Riverdale: This Ain’t Your Childhood’s Archie Andrews

There’s a good old all-American “gee whiz” quality about Archie comics, those tried and true comic books that have been around since your grandpa thumbed through an issue back in the 1940s. You won’t find that in the new TV version airing on the CW network.

No, in the latest installment, Kevin Keller was trolling the woods for anonymous gay hook-ups and Archie was becoming a vigilante. They have, as they say, strayed from the canon.

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Riverdale is the CW’s riff on all-American boy Archie Andrews and his pals, but you won’t find these stories in your comic book collection.

I have to admit to being fascinated by this show. I generally like it when people take risks with interpreting potentially stale material. I enjoyed the now-cancelled Will, the punk rock meets Shakespeare take on the Bard. I think the new Dynasty reboot is one of the worst things I’ve ever seen. And I find the BBC’s Still Open All Hours a sweet (and still funny) homage to the original.

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Original Archie and TV Archie. New Zealander KJ Apa plays the famously red haired hero thanks to a lot of hair dye.

Riverdale is a mashup of Archie Comics, Twin Peaks and every Brat Pack 80s movie. It’s dark — and getting darker by the episode — and more than a bit twisted (Archie had a torrid affair with Miss Grundy; Kevin had a one-off with Moose Mason; Jughead is a fledging gang member).

The storylining is good, the dialogue is a little bit forced, and they may be trying a bit too hard for relevance. Is it too much to ask to see a teen scene at the Chock’lit Shoppe where they are not talking about a murder? Or gangland troubles from the Southside Serpents? Or Riverdale’s new drug scourge, “jingle jangle?”

I do have to give them some props for the Kevin in the woods hooking-up story. It’s a pretty deep take on an issue that we certainly are not seeing on television. It’s going to cause a big riff between Kevin (a strong performance from Casey Cott) and BFF Betty Cooper, but it raises some pretty potent issues that deserve to be talked about. (I’d encourage a read of Ariana Romero’s recent excellent piece on Refinery29.)

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One-time teen screen idols Luke Perry (Beverly Hills 90210) and Molly Ringwald (Pretty in Pink) play Archie’s estranged parents in Riverdale.

Forsythe Pendleton Jones, III — you’ll probably know him best as Jughead — narrates the thing. And former Disney tween star Cole Sprouse does a fine job of playing a broody, intelligent, jaded, slightly smart-mouthed chronicler in a ‘whoopee cap.’

He is, for all the world, channeling every broody, intelligent, jaded, slightly smart-mouthed character that Andrew McCarthy played in every movie he was ever in in the 80s (with the possible exception of Weekend at Bernie’s). But, while it may be derivative, I can’t say it’s a bad thing!

Take old Riverdale out for a spin and see what you think. Whatever happens, you won’t be feeling any warm, fuzzy childhood nostalgia, that’s for sure!

Robert Sugden and the Curse of the Soap Opera Baby

Robron in happier times. Robert (Ryan Hawley) and Aaron (Danny Miller) at their wedding. |Image: ITV

Robron in happier times. Robert (Ryan Hawley) and Aaron (Danny Miller) at their wedding. |Image: ITV

I was going to keep my mouth shut. I was going to let this pass. But, I couldn’t. And I think it’s because I continually hold ITV’s fabulous Emmerdale to a higher standard.

Maybe that “hold” should be written in the past tense.

I’ve watched a lot of soaps my day, both in the U.S. and the U.K. and, let me tell you, British soaps are leagues and leagues better than their American counterparts, but when Rebecca White recently announced she was pregnant with Robert Sugden’s child, it was as if the Emmerdale writers were suddenly possessed by the zombified spirits of those sloppy, ineffectual scribes of the lame American daytime serial Days of our Lives. And my head nearly exploded.

I was disappointed. Then I got angry.

I got angry because Emmerdale is better than this.

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Always the most interesting village in Yorkshire. What must the denizens of Demdyke and Robblesfield feel like?

Emmerdale, in recent years, has given us amazing drama when when Jackson Walsh was paralyzed, when Zak Dingle beat Cain nearly to death, when Jai Sharma locked Charity Dingle in a shipping container, when Val Pollard contracted HIV, when the helicopter crashed into the village hall, and, most recently, the exquisite story of Ashley Thomas’s decline into dementia. And that short list doesn’t even include the mother of all edge-of-your-seat storylines: Cameron Murray’s brilliantly psychotic reign of terror.

