The untold truth of Riverdale

Who would've thought that a moody, slow-building murder mystery-meets-soap opera based on the old Archie comic books could turn out so great? 

In 2017, the CW debuted Riverdale, a stylish, modern take on Archie, Betty, Veronica, Jughead, and the rest of the crew. This isn't your parents' or your grandparents' Archie. Gone is the jalopy and the band singing "Sugar, Sugar." In Riverdale, Archie is having an affair with his teacher, and the gang tries to find out who killed a classmate. Even more bewildering: Jughead is cool. Let's take a look behind the scenes and discover the untold truth of Riverdale. 

It was initially going to be a movie

At its core, Riverdale is about life (and death) in a small town — more Twin Peaks than Saved by the Bell. The show's creative staff struck on that format after bandying around some other ideas. Riverdale creator (and Archie Comics chief creative officer) Roberto Aguirre-Sacasa told Collider: "Originally, we were just going to do a straight coming of age, slice of life show" focused on Archie and his pals' day-to-day high school lives. To that end, Aguirre-Sacasa pitched that idea as a movie but got rejected all over Hollywood. Why? 

He says studios aren't interested in making low-stakes, John Hughes-style teen movies anymore. "Big studios make big movies, and what we were pitching was a small character movie about first love and first kisses."

It was almost a supernatural series—and could still become one

In 2013, Archie Comics published a spin-off called Afterlife with Archie. The plot: Sabrina the Teenage Witch brings Jughead's dead dog, Hot Dog, back to life, and the pooch bites Jughead and ushers forth a zombie apocalypse. Zombies are very hot right now, and so a TV adaptation of the comics was among the early early ideas for an Archie series. "Ultimately we ended up starting with a more grounded, less supernatural version because we thought we could always go there, but if we started there, it would be hard to take that away," Producer Roberto Aguirre-Sacasa told Entertainment Weekly. 

This means Riverdale could feature zombies at some point, if not Sabrina. "We've talked about Sabrina being something that's a bit darker, a bit Rosemary's Baby," Aguirre-Sacasa said. "It's not going to be the half-hour sitcom with Melissa Joan Hart."

It could have starred Louis C.K.

While the sex-and-murder-soaked Riverdale is a departure from the old-school, cornball comics, the present-day Archie Renaissance could have been even more out there. When Roberto Aguirre-Sacasa and Archie Comics CEO/Riverdale producer Jon Goldwater were still trying to figure out what kind of show they wanted to make, they met with some TV executives for a pitch meeting. As Aguirre-Sacasa related at the 2017 Television Critics Association's winter press tour, a suit told the Archie contingent that they should "do something a little more high concept." Aguirre-Sacasa said he was "open to that," but he wasn't keen on the executive's idea to introduce "time travel" or "a portal to another dimension." Those elements would allow for Archie to be portrayed by a middle-aged adult, and Aguirre-Sacasa said the executive suggested comedian Louis C.K. play an older Archie.

Archie was the last role cast

Finding the perfect actor to play Archie Andrews proved very difficult for Riverdale producers. Six months passed with all the other major roles filled before KJ Apa read for the part. Creator Aguirre-Sacasa told Vulture that he and other producers "were getting, frankly, scared, because there would be no pilot if we didn't find Archie." Apa auditioned just three days before a scheduled cast test in front of production studio executives. 

Among the other young actors who auditioned for Archie and didn't make the cut: Cole Sprouse and Casey Cott. Those guys became part of the show anyway, winning the roles of Jughead and Kevin Keller, respectively.

Cole Sprouse came out of retirement to play Jughead

The younger cast members of Riverdale are relative Hollywood newcomers, except Cole Sprouse (Jughead). He's a showbiz veteran, acting since childhood in major gigs such as Big Daddy, the Disney Channel's The Suite Life with Zack and Cody, and Friends (he played Ross's son, Ben). 

Before Riverdale came along, Sprouse hadn't acted in a while. Instead, he graduated from New York University with a degree in geographic information systems and satellite imaging and was working with archaeologists in "cultural resource management," which means "bagging and tagging artifacts we had found for collections at museums," he told People. 

Sprouse honored a request to audition for the role of Archie, but after reading the script, he realized he really wanted to play Jughead. Not only was the character the narrator of the show — so he probably couldn't get killed off — but it spoke to Sprouse on a deep level. "He just wants to be loved really bad, like honest real care and tenderness," he told People. "I think that part of Jughead exists within all of us and it's nice to channel that." 

Why there wasn't much Reggie

Riverdale faithfully adapted comic character Reggie Mantle: He was an unbearable jerk on the page, and he's an unbearable jerk on the small screen, too. He is not, however, as major a character as he was in the comics, although actor Ross Butler of 13 Reasons Why did a great job interpreting him for television. Unfortunately, Butler won't be back for Season 2. "We love what Ross did with the role of Reggie, but because of his commitments to other projects, we couldn't use him nearly as much as we would have liked," Producer Roberto Aguirre-Sacasa told TVLine

Charles Melton, who appeared on Glee and American Horror Story, became the "new Reggie."

Riverdale is not the first Archie TV series

Archie and the Riverdale gang have been a part of American pop culture for more than 70 years, so why has there never been an Archie series until now? 

