The cast of Riverdale
K. J. Apa
Riverdale may be the only hit comic-book adaptation with an origin story that involves a cease-and-desist letter.
In 2003, Yale School of Drama graduate Roberto Aguirre-Sacasa was set to produce his play Archie’s Weird Fantasy in Atlanta. “It took the Archie characters and mashed them up with the Leopold and Loeb murders from 1920s Chicago into a pulpy, gay, noir psycho-drama,” Aguirre-Sacasa remembers. “The person who controlled Archie Comics at the time was an attorney, and he was very protective of the brand.
"The play was clearly a love letter to the Archie characters, but when I tried to explain that, the attorney wasn’t buying it.” So the legal letter was sent, and Aguirre-Sacasa changed the character’s names — Archie Andrews became Buddy Baxter — and the play’s title to Weird Comic Book Fantasy, so the show could go on.
But Aguirre-Sacasa didn’t forget his pop-cultural obsession. He later landed a job as a writer for Fox’s Glee and further pursued his dream (this time, with permission from Archie Comics) by writing the four-part comic-book crossover Archie Meets Glee in 2013.
He soon became the chief content officer for Archie Comics, where he spent the next several years trying to sell a film or TV series based on the 75-year history of the squeaky-clean high-school hero Archie and his pals — stuck-up rich girl Veronica Lodge, all-American blonde Betty Cooper, burger-loving eccentric Jughead Jones and the rest.
One Bizarro-world pitch involving time travel, with stand-up comic Louis CK playing the titular redhead, was pronounced DOA.
After The CW and Fox both rejected an earnest, Dawson’s Creek-esque pilot script for Riverdale, Aguirre-Sacasa finally hit upon the perfect tone for the show: a dark, twisty, Twin Peaks–like murder mystery that examines the ugly underbelly of a seemingly idyllic small town. The CW bit this time, believing this might be “the first Generation Z hit,” explains network president Mark Pedowitz.
“These viewers were babies when 9/11 happened, and they lived through the worst economic situation since the Great Depression. Weirdly enough, the horror elements are something this generation responds to.”
Cole Sprouse, who plays Jughead, has an even more current theory as to why Riverdale resonates in the Make America Great Again era.
“When the show came out, the United States and the world were deeply entrenched in this political dialogue of ‘What did an older America look like — what was its nature and how did it feel?’” posits the New York University graduate. “Our twist on that concept is showing the scars and the darker places of this quote-unquote ‘Golden Age’ American nightmare, and the audience was ready for that kind of dialogue.”
Before the show could make that connection, however, the network and executive producers — Aguirre-Sacasa, Greg Berlanti, Sarah Schechter and Jon Goldwater — had to find the perfect actors to embody these iconic comic figures.
A four-month worldwide search led to the casting of K. J. Apa, a New Zealander, to play Archie. Dyeing his hair red wasn’t the only adaptation he needed to make for the role. “I had to get in tune with American high-school culture,” Apa says. “My school was more like Hogwarts than Riverdale — more English than American.”
Camila Mendes, the daughter of Brazilian-American parents, didn’t think she had a shot at the part of Veronica, based on the character’s heritage in the comics.
“I thought they’d go for someone who looks more like Krysten Ritter, a quirky white pinup girl with black hair,” she says. “Then I realized they were looking for Latinas.” Aguirre-Sacasa and fellow executive producer Berlanti had vowed to cast an actor of color as one of the leads, and Pedowitz was fully on board: “It’s good creatively and it’s good for business when you have inclusivity on your shows.”
Lili Reinhart and Ashleigh Murray were struggling young actors on the verge of giving up when they landed the roles of Betty Cooper and Josie McCoy (lead singer of girl group Josie & the Pussycats).
“I was super broke at the time,” Murray recalls, while Reinhart reveals she had a panic attack about her lack of cash before “the stars aligned and a huge weight was lifted off my shoulders — I was given this opportunity to not worry about money and just focus on acting.”