So, no, Emmerdale writers, just because you’ve assayed some marvelous stories in the past, doesn’t mean you get a pass on this ridiculous “the baby is Robert’s” tale.

First and foremost, it’s just simply lazy storytelling. Second, you don’t get to deliberately mess with, perhaps inarguably, the most popular couple on your show because you can’t think of something less hackneyed to do with them. Third, you don’t get to mess with your own audience’s expectations without feeling the repercussions. Fourth, if you want said audience to keep tuning in, stop monkeying around with the canvas because you feel like you can.

Bottom line: this comes down to privilege. In this case, it’s straight privilege. When serial writers hit on a male couple that works with the audience, they don’t know how to continue to make them dramatic – or at least interesting – without messing with their relationship. And the quickest, easiest, most ludicrous way to do that is to introduce a baby into the dynamic.

Think I’m kidding?

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And baby makes three. Classic gay men with baby trope. Syed (Marc Elliott) and Christian (John Partridge) and sprog in EastEnders. |Image: Radio Times

Ste and (every boyfriend or husband)[Hollyoaks]: Ste has kids that are always cocking things up.

Craig and John-Paul [Hollyoaks]: An off-screen row about having a baby drove “McDean” apart and John-Paul returned to Chester to discover he was a father.

Christian and Syed [EastEnders]: Syed had a baby with an ex-wife.

Will and Sonny [Days of our Lives]: One of the most egregious uses of the baby cliché with a gay couple in the U.S.

Kyle and Oliver [One Live to Live]: Oliver has drunken sex with a woman who gets pregnant, then she dies and he fights for custody. Seriously?

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Oliver Fish (Scott Evans) and boyfriend Kyle Lewis (Brett Claywell) and Oliver’s child, Sierra Rose, on the American drama One Life to Live.

There are others, but you get the idea.

What I find particularly galling about the Robert/Rebecca tryst is that it is so typical of people who do not know how to write for a bi character. “He’s bi, he’ll sleep with anyone. I think we should get Bex up the duff!” No! Stop it! Stop it right now!

Instead of exposing your audience to realistic bisexual people and interactions, you’re just prolonging and engraining a terrible myth about bisexual folks: that they’re all promiscuous and incapable of forming a lasting relationship with anyone of any gender.

And you know this, Emmerdale. You know it – or at least someone on your writing staff knows it – because in the eloquently written scenes where Robert opens up to Aaron – just before the car crash – Robert tells him that just because a woman offers it to him, doesn’t mean he’ll take it because he loves Aaron.

Then, the first time he has the opportunity, he does just that. You have ignored the story that you set in motion, you have ignored the entire character brief, and you have ignored the legions of fans that want these two men together, all for the sake of a lazy, cheap plot point that engrains stereotypes.

And not just stereotypes about bisexual and gay people, but stereotypes about how poorly stories are told on serials.

Not. Acceptable.

Robert Sudgen is an intricate, complex, deeply flawed character. And he has been since childhood. That’s why the story of his father finding him with another boy as a teenager works so well in the realm of retcon plausibility.

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Emmerdale mainstay, the late Clive Hornby, played Jack Sugden, seen here with Karl Davies as Robert after the younger Sugden was met with the elder’s fist in an altercation. |Image: Yorkshire Television

Robert and Jack were famously always at war. Robert and Jack never understood one another and Robert’s love-hate relationship with his adoptive brother, Andy, has been well documented throughout the last two decades, especially as teens when they were jockeying for position as favorite son. It’s quite easy to infer that this bedroom incident may have been in the back of Jack’s mind when he sent Robert away from the village for good soon thereafter when the Sugden brothers and Katie Addyman were involved in the infamous “playing chicken car accident” that killed Max King.

Let’s also remember that Robert’s biological mother died when he was only several months old. And that he has an older maternal half-sister that we’ve all forgotten about. There are plenty of rich veins still left to mine in the psyche of Robert Sugden.

I hope Emmerdale has the strength of character to right this ship. Either have the baby be Ross Barton’s after all – the most practical solution – or have Rebecca die soon after giving birth in an emergency situation somewhere stupid like the stables at Wylie’s Farm (where Katie died!). Then have Aaron Dingle show up and deliver the baby or discover dead Rebecca. Something. Anything.

