The live-action history of Archie Comics is a spotty one. Sure, “Sabrina, the Teenage Witch” ran for seven seasons and the 2001 “Josie and the Pussycats” film has something of a cult following despite not hitting at the box office or with critics. But the most high-profile attempt at bringing the core Archie gang to live-action was the 1990 TV movie “Archie: To Riverdale and Back Again,” which presented sad-sack adult versions of the characters and is generally viewed as a curious flop.
Archie looks to change things with “Riverdale,” announced by the publisher earlier today. The in-development series is at Fox — home of the DC Comics-based Batman prequel “Gotham” — and produced by Greg Berlanti, on a genuine hot streak following the success of “Arrow” and “The Flash” at The CW, and also developing “Supergirl” for CBS. That’s already a lot going for it, plus Deadline reports that it’s received a “script deal plus penalty” from the network, which — while not a guarantee it’ll end up on air — certainly helps its chances.
The “Riverdale” pilot is written by Roberto Aguirre-Sacasa, a TV veteran, Archie’s first-ever Chief Creative Officer and, along with artist Francesco Francavilla, a creative mind behind “Afterlife with Archie” — which sees the typically-wholesome Riverdale crew in the throes of a full-fledged zombie apocalypse, and is one of the biggest critical hits in the company’s history. “Riverdale” looks to similarly break from Archie tradition, with the company’s press release putting an emphasis on the show’s “surrealistic twists” and “darkness and weirdness.” In an interview with CBR News, Aguirre-Sacasa put it simply as — in the tradition of unlikely crossovers “Archie Meets The Punisher” and the recently announced “Archie Meets Predator” — “Archie Meets David Lynch,” with a “Twin Peaks”-esque vibe brought to classic Archie characters and relationships.
CBR News: Roberto, you’ve been Archie’s Chief Creative Officer for a few months now — is this something you’ve been working on for most of that time?
Roberto Aguirre-Sacasa: It’s something that had its origins actually a couple years back, from when I first started working with Archie and [Archie Comics Publisher/Co-CEO] Jon Goldwater. The idea was always to try to get some live-action projects up and running, much the way that Marvel was doing it, and much the way that DC Comics was starting. In fact, the first time Jon and I met, it was to talk about possibly doing a movie of “Archie.” You may remember that a year ago, we announced that we were working on an Archie movie for Warner Bros. In fact, that is what has morphed into the “Riverdale” TV show. We sold “Archie” to Warner Bros., and then as we were developing the script and working with Warner Bros., who were great partners, we realized two things — that there were thousands of different stories to tell with these characters; and that rather than a big, superhero extravaganza like “The Avengers” or “Batman v Superman,” that really the bread and butter of the Archie characters was more intimate, and a little bit smaller scale. Coming of age, love triangle, that kind of stuff.
When one of the executives that we were working with at Warner Bros., the movie division, moved to start working with Greg Berlanti — who has a deal at Warner Bros. Television — we thought, actually, this might be a much, much, much, much better fit. But we didn’t want to talk about it until we could announce it. It’s been morphing, and we’ve been working on it for a year and a half. That’s kind of how this came about.
The timing is interesting, because in that year and a half, the presence of comic book-based live-action TV shows has exploded at a striking rate. Now “Riverdale” is part of that same moment — does that feel like fortuitous timing?
Absolutely. In that year, a lot of things have changed. Comic book TV shows have kind of exploded, and honestly, Archie’s media presence and Archie’s relevancy — which every year I think gets deeper and more profound — continued to happen. So both of those things started to create a perfect storm of, “Oh, people are starting to realize that comic books can make great TV shows, not just great movies,” and Archie — this thing that a lot of people felt was trapped in time — is in fact really relevant, and as contemporary and cutting edge as other stuff. The landscape in the last year has become much more conducive to a “Riverdale” TV show.
It’s nice to be able to point to a template like say, “Gotham,” which is on Fox — it’s about this community of characters, and it’s kind of the origin of this city, the same way that “Riverdale” is about this community of characters and this town, and telling the stories that make up a bigger story.
When discussing this movement of comic book-based TV shows, Greg Berlanti is at the center of so much of it — for you, what does it mean to have him on board as producer on “Riverdale”?
To me, it’s the perfect fit, because Greg obviously has become the comic book translator and guru of moving these properties into the TV arena. But also, he has small-town stories in his background, with “Everwood.” He’s done coming-of-age shows — he was one of the key writers on “Dawson’s Creek.” “Everwood” was also a coming-of-age show. And he loved the Archie characters. It felt like, in terms of the sweet spot of people who love comic books, people who love small-town stories, people who love teen coming-of-age stories, Greg was the perfect match. It’s been really, really great.
It’s early still, but I wanted to hear from you about the tone of it. It’s being described as a one-hour-drama, which will disarm all the people who know “Archie” primarily for comedy. Is it going to be perhaps somewhat of a dramedy, or do you see it as a fairly serious thing?
I love stories that are emotional and mysterious and profound, so that will definitely be part of the tone. But it’s definitely going to be fun, and it’s definitely going to have humor in it. Some of the characters are going to be very, very witty, and very sardonic and ironic. So that will always be a part of it. Something like “Afterlife” is obviously much more serious than comedic, but even in “Afterlife” there is some tongue-in-cheek humor, and I think that the tension that comes from Archie and people’s idea of how wholesome Archie is, and what’s happening in the storylines — which are a little more grown up, a little more scandalous and serious — will naturally create some humor to it. I think that will definitely be a part of it.
