That there are two programs premiering Thursday with nearly the same title — “Archie” on Britbox and “The Archies” on Netflix — but apparently nothing else in common, would not be enough reason for most writers to review them in the same column. But I am not most writers. (Hold your comments, please.) And as it turns out, they do have something in common, each being concerned with transforming preexisting material into something new and hopefully wonderful. The former is an occasionally great, four-part biopic of the man we called Cary Grant; the latter, a joyous Bollywoodification of beloved American comic book characters that would be on my year-end list if that weren’t already in the can.
The Archie in “Archie” is Archie Leach, who would trade that name for Cary Grant — not meaningful itself, in a time when hardly any Hollywood actors went by their given name. But the implication of the title is that we’re going to meet the person behind the persona, which on some level is the promise of every biopic.
Given that, who plays the star for the bulk of the series, is 60, just a couple of years younger than Grant was when he retired from pictures, we are largely in the twilight of his career and life. “Archie” won’t tell you much about Grant as an actor — other than suggesting that his profession was somehow the result of a traumatic childhood for which he compensated by becoming other people, the person known as “Cary Grant” among them — or even as a presence. But that’s probably for the best; whenever the series attempts to portray the glory that was Hollywood, recreate a specific production or cycle in some celebrity look-alikes, it sputters and dies.
Like any such series, “Archie” is a story based on an idea of a person, and when it succeeds it’s not so much because it’s revealed something essential about Grant, about whom volumes upon volumes have been written, as that creator Jeff Pope (“Stan & Ollie”) has written scenes with their own dramatic integrity that allow actors to do good work. Because they’re entirely theoretical, and represent no living parties, it’s Isaacs’ scenes with Peter Ellis, as the older Elias Leach, the father who abandoned him, and especially Harriet Walter as Elsie Leach, the mother his father committed to an asylum, that, ironically, ring most true. (Grant learned of this late in life, and got her out.) Isaacs is marvelous — from midlife to old age, he wears Grant’s skin lightly, the way Grant wore a bespoke suit.
That “Archie” is “partly” based on “Dear Cary: My Life with Cary Grant,” a 2012 memoir by the actor’s fourth wife (of five), Dyan Cannon, is clear from the amount of screen time devoted to their relationship, and though Laura Aikman is excellent as Cannon (and is an executive producer along with daughter Jennifer Grant), the on-and-off, back-and-forth, pleasure-and-mostly-pain of their life together goes on at vexing length; perhaps that’s an accurate reflection of what living with Grant felt like, but it’s a story we’ve seen many times before — husband turns moody and controlling, wife must fight for her independence — and might have been told more succinctly, even if it’s drawn from life. Still, this is where Grant becomes a father, a turning point in his life, and there is some sense in showing the bumpy road to getting there.
It may be less clear in the era of overexposure, but all stars are mysterious, being merely people; we judge them based on scraps of knowledge, remote impressions filtered through performances, and libraries of books purporting to tell us the truth about this or that person, when most of us are enigmas even to ourselves. You may not know Cary Grant any better after “Archie,” but that was never even possible.
“The Archies” has relatively little to do with the band Archie Andrews led in the comics, in cartoons and on the radio — “Sugar, Sugar” being a chart-topping hit in the U.S. and the U.K. — but it is full of singing, and also of dancing, which is something new to the canon. It’s set in the early 1960s in an idyllic Anglo-Indian community — founded by people of mixed British and Indian parentage, a distinct ethnic/cultural minority — which might help explain why the town is called Riverdale and the characters have names like Betty (Khushi Kapoor), who in this telling is named for Queen Elizabeth, and Veronica (Suhana Khan).
Though Riverdale may have British roots, the predominant foreign influence here is American, taken from the comics, which were popular in India. The first big dance number is set to Sam the Sham and the Pharaoh‘s “Wooly Bully”; there is a song about Sinatra. And it’s all burgers and shakes at Pop’ Chock’lit Shoppe.
When Hollywood “humanizes” comic book characters, it’s usually by adding darkness or irony or sex to the mix, as in the CW’s “Archie” soap “Riverdale.” But “The Archies” humanizes them by giving them humanity. Where comic-book Reggie (Vedang Raina) is vain and sarcastic and in constant competition with Archie (Agastya Nanda), here the two are best friends, and Reggie is sensitive to things his friends are not; Jughead (Mihir Ahuja), is, like the original model, comically obsessed with food, but in some ways also the philosophical soul of the series; and Archie, who always was a dope where girls are concerned, will be forced to grow up a little by the two between whom he cannot choose. They call him “Archiekins” mockingly. Though the characters will fall in and out with one another, friendships matter more than rivalries, humility more than pride.
Though the tone is light and airy, the world candy colored and the sexual relations chaste, there are serious themes raised — the crushing of community values by the bulldozers of commerce, the importance of a free press. (One song has the refrain, “Everything is politics.”). At issue is a plan — you might guess that Veronica’s father, Hiram Lodge (Alyy Khan) has something to do with this — to build a hotel within the town’s beloved Green Park, where citizens for generations have planted a tree on their fifth birthday. The clock ticks. The endgame is pure Mickey and Judy.
And it’s briefly a Christmas show, with lights and trees and a Santa and such, if you want to schedule it as part of your dedicated holiday viewing. The year will bring you no better present.
Source: LA Times