‘Riverdale’ oversteps boundaries better left alone

March 15, 2017 Updated: March 15, 2017

Archie Andrews is sleeping with Miss Grundy. For those familiar with the original comic, this may take a moment to digest, but Netflix’s new “Riverdale” series offers a very different take on the original. This is Riverdale High for a new generation, one that isn’t interested in the idyllic laissez-faire of the original teenage coming-of-age adventures of Archie and company.

With requisite portions of adolescent angst and a subversive sub-plot, Netflix is turning the Archie universe on its head. Don’t tune in if you are looking for nostalgia; this latest incarnation is sure to shatter any pastoral impressions of teenage life left by the paperback comics.

In the Archie world of yesteryear, Miss Grundy is an old schoolmarm and the polar opposite of adolescent desire. But in the television series she is a young, sultry librarian with a predatory eye for the 15-year-old Archie Andrews. In the alternate “Riverdale” universe, this is just par for the course of young people making very adult decisions.

This Grundy subplot has been described as a “racy” and “forbidden romance,” but there is another phrase more fitting: statutory rape. It’s a term that doesn’t sell nearly as well as “racy” but it is most apt considering the circumstances.

If the genders were reversed in this instance the reaction would be much different and the subplot would carry a more sinister edge. Predatory behaviour perpetrated on kids is something that has long been proven to have lasting, damaging consequences for the youth involved, regardless of gender.

There should be legitimate concern when things of this nature creep into mainstream television—making it seem like a teacher having sex with a 15-year-old is par for the course of growing up. The blurred lines between reality and fantasy are getting harder to distinguish when it comes to the societal influence of our entertainment consumption. 

This latest incarnation is sure to shatter any pastoral impressions of teenage life left by the paperback comics.

When the implicit condoning of deviant behaviour makes its way into our entertainment universe, alarm bells should be ringing—and they aren’t. There is a great fascination with the  taboo, an attraction to what is forbidden, and it’s an easy sell when packaged as a teen coming-of-age drama. The entertainment industry is very aware of this and more than happy to oblige our appetites by steadily pushing the envelope of decency. Shocking is only shocking for so long, and the ante needs to be upped.

The real issue at play here is that damaging behaviour is being presented as normal to school-age kids, who rely heavily on the digital and entertainment world for the barometers of their moral compass. Unrestrained access to the darker corners of the Internet and the false reality of the digital universe are influencing the minds of teenagers who are forming their perceptions of the world. These perceptions will influence the decisions they make and the rules they abide by as they take their place as members of society.

Life in today’s wired society is all about distraction, and it is the opiate most prescribed to young people looking to navigate a complicated world. The digital universe is constantly vying for the attention of its audience, doing whatever it takes to have people “tune in.”

The danger is that this external din of distraction drowns out that small internal voice called a conscience, making it difficult for a person to have a genuine assessment of their external influences and of what’s right and wrong. This loss of introspection makes slaves of the masses and it becomes a significant problem when depravity is promoted as the norm.

It might be nostalgia that makes this sexual plot in Netflix’s series seem so shocking. The Archie/Miss Grundy relationship treads on some sacred ground. Archie has been a mainstay of Western culture for 80 years now, and the storyline has remained more or less unchanged in its projection of teenage life as a time of innocent misadventure and light-hearted humour.

It is a concern on many levels that this just doesn’t sell anymore.

Ryan Moffatt is a Vancouver-based arts reporter, musician, and pop-culture pundit.