Something we talk a lot about is, “Imagine if Riverdale were like ‘Twin Peaks,'” and was a really weird small town. But “Twin Peaks” had some very funny black humor stuff to it; obviously it was very serious as well. So that kind of balance is what we’re going to try to strike with the show.
So the show is Riverdale as “Twin Peaks”?
“Riverdale” is “Archie Meets ‘Twin Peaks.'” You know how we’re doing “Archie Meets Predator”? This is “Archie Meets David Lynch.”
Speaking of “Afterlife,” one thing I’ve heard you say about that comic is despite how dark it gets, how violent or disturbing it can be, it still in many ways fulfills the dynamic of a classic Archie story, and the characters feel consistent. Are you looking to employ a similar approach with “Riverdale”?
Absolutely. Every episode, there will be multiple storylines — in the pilot there are three stories — that are, first and foremost, what I would call iconic, classic Archie stories. The same way that “Gotham” is the origin story of how Gotham became the city we know in the movies, and how Batman came into being, I in a way think of “Riverdale” as an origin story as well. Betty and Veronica are going to meet for the first time in the pilot. We know Archie and his friends as the most loving group of friends, everyone wants to be a part of this gang — but when we meet them, they are in fact very different types of kids, in completely different social circles. So one of the stories we’re telling is how all these kids, from very different backgrounds, with very different interests in different social circles, come together to become the most famous group of high school friends that the world has ever known. Which to me is the ultimate Archie story.
All those things that we take for granted in the comic books, and that have been around for 75 years, we’re going to learn the secret origins. We’re going to learn about why Jughead wears that crown. We’re going to learn why Archie started a band. We’re going to learn why he wrote a song called “Sugar, Sugar.” All those things are going to be told, obviously in a very contemporary, of-the-moment kind of way. But part of the fun of the show is figuring out how to make these things that have been around for so long work in a completely present-day situation.
You mentioned David Lynch, and the press release contains the words “darkness and weirdness” bubbling beneath Riverdale’s surface. So is that not something that should be taken lightly, and an important aspect of the show?
For sure. I love the idea — and I’ve talked a little bit about this in “Afterlife” — that over 75 years, there have been thousands and thousands of Archie stories told, but there’s always a secret story that’s happening in between the panels of these comic book stories. This show is going to explore that. The way we started in “Afterlife,” learning stuff about Mr. Lodge, the way we explore the weirdness of Cheryl and Jason Blossom — the Blossoms are going to be characters on our show as well. In issue #7 of “Afterlife,” which is coming out soon — it got a little bit delayed because Francesco got into a little bit of a fender bender, though he’s fine — we learn about Betty’s sister Polly, and we learn that this perfect family in Riverdale wasn’t quite as perfect as we thought. It’s about going a little bit deeper and revealing things that have been bubbling there in the subtext, and making it a little more textual.
You just said the Blossoms will be on the show, and the press release mentions Josie and the Pussycats — it seems like a big part of this is using a lot of different Archie characters, not just the main group. Is that something that’s a high priority for you, to encompass a wide range of characters in the cast?
The core is definitely the love triangle and the main five — Archie, Betty, Veronica, Jughead and Reggie. But the same way that “Afterlife” brought in the Blossoms, and brought in Nancy and Ginger Lopez; and the same way that “Afterlife” includes the grown-ups — Archie’s parents, Mr. Lodge and Smithers — the grown-ups on the show are going to be a huge, huge part of the world. That’s why it’s called “Riverdale,” as opposed to “Riverdale High,” because we’re going to explore that, and we’re actually going to learn there’s a love triangle amongst the parents as well, and that there’s a lot of history between Archie’s father, Veronica’s mother, and Betty’s mother. They all went to high school together, and they didn’t end up with the people they thought they were going to end up with, I’ll just say that.
Josie and the Pussycats are mentioned specifically in the press release — is the plan for them to play a fairly big role?
Absolutely. My first meeting with Greg Berlanti, one of the first things he asked was, “Can we use Josie and the Pussycats?” We’re going to use them to tell band stories. One of the biggest responses we’ve gotten to comic stories is Archie dating Valerie — I think it would be crazy to not do some version of that story on “Riverdale.” So they’ll be a big part of the show.
Fox is a network you’re familiar with after your time on “Glee.” How do you see Fox as a good match for “Riverdale”?
First of all, I love all the executives that work at Fox. When they heard that we were working on this, they were very excited about it, and have been tracking it for a while. Fox has a terrific history of doing teen shows. You mentioned “Glee,” which as been a big, big hit for them. They did “Beverly Hills, 90210” which was an iconic show for them. They did “The O.C.” They’re doing “Red Band Society” right now. This has always been an area of interest for them. They’re a big, bold kind of network, so I think the idea of doing one of these shows — with this brand and this recognition — is very exciting for them, the same way that it is to us.
Roberto, is there anything else folks show know at this point about “Riverdale”?
Nothing, except that we’re really, really excited — and that if, god willing, this works out the way we all want it to work out, every Halloween we’ll be doing an “Afterlife” episode of “Riverdale.”