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Aaron forgave Robert’s infidelities earlier this year before Rebecca revealed she did not get an abortion. It was too much for Aaron and the popular couple are now on the outs. |Image: ITV

And Emmerdale? Put RobRon back together. And figure out a way for them to have lots of drama in their lives without Robert cheating again. Danny Miller and Ryan Hawley are far too good to waste on the single notes you’ve been giving them lately.

The Real Goodbye

Well, the only gay-themed network sitcom got the axe last week, as ABC cancelled The Real O’Neals after its sophomore season. I didn’t find TRO a groundbreaking sitcom or really even a terrific piece of entertainment, but we have so few outlets for LGBT inclusion in mainstream entertainment these days, I felt compelled to watch.

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Martha Plimpton, Jay R. Ferguson, Noah Galvin, Matthew Shively and Bebe Wood were the O’Neal family, a Chicago-based Roman Catholic brood based loosely on the teenage years of Dan Savage. | Image: ABC

What I found was that it was a series with some flaws, but it also had heart. The actors, directors and producers seemed to genuinely care about the series and they didn’t do a lot of corner-cutting. They did challenge some sitcom norms, but at the same time, they did fall back into some annoying sitcom tropes from time to time. I’m not sure who to fault here, but my bet would be the network.

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Many out guest stars appeared on TRO, often in one of main character Kenny’s fantasies, including Robbie Rogers and Gus Kenworthy as themselves, urging Kenny on compete on the school wrestling team in season two. | Image: ABC

I liked young Noah Galvin, who played main character Kenny O’Neal, the middle child who comes out in the pilot episode. He and TV-siblings Jimmy and Shannon (Matthew Shively and Bebe Wood) had terrific chemistry and their characters and relationships developed early on.

The ensemble was anchored by the always-stellar Martha Plimpton as Eileen, the very Catholic mom who gets a divorce and then begins an inappropriate relationship with her children’s vice principal, played to a lunatic fare-the-well by Matt Oberg.

The writers seemed not to know what to do with Dad after season one and, consequently, Jay R. Ferguson, always a rock-solid performer since his own days as a child actor, was sadly wasted as was Mary Hollis Inboden as wacky Aunt Jackie.

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Sean Grandillo (l) played Kenny’s first “real” boyfriend in a multi-episode story arc in the second season of TRO. | Image: Variety

Sensing what was coming, the writers buttoned up the series nicely, but I’m sorry to see it go. Given the tenor of the times, I suppose I should be grateful that ABC stuck with it for two seasons (well, two half-seasons), but I want more. I want young LGBT kids to see much, much more of themselves reflected back on TV than my generation did. I fear we’re never going to get there.

Here’s some cute bits from TRO, courtesy of NewNowNext:

Source: The 15 Gayest Moments On “The Real O’Neals” | NewNowNext

E3: Season 3 of EastSiders Needs You

You should not look for any objective reporting here.  I’m just simply biased. I fell in love with EastSiders five years ago and have been awed by the talent and the dedication and the blood, sweat and tears that Kit and John and their team have put into this series. They’ve been telling the stories they want to tell on their own terms and, trust me, that’s powerful. And rare.

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Image|EastSiders Season 3 Kickstarter

And it’s also why people connect with them. They are real. They are authentic. They are from a singular vision. Too much of “entertainment” is decided by committee. And that’s why the edges aren’t sharp. It’s why the comedy is lukewarm and the drama is tepid. And it’s why we don’t see stories of substance, stories of depth, stories of importance that reflect the LGBT experience in this country. And now, more than ever, we desperately need to tell those.

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Image|EastSiders Season 3 Kickstarter

If I’ve convinced one person to give to one of these Kickstarters and convinced another five to sit down and watch an episode, then I’ve changed the world just an infinitesimal bit. And maybe even made it better. See if I’m right about that.

