Riverdale: The Long, Strange History of Archie on TV

Looking at back at the previous attempts to bring Archie to TV before they got it right with Riverdale.

When Riverdale premiered on the CW earlier this year, it marked a milestone for Archie Comics — the first time in the company’s over 75-year history that its characters truly shined on television. A mix of gleefully ridiculous kitsch with standout performances and some truly smart writing, the series is now poised to be 2017’s breakout TV hit thanks to fans tuning into its second season after spending the summer binging on the first 13 episodes via Netflix.

That said, it took awhile for Archie to get to this point. There have been many attempts to bring Archie and his friends to TV before, but these all suffered for either being shoddily animated (the various 1960s cartoons), misguided (1990’s Archie: To Riverdale and Back Again), or just plain, um, weird (the X-Files cash-in Archie’s Weird Mysteries).

As we count down the days until the next installment of Riverdale takes over the airwaves, let’s look back at Archie’s storied TV past. How difficult can it possibly be to translate the story of an All-American teen caught in a love triangle between a rich knockout and the kindly girl next door, his hamburger-loving best friend, and all of their various pals and gals? Very as it turns out. Here then is a history of Archie’s adventures on the small screen.

The Archie Andrews Radio Show

We’d be remiss if we didn’t kick off this article by mentioning Archie Comics’ attempt to dominate media, the Archie Andrews radio series. Running from 1943-53, this successful show featured the usual type of adventures readers of the source material would expect, as well as material ripped from the headlines — such as the infamous “Nazi POW in Riverdale” episode. Jughead’s opening salvo of “relax, Archie, relax” even became something of a catchphrase for the era, not to mention giving show actor Hal Stone a title for his autobiography.

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While not as remembered as The Shadow or Little Orphan Annie, Archie Andrews was proof that the Riverdale characters could not only survive off of the printed page, but they could take on a multimedia life all of their own. So when television became popular, it was inevitable that Archie would attempt to make the leap onto the small screen…

Life with Archie/Archie

The first attempt to bring Archie to television came in 1962 with the unsold pilot Life with Archie (which shared a title with the era’s adventure-themed Archie comic). This has apparently been lost to the ages, but what we do know about it is that Frank Bank — Lumpy from Leave it to Beaver — starred as Archie, but his apparent association with his previous series made him a hard sell as America’s Typical Teenager.

Two years later a new pilot featuring much of the same cast and with John Simpson taking over the title role debuted. You can watch it above in its entirety, and what is most interesting about this forgotten piece of TV history is how much the core plot of Archie and Jughead trying to pull off a computer dating scheme feels like something ripped from the pages of the comic. Sadly, the rest of the story isn’t nearly as authentic, and the closing scene in which Archie picks a new girl to go to the dance with over Betty and Veronica is a real head-scratcher.

It should be noted that while Archie never made an impact on the viewing public during this time, a series that featured several of the same tropes, The Many Loves of Dobie Gillis, did run from 1959 to 1963.

The Archie Show

The most successful Archie television series to date, The Archie Show was the product of the infamous Filmation production house (who were also responsible for shows like Fat Albert and the Cosby Kids, He-Man and the Masters of the Universe, and the animated Star Trek series) when it debuted in 1968.

Plagued by abysmal storytelling and voiceover work — seriously, just try to make it through any scene featuring Jughead or Reggie without having an overwhelming desire to pull a Van Gogh — the series’ saving grace can be summed up in two words: “Sugar, Sugar.” Envisioned as a sort of animated answer to The Beatles/The Monkees, The Archies were a group masterminded by impresario Don Kirshner. Music was always an essential part of the series, but thanks to the songwriting team of Jeff Barry (who also helped write pop nuggets like “Going to the Chapel” and “Do Wah Diddy Diddy”) and Andy Kim (of “Rock Me Gently” baby-making infamy), and the vocals of Ron Dante, the phony group found quite real success with “Sugar, Sugar.” The song became such a sensation that it went on to become the number one single of the year for 1969. Sales of Archie comics soared, as did the show’s ratings.

