Archie: To Riverdale and Back Again–OR–On Perpetual Crisis and Productive Nostalgia

Before there was the CW series Riverdale, there was the 1990 made-for-TV film “Archie: To Riverdale and Back Again“. The film is a hilariously awful and vacuous depiction of the gang in their mid 30s returning to their hometown. Notwithstanding how bad it is, I think it can’t help but teach us something about crisis and the productive potential of nostalgia.

The film begins with Archie and his non-descript yuppie fiancee, Pam. They are getting ready to move to “the city” where Archie will practice law at a big firm. Before he goes, however, he must attend a Riverdale High reunion weekend. Jughead, a divorced, single dad psychiatrist, will also be there, as will, you guessed it, Betty and Veronica. Betty has her own non-descript scumbag boyfriend (aptly named “Bob Miller” thank you very much) and Veronica has been through countless fiancees and 3-4 marriages. They’re all unhappy in this post Riverdale future.

High jinks ensues. They save Pop’s diner from being bull-dozed. Betty and Veronica throw themselves at Archie, who sort of resists them. Jughead tells Archie his inability to choose is due to a retrogressive fixation on the past. When Archie suggests he’s moving on, Jughead tells him he’ll miss the old Archie. When Archie points out Jughead is contradicting himself, Jughead assures him that’s what psychiatrists do. Ultimately, Pam leaves Archies and Betty leaves Bob, and everyone decides to stay in Riverdale. When Betty and Veronica tell Archie he has to choose, Jughead’s kid conveniently interrupts and the movie happily ends.

At first glance, it seems like “Archie: To Riverdale and Back Again” is a film about not choosing. It’s about not giving up on the past while acknowledging it has inevitably changed. It’s about preferring, over a definite “city-life”, a teenage fantasy of perpetual indecision because it “knows us better”. They choose to live in a history that may have never been.

However, this so-called “indecision”, it seems to me, remains profoundly alluring political choice for many and is in this way a choice of its own.

If crisis is about social contradictions manifesting in ways that make business as usual or any kind of moving forward impossible, this is a movie about choosing to dwell on history and live in perpetual crisis over the bland uncaring promise of progress. The “city” is about the only thing decisively rejected in the film. Why do the characters make this choice?

One telling scene is when Pam comes to visit Archie in Riverdale. After getting in his car, she throws an old bottle out. Archie picked up the bottle in an earlier scene from the Riverdale dump while he and Jughead sifted through deeply nostalgic trash (including inexplicably an old sock). Pam doesn’t understand any of it. He tries to explain to her why he cares so much about saving Pop’s, basically saying “Because it was ours.”

That seems to encapsulate the film’s answer. The city is profoundly dislocating and dispossessing, but even garbage is special if it is yours.

Ultimately, the writers were not so lazy as to leave things simply in a state of crisis. Betty is able to confront her lack of romantic fulfillment which spurs her to succeed in her dream of being a writer, as a romance writer. Veronica is finally pushed to speak to her father about something other than money. Jughead connects with his son.

The CW series aside, Archie has long represented a nostalgia for a bygone era that probably never existed anywhere and is therefore dangerous especially in our current absurdly nostalgic times. Yet “Archie: to Riverdale and Back Again” in having the characters confront their own nostalgia for their younger selves may unwittingly teach us a lesson about productive nostalgia. That is, in not simply accepting the “inevitability” of a certain kind of progress, and thereby being willing to live in crisis, we create the possibility for actively questioning why that revered past that was “ours” was taken from us in the first place. In so doing, we may not get back the world we think we had but instead find a much better one.

For more on the politics of inevitability, see this blog post on the caring labour of political action.

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