Read some of what I’ve written over the last five years (or not) and then go to www.eastsiderstheseries.com and donate to this Kickstarter.
EastSiders – New Web Series Worth Watching 2012
Kickstart This — “Eastsiders” Needs You 2013
Kit Williamson: Logo Online and the Web Series Renaissance 2013
How to Say Thank You — A Saga and a Case Study in Doing It Right 2013
Why I’m Supporting EastSiders — And Why You Should, Too 2014
Kit and Van and Cal and Thom and … Cassandra? 2014
When Not Shutting Up When You are Told to Shut Up is Important 2014
Kit Williamson on Slut-Shaming 2015
Return to Silver Lake – Long-Awaited Arrival of EastSiders Season 2 Does Not Disappoint 2015
Verdict on EastSiders Season 2: Most Assuredly the Best of the Lot 2015
Emmy Nods for EastSiders 2016

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Cal and Thom live in Silver Lake … and also in my guest room in New Jersey.

Lovely Signs of Life

I’ve just had the chance to view a screener of Andrew Keenan-Bolger and Adam Wachter’s short film Sign and if I had to sum it up in one word, that word would be “beautiful.”

Sign is the story of a relationship told entirely through sign language. It’s a bold choice, using a language that the vast majority of your audience is likely not to know and to eschew title cards or captions. It is, however, the correct choice.

John McGinty and Preston Sadleir are the couple at the center of the piece and there is never a moment when they are not sublime. McGinty has one of the most expressive faces and, for a young actor, he shows such a masterly of subtleness that I found it difficult to pull my focus away from him. That, of course, would be my loss, as Sadleir matches him note for note.

As a deaf actor, McGinty is, perhaps expectedly, a master signer and his signing is effortless. Sadleir, the hearing actor, who, in the story, learns ASL to better communicate with his new boyfriend, has a nice arc as you watch the clumsy early signing become more and more deft as the story progresses.

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Preston Sadleir (l) is Ben and John McGinty is Aaron in the terrific short film, Sign.

Keenan-Bolger is, of course, one of Broadway’s Keenan-Bolger siblings whose individual and collective talents seem utterly boundless. He has, in addition to acting and singing and dancing, made quite the second career as a content creator, director, YA author, and filmmaker. He’s a dab hand behind the camera as well as in front. A gifted comedic actor (do yourself a favor and watch him in the web series Submissions Only, which he co-created with Kate Wetherhead), he shows a more sensitive and mature side here. His direction is smart and his cinematography shows he’s ready for a full-length project next.

Don’t think he’s given up the cheeky wit, though. Here, Sadleir’s Ben is seen teaching himself ASL with a Signing for Dummies book; our main couple watch a program on television that’s actually another Keenan-Bolger short, The Ceiling Fan; and he even puts his real-life boyfriend in as a Grindr trick!

Sign is billed as a “silent film,” but that’s giving short shrift to Wachter, whose score is note perfect throughout. It is the foundation upon which these vignettes rest and it seems to me that it functions more than mere underscoring and, instead, buttresses the scenes as a recitative for sign language. His variations on the same musical theme work to ensure that this series of short, disjointed scenes mesh together in a cohesive whole. It might help that Wachter wrote the story as well.

The “truth in journalism” part of this is that I had access to the screener because I gave to the crowd funding initiative for this film. It was worth every penny. Find out if its playing at a local film festival by visiting their website or following the film on Facebook and if you find that it’s playing nearby, then go! You’ll not regret it.

So Long, Larias

I’ve marveled over the years about both the reach of my occasional posts and the staying power of one particular one from 2013. It’s less about me and more about the power of serial storytelling.

blog-salatutYouTuber “MissFinlandia88” started subtitling the gay love story between Elias Vikstedt and Lari Väänänen on the Finnish soap Salatut Elämät (more or less, Secret Lives) about five years ago. In early January 2013, I first wrote about this pairing and how, thanks to one intrepid YouTuber, the show and this couple gained a worldwide English-speaking fanbase. It has been the most-read post on this blog since the beginning.

Social media, you see, works along the same constructs as a soap opera.

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Paavola (left) and Roslöf portrayed Elias and Lari on a Finnish soap opera, known around the world thanks to an intrepid YouTuber who subtitled their scenes for an English-speaking audience.

Sadly, for fans of the Elias and Lari pairing — now known worldwide by the portmanteau Larias — the show has decided to kill off Elias, a shock twist that’s left fans reeling.

Elias came on as an already-out high school student and the son of one of the show’s long-serving characters. He fell for, and had a closeted romance with hockey star, Lari, whose tortured coming-out was the basis for much of their early story. But, it was less about the writing and more about the chemistry between the actors Petteri Paavola (Elias) and Ronny Roslöf (Lari) that propelled the story and sparked the imaginations of the fans.

