The CW is looking to reinvent the teen drama with a cast of familiar characters: Archie and his pals Betty, Veronica and Jughead.
Archie Comics chief creative officer and showrunner Roberto Aguirre-Sacasa has been inspired by the tone of John Hughes and executive producer Greg Berlanti's Dawson's Creek. With Riverdale, he aims to tell a relatable story that appeals to teenagers, as well as their parents.
The series is set in the present day and has been described as a subversive take on Archie (K.J. Apa), Betty (Lili Reinhart, Surviving Jack), Veronica (Camila Mendes), Jughead Jones (Cole Sprouse, The Suite Life of Zack and Cody), Josie (Ashleigh Murray) and their friends. Like Dawson's and Twin Peaks, the show explores the surrealism of small-town life — including the darkness bubbling beneath Riverdale's wholesome facade.
To the latter point, the show includes a murder mystery (the death of jock Jason Blossom) that Aguirre-Sacasa says will be resolved at the end of its freshman season. In success, additional seasons will feature either a new mystery or fallout from the death of Blossom.
For Berlanti, Riverdale arrives as the prolific producer has turned DC Comics drama Arrow into a franchise that has spun off series including The Flash, Legends of Tomorrow and, to some extent, Supergirl. To hear Berlanti and his head of production, Sarah Schechter, tell it, the hopes are the same for Riverdale, which also features Archie Comics' well-known group Josie and the Pussycats. (Also expect a soundtrack of originals from the Pussycats and even aspiring musician Archie, as well as potential music downloads.)
The Hollywood Reporter sat down with Aguirre-Sacasa, Berlanti and Schechter for a wide-ranging interview about Riverdale's franchise aspirations, changes after the drama moved from Fox to younger-skewing The CW and how its retro cast (including Luke Perry, Skeet Ulrich, Molly Ringwald and Robin Givens) will help focus on adult stories that other teen shows often avoided.
Ahead of the premiere, there's already a lot of talk about launching a franchise with Riverdale. In success, are you looking at this as a launchpad for other spinoffs? Josie and the Pussycats already seem primed for that.
Berlanti: In success, you obviously hope its successful enough where you get to have this conversation, so I’d say if you asked us again after seven or eight episodes have aired, we’d have a better [sense] because we’ll be finished with the season.
Aguirre-Sacasa: One of the nice things about me being a part of Archie Comics is having access to a library of 4,000-5,000 characters. Sabrina the Teenage Witch, Josie and the Pussycats … those are characters who can very easily support their own show. But we [also] have superheroes. So in success, yes, the goal is to expand that way. But the biggest priority is to launch the show and to have it be successful and allow us to tell all the stories we want to tell with these castmembers.
A Josie spinoff already feels like it could be a high-school-set Empire.
Aguirre-Sacasa: I agree. I love the music. Episode six focuses on the music, both on Archie’s big debut, and it’s a great number from the Pussycats. You really see how the show is like nothing else on TV. There’s a really deep mystery story, and then you’re intercutting that with a performance that’s incredibly amazing, and it’s great. Josie and the Pussycats would be like a high school Empire. For now, though, we’re holding onto Josie and the Pussycats as much as we can in Riverdale.
Speaking of the music, are you talking about a second revenue stream from music downloads on iTunes?
Aguirre-Sacasa: Yes. Whenever we do a song, usually in the first couple of episodes, we’ll sing 30 seconds of a song, and we’ll see that. [Then] we always do a full produced version of the song. The goal is, by the end of season one, we’re going to have a really good album where one side is all Archie songs, and one side is all Pussycat songs.
What about iTunes downloads?
Berlanti: That’s a great question. We’ve been so into making the show that we haven’t done the follow-up. They usually tell us, but we should check in on that.
Aguirre-Sacasa: I think so because we do full four-minute versions of every song.
Let's go back to the beginning. Riverdale originally was developed for Fox. What are the biggest differences?