Prior to becoming Jughead, Sprouse had experienced life as a tween idol, thanks to his 2005–11 run costarring with twin brother Dylan on the Disney Channel hits The Suite Life of Zack & Cody and The Suite Life on Deck. He was also a major comic-book fan, having worked at an L.A. store. “I investigated every possible representation of Jughead,” he says.
Such research wasn’t an option for Madelaine Petsch. “I was a huge fan of Archie, but when they told me I’d be playing Cheryl Blossom, I had no idea who that was,” she says of the character, who rarely turns up in the comics.
Still, Cheryl quickly became a key figure on the show, as season one revolved around the mysterious death of her twin brother, Jason. “I was able to curate this character,” Petsch says. “I did a lot of the heavy lifting, but it was fun.”
Heading into that first season, the biggest challenge facing Aguirre-Sacasa and the team (the show is produced by Warner Bros. and CBS Television Studios in association with Berlanti Productions) was figuring out which parts of the Archie mythology to maintain and which to jettison.
“Some things were canon and sacrosanct,” Aguirre-Sacasa says, like Jughead’s insatiable appetite for food and his trademark hat. “We found a nice, modern balance between the classic ‘whoopee cap’ crown from the comics and the beanie he wears on the show,” Sprouse says.
Josie’s feline-themed attire was also preserved. “I love cosplay [costume play], so dressing up in a crazy leopard outfit with a tail and ears is awesome,” Murray says.
It was all a matter of balancing the old with the new. “We’ve been able to keep the basic characteristics, like Betty is sweet and generous, Veronica is a little spoiled and very confident, and Archie is a bit aloof,” Reinhart says. “But they’ve grown to be much deeper people.”
The cast and creative team agreed the decades-old love triangle among Archie, Betty and Veronica should be left in the past.
“It would have been very problematic — when we’re in the middle of this very progressive, feminist movement where positive changes are happening — to encourage that kind of relationship on a show that targets young women,” Mendes says of the Betty-Veronica rivalry. “It would be very disrespectful.”
Instead, “We decided it would be better to lean in to Betty and Veronica as friends,” Aguirre-Sacasa says. “We’ve maxed out on mean, bitchy, catty girls, and one retro thing we didn’t want to do was have the two girls fight over Archie.”
Adds Reinhart: “Betty is not as much of a pushover — she’s not some girl who fawns over Archie and lets him walk all over her, which is basically what happened for 75 years. I love that the show doesn’t just go on the easy path of having these girls constantly battle for Archie’s affections. That’s so boring and overdone.”
The writers opted to put Betty and Jughead together as a couple, a departure that threatened to anger purists.
“If you’re working in pop culture and you’re reaching a passionate audience, there are going to be people who don’t like what you do,” Aguirre-Sacasa concedes. “There are definitely haters, and fandom is not for the weak of heart, but you take it with a grain of salt.” As it turns out, most fans loved the Betty-Jughead relationship, dubbing the couple “Buggy.”
The pairing wasn’t completely unprecedented. “Within the 75 years of Archie, there were moments of flirtatiousness between Betty and Jughead, when he’d say things like, ‘I love women — not only food,’” Sprouse says.
In any case, “Reinventing something can give you a fresh perspective,” Pedowitz notes. “Yes, you will upset the purists, but look what you gain if you get a new generation of fans."
That’s exactly what Riverdale did, but it didn’t happen overnight. “It was a lackluster beginning in terms of linear ratings,” Pedowitz says of the show’s January 2017 launch. “But it started to catch on digitally and virally via social media and late viewing, and we knew the Netflix first-season binge would help the second season.”
Did it ever! So many fans caught up with Riverdale on Netflix during the summer that the season-two premiere in October 2017 drew 70 percent more viewers than the debut the previous January. The teen audience alone skyrocketed by 500 percent.
“We got a pretty massive boost from Netflix,” Mendes says. “Now people are watching it live because they want to be in the know and not have it spoiled for them.” The cast frequently live-tweets the show, and “the fans love that,” Mendes adds. “It keeps everyone engaged and it makes people bond over the show, which is a beautiful thing.”
