash–esque beat stutters out.

He proceeds to perform his adaptation of “Sugar, Sugar” — an appropriate choice, given that the original song was actually a product of the late-’60s Archie cartoon show. Only here, the lyrics are updated to be “hip.” “You got me wantin’ you” becomes “You got me rockin’ you”; “Like the summer sunshine, pour your sweetness over me” transmogrifies into “Then you lay your ever-lovin’ stuff on maaaay.” He starts shouting nonsense like “Rockin’ and movin’ and shakin’ — ’sup!” and “Movin’, movin’, movin’ — say what!” Astoundingly, everyone around him gets into it.

Rich says Whipple was understandably nervous before shooting the scene. When he told Lowry about his co-star’s anxiety, the director lumbered over. Rich’s recollection of the ensuing conversation is as follows: “Son, you ready to do this scene?” Lowry asked. “Absolutely, I’m ready to go. Any last words of advice?” Whipple replied. “Yeah,” Lowry grumbled, “Don’t fuck up my picture.” Action was called and Whipple laid his ever-lovin’ stuff on them. “He didn’t fuck it up, he slayed it,” Rich says. “There was laughter and applause when the take was done. It’s my favorite scene.”

Unfortunately, audiences didn’t share Rich’s enthusiasm for that scene, or any other. To Riverdale was intended to be a so-called “backdoor pilot,” a potential prelude to an ongoing series. As such, the movie ends with the core quartet reunited and committed to stick around Riverdale. Archie Comics was so confident that they even made a comic-book adaptation of the movie featuring artwork from industry legends Gene Colan and John Byrne. But their hopes were dashed when the flick tanked in the ratings. Comics writer Mark Waid was a proofreader for Archie Comics at the time, and after he and his co-workers watched the initial airing, the general sentiment was, as he puts it, “We just hope the company’s check clears.”

Almost immediately, To Riverdale faded into the mist, though it still has a tiny legacy today. Rich says he’s had at least one interaction with an Archie fan who brought him a VHS copy of the movie at an autograph-signing event. He recalls being flattered, but also a little freaked out by his past self: “I looked at the clothes and thought, Oh my god, fashion sucked! The clothes, they were just so hideous!” (This is correct.) It also launched the career of Katz, whose work on 24whether you’re a fan or not — has had a massive influence on popular culture. If you want to make your own judgments, you’re free to do so by watching the entirety of Archie: To Riverdale and Back Again on YouTube, where it currently dwells, its copyright apparently beneath the concern of NBC.

If you watch To Riverdale, you’ll find a document not just of a different time in comics adaptations, but in television itself. The era of the lighthearted TV-movie is long gone. Directors like Lowry are confined to direct-to-video fare, no longer allowed to spread their wings in low-pressure experiments like a wacky Archie romp. It’s like watching a joyful postcard from the past, even as it makes you cringe.

“Maybe it’s a picture where all the fun was on set when the cameras weren’t rolling,” Lowry says, nostalgia peeking through his gravelly brogue. “Maybe we had more fun than the audience.”

The Forgotten Legacy of Archie Comics’ Made-for-TV Movie