Aguirre-Sacasa: Everything deepened. It gave us an extra six months to vet the script and make sure the relationships were as deep and as complicated as we wanted them to be. Archie and his father, Fred’s (Perry), relationship deepened a lot. Thom Sherman, who heads development at The CW, challenged us to make that a real relationship, and it’s become one of the big touchstones.
Schechter: It’s like we built the car frame at Fox, but all the finishing touches and the paint and the thing that makes you actually want to buy the car came at CW.
What was it about the world of Archie Comics that made it attractive for TV?
Berlanti: I didn’t read Archie as closely as Roberto, but you always knew about the characters, and you fell in love with them more over the long term. There was something great about how they continued to persist as so much of the comic book world was radically shifting and changing. Archie has its own kind of distinct personality as a comic book. Roberto [envisions a] mixture of tones from comedic to sardonic to horror and has a love of almost all genres. That’s in the show. That is one of the things that makes the show unique.
Schechter: It wasn't like, "We have to do Archie Comics"; it was, "We have to do Roberto’s Archie," and that’s really the difference. You think you were a fan of Archie — and then you talk to Roberto, and you realize, "I did like it, but I didn’t know you could love it that much." He is like the encyclopedia of Archie Comics. That is always what Greg says — make sure there’s no one else who could tell this story — and there’s no one that can do musicals, horror and teen [drama]; it’s all there.
What are the limits of what you can and can't do with intellectual property as beloved as Archie Comics?
Aguirre-Sacasa: Archie still is a mom-and-pop comic book shop, and the pop is [Archie Comics publisher and CEO] John Goldwater. We talk seven times a day. We don’t talk about every tiny story we’re doing on the show, but we do touch base about any kind of bigger mythology-shifting element, but John is up for it. It took a little bit of a journey for me to realize that I can push it a little more and go a little bit deeper. It's a constant dialogue, but we don’t have a board that we have to go through. It's one phone call with John, and then we’re doing it.
So there are no layers you need to go through, like Flash and company have to with DC Comics?
Aguirre-Sacasa: Exactly. The publishing side is very quickly shifting to align with the more modern, grown-up emotional sensibilities of the show. They’re definitely not gag jokes anymore, though I do love those.
So, for example, is Archie allowed to kill someone, given the show's murder-mystery storyline?
Aguirre-Sacasa: The show, on some levels, is a subversion of Archie and exists for the innocent wholesome aspect to come up against the more complex, darker and more grown-up thing. We do push boundaries, but we handle with care. No one loves these characters more than I do. And no one is more protective of these characters than I will be. So everything we do that feels a little taboo-breaking, we vet and make sure that it is emotional, that it’s real and that we embrace the consequences of whatever action is happening.
Let's talk about the love triangle in the comics and how it compares to the show. How far will you push the Betty, Archie and Veronica triangle?
Aguirre-Sacasa: That question comes up all the time. I say, "Never say never," but Archie’s got his hands full just dating one girl.
There's a very clear Dawson's Creek vibe in the pilot, and there are elements of Cruel Intentions and even Twin Peaks. What kind of influences did you have in setting the tone for Riverdale?
Aguirre-Sacasa: It’s all of those things. I love all of the pop culture stuff. To me, Archie is pop culture; he’s a creation of pop culture, the way comic books are pop culture and the way he’s kind of Americana. It’s all wrapped up like that. A touchstone for me was growing up with the John Hughes movies [like Breakfast Club, Pretty in Pink and Sixteen Candles], and I really loved Perks of Being a Wallflower. It’s wonderful and dark in its own way. One of my favorite coming-of-age movies is Stand by Me, but at the end of that, they’re grown-ups, or they’re on the way toward that. I saw that at a very young age, and that imprinted on me, as did River’s Edge, Sixteen Candles and Dawson’s Creek. This is putting in all of those elements and stirring it up and having a show that is dark, but also is fun and celebrates archetypes and tropes but also deconstructs them.
Schechter: Greg, having been a part of Dawson’s Creek, has been reminding everyone consistently of what Dawson’s got so right — which was the depth and truth of the emotion. That’s what makes it work for viewers now and at any age, and that’s hopefully what Riverdale will do. It’s not just for teenagers; it's for people at every age because being a teenager is one the few universal experiences we all have.
