TV shows that draw on decades old source material are not exactly a new phenomenon, but there is certainly a new trend arising from it: the revitalization of classic, but problematic, material. The fact is, there is an overwhelming number of great stories out there that, by today's standards, are burdened by their historical baggage — perhaps most notably in their politics of gender and sexuality. A good example is the cover of a 2011 Archie & Friends comic, in which Archie is asked how he tells apart his set of twin girlfriends, and with a big smile he replies: "I don't even try!!"
As popular culture becomes increasingly progressive, looking back at some of our favorite classics requires a certain amount of whistling passed some pretty unfavorable images of patriarchal and heteronormative values. But we do it because, hey, they're the classics! And we justify it with extensive contextualization, which is fine. But what's braver, is questioning those images. And that's exactly what we are seeing on TV these days with shows like Bates Motel (2013 – 2017) and #Riverdale (2017 – present). These shows are more than simple remakes, reboots, or re-imaginings, they are subversive re-contextualizations; and though they aren't perfect, they're rather brilliant.
Busting The 'Be Original' Argument
"There's nothing original anymore"; "Hollywood is out of ideas"; we've all heard some form of this "be original" argument many times. At first it seems fair, but upon further analysis, it's easily busted. The fact is, storytelling is the most structured form of creativity. There are rules, time old traditions, and things that we trust, respect, and expect. Playing with those rules can be very rewarding, but even the most experimental narrative is in dialogue with those very rules. Whether we are following them, or breaking them, the rules are always a key element to storytelling. The originality is all in what we do with them. Remakes tend to take the most heat in this department, accused of relying too heavily on source material, which can be absolutely true. For example, the 1998 nearly shot-for-shot remake of Psycho is an unnecessary drag.
But there can be a lot of merit in doing something new with something old. And, in many ways, revamping an old text can be very meaningful work. For instance, it can be the most pointed way to indicate the problems within our beloved oldies. Let's take a look.
Cringeworthy Elements Of The Archie Comics And Psycho
I grew up reading Archie comics; I collected them, even. And yet, when I leaf through the brittle and crinkled pages of my old collection, I can't figure out what was so attractive about them. What I see now is a mess of overt sexism and problematic images of women. The leading ladies, Betty and Veronica (and sometimes Cheryl) are more plot devices than characters. Pawns in something that toggles between a love-triangle and an unhappy threesome, the female characters are defined and motivated only by their desire for Archie. Sure, Betty is smart and kind-hearted and Veronica is strong-willed and driven, but too often these characteristics are used to pit the girls against one another rather than as ways to give them their own well-rounded identities.
This stereotypical woman against woman plot-line is where much of the comedy and drama is derived from. The girl next door vs. the vixen; the blonde vs. the brunette; the sweet vs. the sexy. It's all incredibly two-dimensional, and does not shed a favorable light on the female image. The female characters exist only in relation to the male protagonist, and he's reveled in every moment of it since its inception in 1939. Though I haven't read any newer Archies, I can't imagine such stories being popular with modern audiences.
Meanwhile, 1960 brought us the time-honored classic Psycho. The film is considered the grandparent of the modern slasher, sometimes aptly referred to as the "kill-the-pretty-girl pictures." The cinematic significance of Psycho need not be debated; it is suspenseful, thrilling, shocking, and beautifully shot. It opened the doors for a new genre, and a new breed of films that would be darker than ever before. The problem? Female victimization and the general condemnation of female sexuality — and both, it's worth noting, are tropes that persist in the slasher genre today.
Traditionally, there are two types of women in horror: those who die (the "whores"), and those who survive (the "virgins"). Though this gets played with now and again, its influence runs deep. In Psycho, Marion is doomed because she is having an affair outside of wedlock, which drives her to commit the crime of theft. Though she becomes repentant, it's too late. Despite my complicated love for this piece of cinema history (because, hey, it's a classic!), I don't need anymore kill-the-pretty-girl pictures in modern pop culture.
What Riverdale And Bates Motel Bring To The Table
So, why look back? Because we can't help it. The human experience is enriched by nostalgia and this permeates pop culture. Intertextuality provides a uniquely interactive viewing experience, and gives the viewer a sense of connectivity; a sense of being part of something bigger. We crave it, but if we aren't looking back with a critical eye, we're missing the big picture. The creators of Riverdale and #Bate Motel are acutely aware of this.
Although Riverdale made a point to reference the classic Archie-Betty-Veronica triangle (with a dash of Cheryl) early on, it just as quickly made a point to move passed it. The show has given the female characters presence and agency in their own lives. The murder-mystery-and-small-town-secrets angle isn't a simple plot device (though these elements absolutely drive the plot), it is also a way to facilitate plot-lines and character development for the girls that are outside of their affections for Archie. No longer do Betty and Veronica exist only to affirm Archie's manhood, they are their very own people.
On Bates Motel, we are given insight into Norman's fragile psychological state. Though this could have easily slipped into the territory of justifying his hate for women and his contempt for female sexuality, it manages to avoid this by portraying a variety of interesting female characters.
Some are less well-rounded than others, but it is the assertion that the female experience is complex that is significant. Female victimization is prevalent in the show, but it never feels like a plot device used for shock value, nor does it feel glorified for the gore-factor. Perhaps most importantly, Mother is not the simple source of his anger and psychosis. Instead, there are a million reasons why Norman is unstable. No longer is Norma a cardboard, imaginary figure who only exists as Norman perceives her, and that alone calls into question the entire foundation of the original classic.
In introducing strong and diverse female identities into the Archie and Psycho universes, Riverdale and Bates Motel have been able to create subversive pieces of work that shed light on pop culture's unpleasant history with images of gender and sexuality. This has further opened us up to the possibility of speaking candidly about some of the missteps our classics have taken, forcing us to be more critical in our approach to them. It doesn't mean we have to shame and burn the originals (well, at least not Psycho), but it does call upon us to acknowledge that we might be whistling passed some stuff that we wish we weren't. Remaking everything is not the answer, but if it can be done thoughtfully, it may be worth the risk. A remake can never taint the original, but in some rare cases, it can strengthen the dialogue.
Which reboots or re-imaginings do you think improved on the original?