Review: Riverdale (2017 television series) and a failed previous effort

The comic book characters Archie Andrews and his friends have been popular since the early 1940s, so most people reading this are likely familiar with Riverdale as home to the wholesome red-haired teenager Archie Andrews and his parents, classmates, and various other recurring characters, including his eccentric fellow student Jughead and his two main love interests, Betty and Veronica. There were a number of animated television series based on Archie from the late 1960s through 2000 as well as live-action and animated shows featuring related characters such as Josie and the Pussycats and Sabrina the Teenage Witch, and there were a few stabs at creating a live action Archie television series as well, but none of them actually made it onto a network schedule until early 2017, when the CW network introduced Riverdale.

The CW is a joint venture of CBS and Warner Bros (hence the CW) and a large part of its schedule consists of programs adapted from comics, mostly of the superhero sort.

Riverdale is different—different from the superhero series, different from the Archie comics (except some of the most recent ones, anyway), and different from most television series based on comics. For example, when the series begins Archie is having a hot affair with his beautiful high school music teacher. Jughead isn’t a goofy eccentric but a darkly earnest young writer. Rich girl Veronica lives with her mother because her father is in prison for financial crimes. Archie lives with his divorced father, who was played by former teen idol Luke Perry until his death in March of 2019 of a stroke at the age of 52.

Other recognizable actors include Robin Givens as Riverdale’s mayor and the mother of head Pussycat Josie and Mädchen Amick as Betty’s control-freak mother and editor of Riverdale’s newspaper.

Cheryl Blossom, a lesser recurring character from the comics, has a more major role on Riverdale.  She’s a sometimes mean and blatantly sexy rich girl who becomes more likable as the series progresses but whose self-absorption is so hilariously over-the-top that it amounts to a running gag. For just one minor example, when Cheryl is describing a late-night scare she doesn’t just say she was in bed at the time, she says was in her “canopy sleigh bed.” In another episode she barely manages to reach her archery gear in time to defend herself from a bad guy trying to kill her, but she still takes a moment to put on a fashionable hunting cape before shooting an arrow at her would-be assailant, sending him fleeing.

The first season revolves around a mysterious death with a number of parallel subplots, most of them melodramatic. The second begins with a serial killer threatening the town but branches off from that in multiple directions, and I gather the third and fourth seasons, which I haven’t made it to yet, may be even more extreme.

There are a lot of hints beyond the bizarre storylines themselves that the whole thing isn’t meant to be taken too seriously, at least by the audience. For example, there are several references to a prison named "Shankshaw." Also, while people use modern smart phones, there are landline phones everywhere, many of them with old-fashioned dials rather than pushbuttons.

In its general impression of eccentricity and unreality Riverdale reminds me (and a lot of other people, I gather) of Twin Peaks, the series created by David Lynch and Mark Frost, minus the supernatural elements but with Mädchen Amick. I’ve largely enjoyed Riverdale so far or its weirdness and its mostly likable protagonists, though I have mixed feelings about the fact that some of the characters become darker as the series progresses. But if you're not put off by the radical deviation from the wholesome Archie of years past, the show is reasonably watchable, if not exactly great art.

Here's a trailer for the first season:


Link: https://youtu.be/HxtLlByaYTc

And here's a collection of (mostly mediocre) outtakes:


Link: https://youtu.be/RNkNyijkkAA

Archie: To Riverdale and Back Again (1990 made-for-TV movie)

While Riverdale is the only live-action television series based on Archie comics ever to make it onto a network television schedule, there were previous efforts, including 1990 made-for-TV movie broadcast on NBC that served as a pilot for a proposed series featuring the usual Archie characters but 15 years older than in the comics.

The movie has them all back in Riverdale for a high school reunion. Archie himself is now a lawyer engaged to be married, Betty teaches second grade and dates a guy who doesn’t really care about her, and Veronica, richer than ever and four times divorced, lives in Paris helping run an arm of her father’s business empire. Predictably Betty and Veronica wind up resuming their pursuit of Archie despite knowing that he’s engaged.

When we first see Jughead he’s lying on a psychiatrist’s couch explaining that his ex-wife, who’s about to get remarried,  has just dumped their bratty son on him. He then apologizes for going on about his problems. It turns out he’s the psychiatrist and the guy he’s been talking to is his patient. The patient assures Jughead that that he benefits a lot from their sessions, because hearing about Jughead’s problems makes his own seem so minor by comparison. In the half-hour or so I sat through before giving up, this was the only attempt at comedy that I thought even slightly funny.

The cast included David Doyle (Bosley on Charlie’s Angels) as Mr Weatherbee, Matt McCoy (Lloyd Braun on Seinfeld) as Betty’s obnoxious boyfriend, Karen Kopins (Jim Carrey’s very cute non-vampire girlfriend in Once Bitten) as Veronica, and Lauren Holly (who also appeared opposite Jim Carrey in Dumb and Dumber and maintains to this day a very active career in guest star roles on television) as Betty.

As far as I can tell, the only place to see this is YouTube, where a few people have uploaded it from VHS copies, but I’m not recommending you take the time to look it up, but if you’re curious can find a short trailer below that gives the flavor of the thing.