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It may have been the first of the Archie cartoons, but it was hardly the last. There were several format changes and spin-offs of the show that spanned from the original series’ end in 1969 through to 1977. Some of the most notable of these are…

Archie’s Funhouse

This iteration of Archie animation featured live-action segments in which kids absolutely lost their shit about the gang’s middling toon adventures. Still though, the bubblegum songs featured throughout remain as charming as ever. It’s just a shame they weren’t in a better show.

Real talk though: This writer may or may not have an eBay notification set up for one of those Archie placards featured in the somewhat disquieting opening credits sequence.

Archie’s TV Funnies

Now this is a cartoon worth getting behind. Archie’s TV Funnies was a series that showcased a potpourri of popular (Dick Tracy, Nancy) and obscure (whither Emmy Lou?) comic strip characters. The diversity of stories being told here kept attention spans from waning, and that’s not even getting into how great it is to see unjustly forgotten funnies like Moon Mullins being brought to life.

This series is an underrated effort whose legacy can continue to be found in Saturday Night Live‘s “TV Funhouse” sketches, whose theme song bears a striking resemblance to that of Archie’s TV Funnies.

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For those into this sort of thing, also see the 1980 Loni Anderson-hosted special The Fantastic Funnies.

The U.S. of Archie

With the impending bicentennial on everyone’s minds, the 1974 toon U.S. of Archie had everybody’s favorite indecisive ginger and his pals traveling through American history to teach about the past, and maybe learn a thing or two themselves along the way. For this series, the songs are especially jingoistic, so consider yourselves warned.

Remember how bored you were watching This Is America, Charlie Brown? You can thank U.S. of Archie for that. Good grief.

Sabrina the Teenage Witch

Sabrina has been causing magical mischief in cartoons sporadically from 1971 through to 2013 (more on that one in a few). Her original cartoon remains the best featuring the character, which given the overall quality or lack thereof of Filmation’s Archie output is kind of like saying that the flames burning down your house looked pretty. Cousin Ambrose swagger though!

Groovie Goolies

Did you realize that Groovie Goolies, the spelling impaired monster cartoon was, in fact, a spinoff of the Sabrina the Teenage Witch cartoon? It’s true, although the characters have no relation to the Archieverse, their role as an animated footnote earn them a spot in this journey through Riverdale’s televisual adventures.

The Archie and Sabrina Surprise Package

Surprise! This cartoon (which has an overly complicated history and has been known as The New Archie and Sabrina Hour, The Bang-Shang Lalapalooza Show, and Sabrina: Super Witch) isn’t entirely terrible! In fact, it has at times a kind of Scooby-Doo! vibe that also is somewhat reflective of the wonderfully odd Archie adventure stories that were being told in the Archie at Riverdale High and Life with Archie comics of the ’70s.

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Alas, all mediocre things must come to an end, and this 1977 series marked the last collaboration between Archie and Filmation.

Post Cereal The Archies Commercial

Here’s some bonus context to illustrate how popular Archie was in the 1960s and ’70s, an ad for Post Cereals featuring some cool Archiecentric giveaways. That needs to be on the desk of Archie fanatic Den of Geek writers everywhere. Or maybe just this one.

Josie and the Pussycats

For reasons no one has been able to properly ascertain, the folks at Hanna-Barbera decided to ditch the eternally cool dating and girl power and music-centered stories of the Josie and the Pussycats comic book to make their cartoon yet another Scooby-Doo! clone. (That said, they did do one episode that was a jaw-droppingly cool riff on Planet of the Apes).

There’s still a lot to love here though, even if it is just the nostalgia talking. Hot take: Josie and the Pussycats’ songs have aged way better than those of The Archies. And yes, their 2001 movie is totally jerkin.

Josie and the Pussycats in Outer Space

What’s that? You say the first 16 Josie and the Pussycats episodes didn’t diverge from the source material nearly enough? Relax pal, Hanna-Barbera’s got you!

In 1972 the series was revamped as Josie and the Pussycats in Outer Space. Because, fuck it, space rules. To further complicate things, the series had another intro:

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Why change the titles? Only Bleep knows. They even ended up appearing on an episode of The New Scooby-Doo Movies, “The Haunted Showboat.”

Sesame Street

On the March 29, 1971 episode of Sesame Street, none other than Jughead Jones appeared to teach kids about the letter J. Appropriately on-brand for the character, the brief segment the erstwhile Forsythe P. Jones stars in revolves around food.

