As the executive producer who helped build the DC Universe into a burgeoning network-wide superhero franchise with four series across The CW, Greg Berlanti occupies a rarefied space in the comics-to-television world.
Now he’s turning his attention to a non-super-powered but similarly beloved and long-lived comics property, adapting the characters of the 75-years-strong Archie line of comics into “Riverdale.” The moodier and more mysterious context most aptly summed up as “Dawson’s Creek” meets “Twin Peaks,” arrives in the spring.
Berlanti appeared at The CW’s press day for the Television Critics Association over the weekend, and after the “Riverdale” panel he joined a small assembly of reporters to share his thoughts on a wide-ranging set of topics, from contemporizing the classic Archie canon to the early season success stories of the DC shows to a peek at even more plans still in motion.
On discovering how malleable the Archie source material ultimately turned out to be:
Greg Berlanti: It was definitely a discovery… My pitch to Roberto [Aguire-Sacasa, Archie Comics's Chief Creative Officer and the TV series’ creator and showrunner] was we have to find a form where in this can work as a TV show, number one. Number two: can what’s beloved about Archie and intrinsic about Archie, and the sort of Americana-esque, and the period kind of element of it, can that translate to today’s audience? And that’s the challenge we have to at least be aware of.
Then three, I’d say to Roberto it has to be as much of your personality as possible because you’re a show creator, and you’re creating this thing, and there’s so many elements of things you love. You love horror, you love comedy, you love irreverent stuff. It has to be as evocative of you and your personality as "Afterlife with Archie" really was. too. That’s part of what will make it special.”
That’s how we started out. Then, as we moved along, he wrote a script that was terrific and had that magic thing. I’m not sure I knew until I read his draft of the pilot script that we developed for Fox that it was a real TV show.
On the many tips of the hat to classic Archie mythos with contemporary spins, including the song “Sugar, Sugar” (now sung by Josie and the Pussycats):
There are so many fun things. I said this when we were all talking: one of the central questions going in was, can we take all those things that are intrinsic to “Archie” and make them for today’s audience, and how do we make a show that does both? I think we answer that question, and we try and answer it as the show goes on. We try different things, and you go, okay, that maybe feels a little more the show, and this feels a little more “Archie.” You kind of evolve it as you move along.
The musical element, as an example, was one of the things that’s been, I think, really successful for the show. I’m starting now just Episode 9. I feel like I really have a sense of what makes a great “Archie” episode, which I’m not sure we knew in the beginning.
On dealing sensitively with the new, edgier elements of the series, including Archie’s involvement with an older woman:
I think all the topics that we’ll deal with on this kind of show – and you know this from the other kinds of shows like this that we do – when the character’s making mistakes, or big things happening, or crazy things are happening, or troubles are happening, you need the characters to screw up so that you can drive different kinds of stories through it.
We’re obviously very self-aware. Roberto loves these characters, and I don’t think anyone’s salacious to be salacious. That is not our goal. That being said, the show wants to deal in the tropes of these kinds of [youth-centered] shows and comment on those kind of things, and have that be a part of it.
I’m sure that won’t be the first time we have a subject matter that makes people [concerned]. But I can say, in terms of our heart being in the right place, we don’t start from that place of like, “This is going to get us some people to watch. We love these characters, and you don’t want to assassinate them either.”
On his current vision when it comes to potentially expanding the “Archie-verse” across The CW:
Just launch this show, I think – launch this show! Every show, everybody works so hard, and I feel like this cast is so special. If we’re fortunate enough that it works, then you look at it. But I think step one is you’ve got to make the thing that is in front of you great, as good as it can be.
On adding layers of considerable diversity to the familiar Archie cast of characters:
I think personally it’s probably important to me because I loved comics as a kid, and there weren’t a lot of gay characters floating around them. I wish that there had been, that some piece of me had been more represented.
That being said, I think we’ve had more luck and good fortune broadening the worlds in the last couple of years, and I’m really appreciative that everyone at the studios, and the executives, and the audience seems to be welcoming it all so warmly. It’s just the world we live in now.
If you just look around this room, or a coffee shop, or any place, you want the world to feel like those worlds. And it makes for better storytelling. Different people bring different life experiences, and then you can tell different stories.
On the overwhelming positive response to the “Supergirl” storyline addressing Alex’s long-closeted sexuality:
Those were very effective, emotionally rewarding for us. We’re definitely aware internally. The actresses, we emailed with them about it. The people at the studio and the network, we kind of emailed around about it. It’s a very rewarded part.