Link: https://youtu.be/7Nz_B2B_QVg



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Review: Shazam (2019 movie)

The original Captain Marvel was the star of a comic published by Fawcett Comics starting in the 1940. The premise was clever: A wizard bestowed on a young boy the power to turn into a Superman-like superhero by exclaiming the magic word “Shazam,” which was also the wizard’s name. So every red-blooded boy reading Captain Marvel could imagine himself turning into a superhero.

For a while Captain Marvel was the top-selling superhero comic, even beating Superman, until DC sued the character of existence for his obvious similarities to Superman. Later Marvel comics appropriated the name Captain Marvel for an entirely different superhero, and later still DC, which ended up buying the assets of its former competitor Fawcett comics, tried reviving the original Captain Marvel only to have Marvel sue them for use of the name as a matter of trademark law, and since Fawcett had let the name lapse, Marvel’s appropriation was deemed legitimate and DC was not allowed to keep selling a comic under that name.

If I’m not mistaken, DC actually does have the right to call the character Captain Marvel on the inside pages, just not on the cover, so they started publishing the comic under the name Shazam, which led a lot of younger readers to suppose that it was the name of the superhero as well.

In the new movie the character has trouble deciding on a name and is never called Captain Marvel or Shazam that I recall. Then again, the protagonist of Marvel’s Captain Marvel movie isn’t called “Captain Marvel” either. In fact, my movie ticket called the movie Captain Marv. I’m still going to call the hero of Shazam! Captain Marvel for purposes of this review.

As in the original comic, this Captain Marvel’s powers are magically bestowed on a 14-year-old boy named Billy Batson by an ancient wizard who is looking for a champion but isn’t wearing his glasses. Exclaiming the wizard’s name lets Billy turn into an adult superhero with the characteristic strengths of Solomon, Hercules, Atlas, Zeus, Achilles, and Mercury if I remember right. (Anyway, one Jewish guy and five Greeks, with the first letters spelling “Shazam.”)

I confess I got my hopes up about this film based on the trailer until during the opening credits I realized that it’s was a DC movie, at which point I became apprehensive. But to my amazement, it’s actually good. I liked it even more than the Marvel Captain Marvel, though I admit that the star of the other film is better looking.

As I said, the original premise of the Captain Marvel character strikes me as clever, but as far as I know, until this film nobody took it to the logical conclusion of letting Captain Marvel retain Billy Batson’s 14-year-old mind and personality in the body of an adult superhero. One might object that this is inconsistent with magic word’s supposedly bestowing upon him the wisdom of Solomon, but let me remind you that Solomon reportedly had 700 wives and 300 porcupines, and who but a 14-year-old boy would think that was a good idea?

Anyway,  as soon as he gets his mind around the fact that he can turn himself into a grown man with superpowers, Billy sets about doing what a 14-year-old boy would do with that ability: buy beer and junk food, figure out ways to get money to buy more fun stuff, and hit on girls in their late teens and early 20s. He even manages to succeed at the first two. When the bad guy asks him how old he is, Billy lies and says he’s “basically fifteen.”

His immaturity is initially his biggest problem, but then he encounter a bigger one, the evil supervillain Dr Sivana, who unlike the mad scientist character in the comics has powers very close to Captain Marvel’s own, as a consequence of being inhabited by the Seven Deadly Sins.

Said Sins had been imprisoned by the wizard Shazam until Dr Sivana came along and freed them, but aside from giving Dr Sivana superpowers, it’s hard to see what practical difference it makes whether the Sins are locked up or not. Even while they were still captive there wasn’t a noticeable lack of sinning anywhere, nor did their incarceration prevent their combined physical manifestation from becoming president of the United States.

Incidentally, some have pointed out that putting a boy’s personality into an adult body has been done before, with the most commonly cited example being the movie Big, starring Tom Hanks. The makers of this movie saw that observation coming, and they inserted a nice reference to Big in the film.

But of course variations on the idea have appeared before, often in the form of an adult and a child swapping bodies. And given the basic idea that Billy Batson turns into Captain Marvel, having him still be Billy Batson on the inside is just carrying the basic premise to its logical conclusion.

Shazam! has a pretty satisfying climax one in keeping with the spirit of the original Captain Marvel comic. I really enjoyed it.

Link: https://youtu.be/go6GEIrcvFY

By the way, a friend of mine reminded me that back in its early days, when it was still a comic book, Mad Magazine published a spoof by Harvey Kurtzman and Wally Wood poking fun at Superman, Captain Marvel, and in passing the DC-Fawcett lawsuit. In Mad's version, Captain Marbles' magic word is Shazoom!, standing for Strength -- Health -- Aptitude -- Zeal -- Ox, Power Of -- Ox, Power Of Another -- Money. If you do an image search in Google for "Superduperman" you can find it on line. The parody proved so popular that it gave Mad a major sales boost.



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No, Social Security isn't going to run out of money

At the start of last week the latest report from the Social Security Trustees (link) was released, leading to predictable but misleading warnings that the system was going to "run dry." For example, the headline on this article from the website of Boston's WBUR public radio declares: "Unless Congress Acts, Social Security Will Run Out Of Money By 2035, Government Report Says."