ABC Saturday Comedy Special: Archie/The Archie Situation Comedy Musical Variety Show

In 1976, the Archie property was Brundleflyed with the variety show format, resulting in a show called the ABC Saturday Comedy Special: Archie. Not very much is known about this pilot other than it featured the only live-action appearance of Joe Edwards’ Little Jinx character, and that it was retooled a few years later as 1978’s goofily titled The Archie Situation Comedy Musical Variety Show.

Hardcore Archieologists have sought out these shows for years, with clips from the latter only recently rescued from the depths of lost media obscurity and placed on YouTube for the world to rediscover. The thing is, for a very dated, fiftteenth generation VHS rip, this still has some really entertaining moments. The cast, headed by Dennis Bowen as a somewhat dopey Archie, WKRP in Cincinatti’s Gordon Jump as Fred Andrews, and voiceover legend Susan Blu (of The Transformers and Jem) as Midge, is uniformly excellent.

Released nearly a decade after “Sugar, Sugar” mania, the original songs featured here are a weird hodgepodge of ELO (dig those neon guitars), 1950s revivalist lameness and Jefferson Starship in full Star Wars Holiday Special mode. Far more successful than the musical sequences are the comedy sketches, which include long scenes like a frog dissection skit that gives the ensemble a chance to shine, and shorter bits that play like the “Gag Bag” one-pagers from the comics.

Overall, the show is enjoyable but there are two things that stand out as so disturbing that they mar the overall project: A tone deaf sketch in which Archie tries to “jokingly” pressure Betty into sex after learning that her parents are away for the night, and a bit in which Jughead essentially states that he is going to be a womanizer who has endless one-night stands once his shyness towards girls wears off. These brief scenes feature out-of-character moments for everyone involved, and they don’t represent what Archie was at the time. The argument can be made that Riverdale does the same sort of things, with the difference being that the cultural and comics landscape of 1978 versus 2017 is vastly different, and the Archie of nearly 40 years ago isn’t as creatively satisfying as the one we currently enjoy.

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The New Archies

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=xJbJl5kssk8

Before the word “tween” was even a thing, The New Archies brought tween versions of the characters into living rooms on Saturday mornings. The short-lived cartoon was produced by D.I.C. Entertainment (they also created Inspector Gadget), and it aired on NBC in 1987.

As problematic as the cartoon may be, what with Archie’s renowned mullet and Veronica’s mall girl makeover, there is something that is really charming about this cartoon. The producers made a real effort to bridge the gap between the Little Archie stories and the main Archie chronology here, with each episode featuring two individual stories geared towards middle schoolers. What is most surprising is how much attention the show pays to secondary characters like bully Fangs Fogarty, school cook Miss Beazley, and hangout proprietor Pop Tate, whose Choklit Shoppe is given a San Junipero-worthy makeover as a “Video Cafe.” Rad.

Archie: To Riverdale and Back Again

There was a mercifully short-lived trend in 1990 that had networks dusting off old properties and replacing their charm with the very sort of affluent white people problems that made critics convinced that Thirtysomething had “captured the zeitgeist of an era”. As a result, in the very same year that Bobby Brady became paralyzed in a stockcar racing accident on CBS’ bizarre The Bradys series, an adult Jughead Jones spewed out a rap version of “Sugar, Sugar” for no good reason other than to throw a vat of acid in the faces of nostalgic viewers. It was as if the characters in these projects and, by extension, the 1990s themselves, were saying “we have seen your misguided desire to look back, so we want to say no, there is nothing to go back for, there is only the future, and the bleakness that lies ahead.”

Anyway, Archie: To Riverdale and Back Again emulated every high school reunion you had the grace and foresight to skip by showcasing the relationship and career woes of Archie and company. (This was in fact a pilot for an ongoing series in which a post-The Charmings pre-Murphy Brown Christopher Rich would have brought his milquetoast sensuality to a post-Judge Reinhold world as Archie on a weekly basis. C’est la vie).