When Paavola left the show for several months last year, Roslöf’s character took up with older doctor Kalle and now, in spite of Kalle’s recent rampant alcoholism, maybe he’ll once again take up with the grief-stricken Lari, who’s still recovering from a recent gunshot wound. (He was accidentally shot by Elias.) It’s a soap, remember!

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In a recent Instagram post (above) Paavola thanked the couple’s fans and MissFinlandia88 who “took our story around the world.” He also thanked English-speaking fans on YouTube.

Well, all good things come to an end. For Paavola, who has been moonlighting as a real estate agent, he’ll still keep in touch with his on-screen ‘better half.’ The duo have become good friends and even play hockey on the same team. You never know where even a made-up gay relationship will take you.

To start over and watch everything, check out MissFinlandia88’s YouTube channel.

Takei “Disappointed” in Gay Sulu

With all due respect to George Takei, whom we can all agree is awesome, I think the revelation that Hikaru Sulu is gay in the soon-to-be-released film Star Trek: Beyond is a fine thing.

Screenwriter and Scotty portrayer Simon Pegg says that it was done as an homage to Takei, who is openly gay, but Takei says he’s disappointed in the choice to take a character who has always been straight and suddenly make him gay 50 years after he was introduced in the original series. He says it’s against the vision of creator George Roddenberry.

Takei may have something there; after all, no one involved in the film reboot of the original series has had the benefit of knowing and working with Roddenberry. That said, I think if Roddenberry were alive today, he may well have approved.

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(clockwise from top left) George Takei as Hikaru Sulu in Star Trek, the original television series, John Cho as Sulu in the latest Star Trek motion picture series, Zachary Quinto as the latest Spock, and Simon Pegg as Montgomery Scott, the chief engineer on the starship Enterprise. Pegg also wrote the screenplay for the latest film.

Zachary Quinto, who portrays Spock in the franchise had this to say, as reported on Towleroad:

I was disappointed by the fact that George was disappointed. Any member of the LGBT community that takes issue with the normalized and positive portrayal of members of our community in Hollywood and in mainstream blockbuster cinema…I get it that he has had his own personal journey and has his own personal relationship with this character but, you know, as we established in the first ‘Star Trek’ film in 2009, we’ve created an alternate universe, and my hope is that eventually George can be strengthened by the enormously positive response from especially young people who are heartened by and inspired by this really tasteful and beautiful portrayal of something that I think is gaining acceptance and inclusion in our societies across the world, and should be.

Quinto’s remarks buttress Pegg’s in The Guardian:

He’s right, it is unfortunate, it’s unfortunate that the screen version of the most inclusive, tolerant universe in science fiction hasn’t featured an LGBT character until now. We could have introduced a new gay character, but he or she would have been primarily defined by their sexuality, seen as the ‘gay character’, rather than simply for who they are, and isn’t that tokenism?

Justin Lin, Doug Jung and I loved the idea of it being someone we already knew because the audience have a pre-existing opinion of that character as a human being, unaffected by any prejudice. Their sexual orientation is just one of many personal aspects, not the defining characteristic. Also, the audience would infer that there has been an LGBT presence in the Trek Universe from the beginning (at least in the Kelvin timeline), that a gay hero isn’t something new or strange. It’s also important to note that at no point do we suggest that our Sulu was ever closeted, why would he need to be? It just hasn’t come up before.

Pegg continued, saying:

The viewing audience weren’t open minded enough at the time and it must have forced Roddenberry to modulate his innovation. His mantra was always ‘infinite diversity in infinite combinations’. If he could have explored Sulu’s sexuality with George, he no doubt would have. Roddenberry was a visionary and a pioneer but we choose our battles carefully.

And he ended the interview with a sentiment that, I believe, we can all agree with:

Whatever dimension we inhabit, we all just want to be loved by those we love (and I love George Takei). I can’t speak for every reality but that must surely true of this one. Live long and prosper.

For Trek geeks, I think the point that the TOS (the original series) timeline and the Kelvin (movie reboot) timelines are different and therefore the canon is different. For folks pushing for inclusion, I can’t imagine a better universe to do that in than Star Trek. Except, perhaps, for our own.


Somewhat Related Post from 2013: Here