Berlanti: One of the things Dawson's and Riverdale have in common is that all of this stuff is still happening to kids. The emotional core is still very pure and true. Everything seems to be accelerated, in terms of kids wanting to grow up sooner and technology helping that along. They’re still teenagers: They still fall in love for the first time; they still get their heart broken; their parents still suck; and there’s all this stuff that still makes them kids. Those moments can be very surprising and provide for a lot of dramatic surprise.
Schechter: I don’t think it’s as similar to Gossip Girl as it seems in certain ways, but one of the things we took from that and tried to build upon is the adults. The parents are a key part of it, in a way that a lot of those shows fail to do or choose not to do. The most important relationship a teenager has is not their girlfriend, but their parents. The idea that we stop growing up once we become parents is a fallacy; everyone is always coming of age.
Speaking of parents, Beverly Hills, 90210 grad Luke Perry is coming back to the former WB network as Archie's dad, and you cast John Hughes regular Molly Ringwald as Archie's mother. That's some great casting.
Aguirre-Sacasa: We were excited about Luke. He came in, read it, and from the first line, it was like, "He’s Fred." He said, "I’ve got two kids, one’s 16, one’s 18. One’s going to college; one wants to be a pro wrestler." He was like, "I want to be supportive of his dream." He just understood it.
Schechter: He is Fred Andrews in so many ways. It’s also great to have him there for the Riverdale kids because he’s been through it, and I think it's going to keep them in line, in a way, because Luke went through it at a time when there wasn’t cable.
Aguirre-Sacasa: And of course Molly Ringwald is Archie’s mom; it makes perfect sense.
Schechter: I pushed for anyone who had ever played a teenager on film or television to come in.
Any other dream castings in mind?
Aguirre-Sacasa: One character we’ll introduce in season two will be Veronica’s father, and we have a great wish list for him. And we have Skeet Ulrich (Jericho) and Robin Givens (Head of the Class) in the cast, too. Givens is the mayor of the town and Josie’s mom. You’ll meet Josie’s father, and you really will see what that’s like. But that is the show's added strength. People think fondly of the Archie characters, but then also fondly remember Luke, Skeet and Molly Ringwald.
Let's talk about Jughead. Why make him the audience's entry point?
Aguirre-Sacasa: In the comics, he’s always comic relief, and his big connection is with Archie. He doesn’t really talk to the other gang; he doesn’t like Veronica and Betty; he’s a bit of an outsider. Another touchstone for me is Donnie Darko, and I thought, "That’s what Jughead is, he’s like Donnie Darko." He sees the workings of the universe that no one else sees around him, and because the show is a murder mystery, you always have a hard-boiled narrator. It felt like a great way to use Jughead. As the show progresses, he becomes more enmeshed into the characters' lives, though he is at a bit of a distance, and he always undercuts if there’s a sentimentalist. Jughead is there to remind us of that. We sent Cole Sprouse the script to read for Archie, and he came back and said, "No, I’m Jughead."
Schechter: He was the first to read for Jughead.
Structurally, will the show's murder mystery sustain itself throughout season one and beyond, or is that a close-ended story?
Aguirre-Sacasa: The Jason Blossom mystery is going to be wrapped up by the end of season one, but there will always be a crime-mystery aspect of the show. I love putting these characters into situations like that. There will always be some kind of crime or mystery to the show.
Schechter: Our viewers will go into summer being able to answer who killed Jason Blossom.
Since this show is set in high school, what grade are these guys in? It's unclear after the first four episodes.
Aguirre-Sacasa: We haven’t specified it, and since we are premiering midseason, we decided to not do a Halloween episode because Halloween will have already passed. So time is moving a bit fast and loose. They're sophomores, but God willing, if we have a season two, they’ll still be sophomores, and that’s when we’ll do the Halloween and the Christmas ones.
So it’s not necessarily like season one is sophomore year, season two is junior year and so on?
Aguirre-Sacasa: Not at all.
Riverdale premieres Jan. 26 on The CW.