Weirdly enough, some plot aspects of this boring failure were later resurrected into the much, much better Life with Archie: The Married Life comic a few years back. The whole endeavor is embedded above, just in case you are an immortal who has the whole of creation to muck about with, so two hours of bad fashion and potential thinkpiece fodder are merely a cosmic blink of the eye. To everyone else, avoid, avoid, avoid.

Sabrina the Teenage Witch

Let’s just pause at this point, take a breath, and think about the unassuming television juggernaut that was Sabrina the Teenage Witch for a hot second. The TGIF staple debuted in 1996 as a Showtime pilot movie which, wait for it, conjured up enough viewers to go to series at ABC. Once there, it ran for four successful years and spawned the Sabrina Goes to Rome telefilm before jumping networks to the WB for its remaining three seasons.

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If there’s a single reason while the show had such longevity it is the cast, Melissa Joan Hart was an appealing lead whose training on Clarissa Explains It All had more than prepared her for the comedic challenges Sabrina had to offer. (Caroline Rhea, Beth Broderick and Nick Bakay also helped the ensemble shine, with the revolving door cast of the later years offering up plenty of talent to the televisual Elder Gods as well).

Given the nostalgic goodwill that Riverdale has had to Luke Perry and Molly Ringwald at this point, it would be a surprise if Hart doesn’t turn up on that series at some point — or the forthcoming Chilling Adventures of Sabrina for that matter. Stay tuned.

Sabrina the Animated Series

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=nCueewcvAEc

It’s Sabrina the Teenage Witch, the TV series, in animated form! Honestly, I’m about as intense of an Archie fan as you are likely to come across and even I don’t give a bippidy boppity boo about this one.

Sabrina’s Secret Life

It’s Sabrina the Teenage Witch, in another animated show! This time one with a shitty new Madonna rip-off theme, but with the same old weird visual style that flies in the face of realistic body goals. Way to be a role model there Spellman.

Sabrina: Secrets of A Teenage Witch

In her most recent cartoon to date, 2013’s Sabrina: Secrets of a Teenage Witch had Archie’s resident sorceress trying to make like Harry Potter and balance her school and wizarding lives. It all just looks like one tedious Playstation 3 game, which brings to mind the question of whether or not Archie’s Riverdale Run ever came out.

Archie’s Weird Mysteries

Some of the threads of experimentation that defines Archie’s current output can be found woven in the tapestry of 1999’s Archie’s Weird Mysteries. Both the comic and TV versions of Archie’s Weird Mysteries had Riverdale’s finest thrust into non-traditional stories that involved, say, mutant alligators or Veronica in full Attack of the 50-Foot Woman mode.

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The biggest critique to be lobbed at the series is that it came a few years passed The X-Files sell by date, and could have had a much greater impact were it given the opportunity to let its freak flag fly a few years earlier.

Musical theater nerd trivia: The Book of Mormon‘s Andrew Rannells voices Archie in this series. Hasa diga eebowai!

The Archies in Jugman

A straight-to-DVD movie, The Archies in Jugman is essentially a feature-length spinoff of Archie’s Weird Mysteries that seems to have been inspired by Encino Man. Wait, wasn’t there a rumor that Brendan Fraser was going to be in an Archie movie at the turn of the century? It all makes sense now.

It’s Archie

Moonscoop LLC (who were involved in the production of Sabrina: Secrets of a Teenage Witch) were to have teamed up again with Archie for the new cartoon It’s Archie in 2013. The cartoon would have again had Archie et al as tweens a la The New Archies, but this time they’d be attending a Riverdale Jr. High in which they’d have to contend with monsters as well as their studies.

A trailer and some footage from the cartoon was screened during the Archie Comics panel at New York Comic Con in 2014, with the show possessing a stylized Day of the Tentacle/Galaxy High School type feel. Unfortunately, the project was shelved for reasons unknown, so we’ll never get a chance to learn what It’s Archie was all about.

Riverdale

All of this leads us back to Riverdale. It’s kind of amazing that this show even exists, and is as great as it is. It’s Archie’s (or should that be Jughead’s) crowning TV achievement, and the best is yet to come.

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Chris Cummins thinks Riverdale should end this season with the start of the Afterlife with Archie saga. Debate this point with him on Twitter at @bionicbigfoot and @scifiexplosion.