The first sentence under the headline seemingly confirms it: "According to an annual report from the government this week, Social Security will run out of money by 2035." But then the second sentence reads, "It's a worrisome reminder for soon-to-be retirees, who, unless Congress acts, will receive just three-quarters of their scheduled benefits."

Most people are likely to find this confusing, and they're right. Here's the straight story:

Social Security is a pay-as-you-go system. That is, the benefits paid out this year are paid for mainly by Social Security taxes coming in this year. This is how the system is supposed to work, how it has always worked, and how it was originally advertised as working. Many people mistakenly think it's a sort of enforced saving program, but if it had been set up that way it would have been decades before anybody received any significant benefits.

Of course, it's highly unlikely that the taxes collected would happen to exactly match the benefits being paid out, so the Social Security retirement system has a trust fund that operates like a reservoir in a water system. taxes flow into the trust fund and are paid out from the trust fund, and if the taxes coming in exceed the benefits being paid out, the trust fund grows to build of a reserve to cover a future shortfall.

When people talk about Social Security "running out of money," what they actually mean is that the reserve is projected to be depleted in about 2035 (give or take), at which point benefits would have to be cut to just the amount Social Security taxes would be able to cover with the taxes coming in, which the same report estimates would be about 77 percent of scheduled benefits.

This might sound a little worse than it is, in that future average benefits are supposed to be higher than benefits being paid out today, even after adjusting for inflation. That's because Social Security benefits are based on wages, and over time wages tend to grow at least a little faster than inflation. For the same reason, today's average benefits are likewise larger than they were in the past. So 77% of future average benefits will be more than 77% of current average benefits and more than 100% of average benefits being paid out at some point in the past. (No, I haven't looked up exactly when that was.)

Now, this doesn't mean that the reduction is nothing to be concerned about. Quite the contrary. If this scenario is allowed to play out, then people drawing Social Security would take a sudden big hit to their spending power, and that would hurt not just them but the businesses that depend on them and ultimately the whole economy. So definitely Congress ought to do something. I'm just pointing that even if they don't (which, alas, lately seems a safe bet), it's not like Social Security would literally run dry.

(Incidentally, there are actually two trust funds, one for retirement benefits and the other for disability benefits. The latter fund is in better shape, mainly because of a decline in disability claims.)

There are various ways of fixing the system so benefits don't suddenly drive off a cliff. Benefit growth could be reduced or tax collections increased (for example by doing away with the current cap on what high-income people pay in Social Security taxes) or some combination of the two.

You might not have heard about it yet, but there is a concrete proposal on the table right now to address the problems far into the future and in a number of ways improve the system. It's proposed by Representative John Larson (D-Connecticut) and colleagues in the House of Representatives. There's a clear summary here with a link to the actual text of the bill if you want all the details.

Confusion about Social Security is nothing new, of course. Here, for example, is a more or less similar post I wrote back in 2012. A lot of myths turn out to arise from misconceptions about the meaning of life expectancy, leading for example to confused pronouncements on the topic from former Texas governor, former presidential candidate, and U.S. Energy Secretary Rick Perry (see this post) and from former Senator Alan Simpson (see this one). Senator Simpson in particular ought to have known better, since he had just co-chaired the National Debt Commission with Erskine Bowles.

Possibly the best succinct explanation of life expectancy was a four-minute video from Hank Green I previously highlighted in a 2017 post here.



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How pharmaceutical companies take advantage of people with diabetes

When Banting and colleagues discovered insulin and saved countless lives they refused to profit from it. Their successors are making millions from Americans. The price used to be low, and it's still low elsewhere, but pharmaceutical companies have jacked up prices by an incredible amount in recent years, as has happened with a lot of other things lately. For patients it's literally a case of your money or your life.

Link: https://youtu.be/lx08ldVSvd4

Link: https://youtu.be/7Ycd8zEdoVk

For a very brief history of how insulin was discovered (and a sea shanty about it), see this earlier post. It was mainly the work of four people, two of whom were awarded the Nobel Prize and who then shared the award with the other two.



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The recently arrested compete for most nuts

It took me a while to figure out it was Michael Keaton:

Link:https://youtu.be/dvLfK0iOyD4

By the way, I've been griping that the news media haven't answered the most important question about Julian Assange's arrest, namely, what happened to his cat? The Washington Post is ahead of everyone else on this it turns out, with an article headlined (and I'm not making this up):

The mystery of Julian Assange’s cat: Where will it go? What does it know?



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Don Cheadle recalls trying not to be recognized in London with several other members of the Avengers cast

On Late Night with Seth Meyers (back in February), Don Cheadle recalls the night he, Robert Downey Jr, Chris Hemsworth, Chris Evans, et al decided to walk a few blocks in packed London streets despite an expectation of being mobbed. It didn't quite work out as they expected. As a bonus, Cheadle recalls how he came to meet Secretary of State Condoleeza Rice during the George W Bush administration.

Link: https://youtu.be/_yoE3K5OG3E



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