Sudden success turned the cast members into overnight superstars, and they’re still adjusting to that transition. “I was a little nervous at first, but nine times out of 10 when I’m recognized, the people are very respectful,” Murray says. “If they look like they’re going to freak out, I grab their shoulders and tell them, ‘Calm down.’ We’ll have a conversation and leave it at that.”
Figuring out how to interact with fans over social media has been a trickier proposition.
“A lot of young actors are confronted with the dilemma of how much of their selves they want to give to an audience, because the more the audience knows you as a person, the harder it can be for them to suspend disbelief when they see you in a different role,” says Sprouse, who’s lived this situation for more than half his life. “It’s an intense, ongoing discussion I have with myself, and one that’s going to take me a bit more time.”
When the online reaction is negative, the situation becomes even more complicated. “In the first season, I went through a lot of online bullying from people who didn’t like my character, who was supposed to be the villain,” Petsch says. “I was bullied in high school, so I felt like, ‘Great, this is going to follow me the rest of my life.’”
During season two, Cheryl evolved into a more complex character. “Her mean-girl persona was a façade,” Petsch says. “She was actually super broken, because she was pushing her sexuality down and not owning who she was.”
Cheryl came out as bisexual and is now dating a female character. “The response has been overwhelmingly positive, and people have come up to me crying, saying Cheryl’s story gave them the confidence to come out to their families. It’s wonderful to be on a TV show that connects with its fans.”
Riverdale’s young stars are fortunate that many of the actors who play their parents have lived through their own experiences with stratospheric early popularity: Beverly Hills, 90210’s Luke Perry and Brat Pack alum Molly Ringwald play Archie’s folks, while Scream’s Skeet Ulrich plays Jughead’s dad, Twin Peaks’ Mädchen Amick is Betty’s mom and Head of the Class’s Robin Givens is Josie’s mom.
This stunt-casting “was a conscious decision,” Pedowitz says. “These actors have gone through it all, and they bring great maturity to the set, which makes it a better place to work.”
It also gives the older actors fodder for bonding. “The veterans have a lot in common, having been in the business for so long,” Amick says. “Watching these kids go through it for the first time, we’re able to guide them and give them advice, like, ‘Yep, we went through that.’”
Apa says, “I wasn’t that experienced when I started, so I saw Luke as this unlimited field of knowledge, and Molly has been amazing.”
The ensemble’s senior members also help explain the scripts’ sophisticated vocabulary and pop-culture references, which frequently fly over the youngsters’ heads. “Veronica uses words I’ve never heard, so I definitely have to do a lot of Googling,” Mendes confesses.
Aguirre-Sacasa pleads guilty to stretching believability with his scripts. “I am not a naturalistic writer — I come from the theater, where the dialogue is heightened,” he says. “My references are not a 16-year-old’s references. Would a teenager know who Truman Capote is? Well, hopefully, but probably not. But I’ve never said this is reflective of reality.”
Such a high-minded approach has allowed Riverdale — which returns October 10 with a 22-episode season three — to expand its fan base beyond the Clearasil crowd. “I’ve talked to so many moms and uncles — grown women and men —who are obsessed with the show,” Murray says.
The series’ popularity has even crossed international borders. “I went to a convention in Paris called RiverCon,” Amick says. “We were all staying in a hotel, and the fans figured out where we were staying, so we had people camped out underneath our hotel balcony just waiting to get a glimpse of us. We felt like we were the Beatles.”
And Archie Comics’ TV universe is just beginning to grow. Aguirre-Sacasa has already conjured up Netflix’s forthcoming Chilling Adventures of Sabrina, a creepy reboot of another company property, Sabrina the Teenage Witch. Mad Men grad Kiernan Shipka plays the young sorceress.
Aguirre-Sacasa says that when he started working for the publisher, “One of the biggest imperatives was getting Archie off the comic book page and into other media, and we’ve done that with Riverdale, Sabrina and whatever else comes down the line. This feels like epic storytelling. It has life, death, humor, tragedy, everyday stuff and crazy shit. It’s the story of a town — like Our Town.”
Even a cease-and-desist letter from Thornton Wilder’s estate couldn’t stop that.
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This article originally appeared in emmy magazine, Issue No. 8, 2018