Even before its pilot’s premiere at Comic-Con International in San Diego, the new CW series “Riverdale” has been raising eyebrows. The much-hyped show reimagines the colorful characters of Archie Comics, taking them out of their traditionally safe, all-American world and transporting them to a more film-noir setting, complete with scandals, sex, drugs and a murder investigation that will fuel its first season.
CBR sat down for a series of roundtable interviews with the cast and creator of “Riverdale” to learn how this unexpected take on “Archie” came about, what kind of changes we’ll see in Archie and the gang, how inclusive casting was a key part to the show’s pitch, and why “resistance is futile.”
“Riverdale”s Jughead and “Archie” die-hard Cole Sprouse understands why fans might feel thrown by the show’s grittier take on the traditionally wholesome property, and it’s from that stance that he explained why this take actually fits right in with the Archie mentality. “I used to get very angry and incendiary when people would mess with the properties I love a lot,” Sprouse stated. “One of the cool thing about the Archie universe is that there are so many universes. Like, there’s ‘Afterlife with Archie,’ the Punisher comes [to Riverdale], the Predator comes. There are so many universes that it removes a lot of that incendiary dialogue that takes place with most comic properties.”
Sprouse noted that the great thing about Archie and the gang is how well they can plug and play into various tones and story styles. “They are like a theater troupe,” he declared. “They’re just constantly being thrown into a bunch of different environments.”
On top of that, Sprouse was quick to point out, “one of the lead creative directors of the ‘Archie’ comic books is our executive producer [Roberto Aguirre-Sacasa], writing every episode. It’s not like we got some schmo off the street… This is the biggest fan of the comics, who is also responsible for ‘Afterlife.’ He’s the guy. To say this isn’t an Archie property would be silly, because he’s the one in charge of all the Archie properties anyhow. It can’t be divorced.”
Aguirre-Sacasa, the show’s creator and Chief Creative Officer of Archie Comics, explained what got him started on the path to this teen-noir twist of “Archie” that’s being compared to “Twin Peaks.” “It started from a life long love of the characters,” Aguirre-Sacasa began, wearing an ear-to-ear grin and a red varsity jacket with Archie’s happy-go-lucky face on its chest. “When I was a kid, the earliest stuff I remember reading was those Double Digests you could get at the supermarket. I remember vividly going to camp, and I was so upset. I didn’t want to go to sleepaway camp, and my mom stopped at the 7/11 — this was before comic book stores existed — my mom said, ‘We’ll go buy a Slurpee and some comic books.’ And I said, ‘Okay. Okay, I can face this now.’ So I’ve always loved and read the characters.
“A lot of people ask me, ‘Why do you love Archie so much?’ For me it was aspirational, wish-fulfillment,” Aguirre-Sacasa continued. “I really wanted to be friends with Archie and his friends. I really wanted to go to Riverdale High. I thought, ‘That’s a place where everyone is kind of nice. And they’re always having a good time. And they always go to the Choklit Shoppe after school, or they go to the movie theater and drive-in and stuff.’ So I think that’s where it started.”
The comic book writer-turned-TV producer recounted how he made the leap from Marvel to Archie to “Riverdale,” telling us, “I spent maybe ten years writing Marvel comics, but I always wanted to write an Archie comic. So I stalked the CEO and publisher at Comic Con New York maybe four or five years ago. And I said, ‘I need to write an Archie comic, or I’m never going to be satisfied.’ It’s like a major bucket list thing. And then we started working from there. And then I’d done a bunch of TV stuff. I’ve worked on ‘Glee’ for three years, ‘Big Love’ for three years. And he said, ‘Would you ever be interested in doing a live-action Archie?’ And I said, ‘Yeah, that would be a dream come true.’ So we started trying to make that happen. It’s been a long journey. I think we’ve been working on this for three or four years. So it’s nice to finally be at Comic-Con, having people be able to see the pilot.”
Aside from the noir spin and heavy drama “Riverdale” offers, the show has also been earning buzz for its inclusive casting, with a lineup that features a Black Josie, a Hispanic Veronica and Asian actors Ross Butler and Daniel Yang in the traditionally white roles of Reggie Mantle and Dilton Doiley. Aguirre-Sacasa told us that as the son of Nicaraguan parents, representation is important to him, as it is to his producing partner Greg Berlanti.
“There was not a question with either of us — of anyone on the show including the “Archie” folks — was if we’re going to do a show in the real world, it has to reflect the real world. And the real world is not 100% white,” Aguirre-Sacasa explained. “So that was a big priority. We have Camila [Mendes], who is a beautiful, and fiery and Latina, and amazing [playing Veronica Lodge]. And we have Josie and the Pussycats, which is an all-African American female girl-band [played by Ashleigh Murray, Asha Bromfield and Irie Hayleau]. You know some people say they are like Destiny’s Child. I say they’re like the Dream Girls. K.J. [Apa, who plays Archie] is from New Zealand and is half-Samoan. It’s just how the world is. And Kevin [Keller, Archie’s first openly gay character] for instance is also a big, big character in the comic books, and he was always going to be a big part of the pilot to do an inclusive world.”
We asked about how the cast came together, whether it was the result of open casting across the board, or were there characters Aguirre-Sacasa wanted cast a certain way? “It’s a really good question. At a certain point, we were open to any kind of diversity. I will say that in my first meeting with Greg, when I first pitched him a show on ‘Archie,’ I did say, ‘and imagine Josie and the Pussycats as Destiny’s Child.’ So that was an early on idea. But for Veronica, open diversity, anyone could audition. And everyone did. And Camila fought hard to win that part, and she did, and she’s wonderful in it.”
Talking with Ashleigh Murray about playing headstrong rocker Josie McCoy, we inquired if playing a race-bent character has her worrying about fan backlash. “You know, for a hot second I did, for like two minutes right before the network test,” The cheerful actor admitted. “I understand that because I’m a huge nerd. I’m a huge ‘Dragonball Z’ fan, so when they were trying to make a live-action movie [with white actors], I was like, ‘No!’ So, I understand that sentiment. But I think what’s really important is that I’m not trying to erase the original Josie. I grew up loving her, and what’s really great about the Archie comics as a whole is that, everybody is relatable. I didn’t have to look like Jughead to have him be my favorite character. I didn’t have to look like Archie or Betty or Veronica to understand the situations they were going through. So I feel like, if people can go into it with an open mind and just be like, ‘Oh, this is just a girl that happened to be born with the name Josie and wanted to be a rockstar, and came up with this band, the Pussycats. Let’s see what she’s got.’ I’m not trying to undo or erase anything that’s already happened.”
For the series’ Fred Andrews, Luke Perry [of “Beverly Hills 90210” fame], the risks Aguirre-Sacasa took in tone, stakes and casting are a huge part of what makes “Riverdale” so rewarding. “The best stuff happens when you take a chance,” he told us with a slanted smile. “When you risk something. When you do the thing that you don’t know [how it’ll turn out.] To do that on a network kind of level? It’s great. And they will be rewarded. You know, risk, reward. You take a risk, and you do it right, you’ll get rewarded. I’m fortunate to be a part of it.”
Remembering how Archie comics always came his way as a kid, Perry touched on a profound truth of the property, saying, “You cannot escape Archie. Don’t try. The ubiquitous Archie!”
So just give yourself over to Archie? “Please do,” Perry entreated coolly. “Resistance is futile. Just give over to Archie.”
“Riverdale” comes to the CW in January 2017.