When we set off to do that, we didn’t know for sure how people would respond. It was something that we had always wanted to deal with with Alex’s character. We actually talked a little bit about it last year but didn’t feel like we had the real estate to do it justice. So it was one of the things we wanted to do this year.
Given the actresses, and their performance, and the writing of it, across the board, it’s been a really, really rewarding element and part of doing these shows for me right now… I’ve often said, I wish that I had had some of these kind of things when I was a kid. There were some dark hours for me when I was that age and a little older. It’s nice to be a part of that.
On the villain selected for the Flash/Supergirl musical crossover episode:
It is going to be the Music Meister! There you go… We’re finishing writing the script this weekend.
On whether the voice of the previous, animated incarnation of the Music Meister – namely, Neil Patrick Harris – might be under consideration to play the part:
We haven’t gone about casting it yet. It’s the right question, though!
On whether there’s room for even more comic book TV shows:
I definitely think -- there’s obviously a wide spectrum of the comics, and there seems to be an appetite and an audience for those things. As long as there’s really creative new approaches to doing them, I think we do our jobs, and other people do their jobs as well as some shows out there.
I think at something like “Legion” which is about to come out, I couldn’t be more excited. Some of you have probably seen it. Things like that, you go, "Oh, wow, that seems like a whole new way to do a superhero show."
On the possibility of creating a show starring Tyler Hoechlin as Superman, after the success of the actor and character’s appearance on “Supergirl”:
Look, we were just really lucky. We asked to have him come on the first couple episodes, and they were great about it. We’d love to have Tyler back. He’s amazing. He was great in the role. And in success, I think all those things are possible. I’m always the guy who says, yes, if there seems to be an appetite for it and the people involved are really nice.
On where he and his producing teams start when considering bringing a comics character to the screen:
I think we sort of say, “What did we love about that character? What is it about the character?” And then we try and respect that, and we go from there. The pivotal moment in all of that is casting. Because someone comes in like K.J., or Grant Gustin, or Stephen Amell, or Melissa Benoist, and they somehow exude the quality that reminds you of the character. I think we’re really lucky on that with this.
I didn’t read “Archie” as much as a kid as I did the other things. Sometimes like in the grocery store, [if] my mom was taking a long time, I’d go over and flip through the thing on the racks or whatever. There’d always be one that would get mixed in, so I knew enough about it. But this [show] reminds me, and all the kids as they came through, kind of reminded me of the spirit of the characters.
On the possibility of Fox’s planned “Black Lightning” series crossing over with the DC/CW shows:
I don’t think so. If we’re lucky enough that that exists, that that show exists, I don’t think those worlds will cross over.
On Katie Cassidy’s unique return to the “Arrowverse” after Laurel Lance was killed off:
We made a deal at the end of that season to bring her back for a bunch of episodes. Katie is a part of the fabric of the show. Because the show, like a comic book, can move in different ways, and characters go and come, everybody that’s ever been a part of the key and core ensemble has always had a place at the table for our show.
There’s the capacity for her to be [in all four shows]. At this moment, she’s in three of them.
On how the great success of the fall’s four-show crossover episodes affects planning the crossovers for the future:
I feel like this last year, it kind of like had the momentum of the previous years [behind it]. People kind of start to look for it, like the "Doctor Who Christmas Special" – Marc [Guggenheim] always compares it to that. So yeah, and it falls at the right time for us production-wise, because have to launch the individual seasons, kind of define what they are, see if they’re working, and then we pivot and we focus on the crossover.
On how The CW Seed’s newly announced animated “Constantine” series came about:
They told me on Friday, “We’re doing a Constantine Seed thing, and you’re going to be a part of it,” and I said, “Great!” That’s how it came about, as far as I’m concerned.
On the status of his planned remake of the musical “Little Shop of Horrors”:
We’re just getting started on the script. We just hired a writer, and we’re just breaking the story for the script now.
That musical in particular was always a favorite of mine. I produced it in college. I was a big fan of it growing up. I saw the original production on Broadway. It’s always had a special place in my heart. I think the songs are beloved. I’ve gotten more incoming calls just about how many people love that particular show. I think with technology being what it is right now, there’s a real opportunity to create an Audrey II that’s never been seen like that before.