There has been! And plenty of them! Eight Saturday morning-style cartoons about Archie have come and gone since the late '60s, including The Archie Show, Archie's Funhouse, The U.S. or Archie, and Archie's Weird Mysteries. There was even a live-action attempt. In 1990, NBC ran a movie-of-the-week called Archie: To Riverdale and Back Again. The film, a pilot for a weekly Archie TV series, depicted Archie and his friends as adults with adult problems. The show didn't live on as a series, but one scene has survived as a viral video. Adult Jughead (Sam Whipple) shows his son how to be "cool" by doing a rap version of "Sugar, Sugar."

KJ Apa broke his hand while filming

One of the most dramatic moments in the first season of Riverdale occurs when Cheryl Blossom (Madelaine Petsch), despondent over the death of her twin brother, Jason Blossom (Trevor Stines), attempts suicide in the Sweetwater River, the same place Jason's body was discovered. Archie, because he's Archie, punches through the ice and pulls Cheryl to safety. Archie spills some blood and endures some pain in the process, and so did actor KJ Apa. 

While the actor didn't really have to punch through ice — a foam mat was placed over the frozen water — Apa told TVLine that he "got a little bit too excited" filming the intense scene. The mat had been "sitting on the ice" and "it was cold, so I didn't really feel it. It wasn't until about 20 minutes after that I realized I broke my hand. I didn't tell anyone."

Cole Sprouse is a Jughead 'purist'

Riverdale writers have creatively interspersed the show with obscure details from the Archie Comics canon and reinvented them for modern audiences. For example, in the comics, Big Ethel was a one-note character who wanted to date the uninterested Jughead. On the show, Ethel (Shannon Purser) helps Betty Cooper (Lili Reinhart)and Veronica Lodge (Camila Mendes) expose the disgusting, misogynistic behavior of the football team. 

Another comic obscurity came to the show — in its classic form — upon the insistence of Cole Sprouse. Creator Roberto Aguirre-Sacasa told MTV News that Sprouse is a "purist" concerning "Jughead and the Jughead mythology." When the Southside Serpents appear with a dog, Aguirre-Sacasa thought the gang should have "a junkyard dog," but Sprouse reportedly said, "you're not reinventing Hot Dog." And so, the production tracked down a sheepdog near its Vancouver shooting locations who "could deliver all of the nuance that Hot Dog required." 

Sprouse is reportedly such a Jughead advocate and defender that he's even been in talks to write some Riverdale offshoot comic books.

It's a nightmare for KJ Apa to dye his hair

KJ Apa plays redheaded, all-American Archie on Riverdale, and yet, the actor is neither of those things. Apa is from New Zealand and pulls off a convincing American accent. His hair, however, requires some cosmetic creativity. The actor has naturally dark brown locks, so he has to dye his hair red every two weeks for the show, a process that takes two and a half hours and a fair amount of caustic hair bleach. "I'm probably going to be bald by the end of the series," he told People.

The first season finale's big twist was hidden from the cast

Riverdale capped its first season with a few shocking moments. (If you haven't seen it, spoilers ahead.) The finale reveals that teenage murder victim Jason Blossom (Trevor Stines) was killed by his dad, Clifford Blossom (Barclay Hope). The elder Blossom kills himself, and in the final moments of the season, an unknown assailant shoots Archie's dad, Fred Andrews (Luke Perry), during an armed robbery at Pop's. 

It was quite a twisted twist, and producers wanted to make sure it remained a secret, so most of the Riverdale team didn't know about the final scene until after the fact. "They kept it so top secret, even from the cast and crew, that we were given the final form [of the script] the day of shooting," Cole Sprouse told E! News. "The people who were not in that scene didn't even get to read it."

Ratings are terrible, but the CW doesn't care

Riverdale ranked no. 154 in total viewers among network TV shows for the 2016-2017 season, according to Nielsen statistics. In the coveted 18-49 demographic, the show tied for last place with Jane the Virgin. Those are the kind of numbers that would get most shows canceled, but not this one. 

While its traditional ratings aren't great, the show enjoys a lot of buzz, as well as popularity in non-traditional viewing formats. At the 2017 Television Critics Association's summer press tour, CW president Mark Pedowitz said Riverdale has lots of viewers who record the show and watch it later or who watch it online. Pedowitz said it's also "a big hit" on Netflix and has garnered "a massive response on social media." Pedowitz said the network ultimately doesn't care about the Nielsen ratings "as long as people are watching it and if they can find it, we're happy."

Madelaine Petsch had to face her fears

Acting can be a difficult balance for a performer. They have to use their memories and experiences to inform a character's behavior while also suppressing their own traits and cutting off their personal impulses. In her very first on-screen appearance on Riverdale, Madelaine Petsch had to quell her growing inner panic. The series begins with Cheryl Blossom and her doomed brother, Jason (Trevor Stines), in a rowboat on the Sweetwater River. That was a hard sequence for Petsch to film. "I'm afraid of open bodies of water. I was in a glass-bottomed boat that broke a long time ago, so I've always been kind of freaked out," the actress told Glamour. "When I read the script for that scene in Riverdale, I assumed they'd use a stunt double in the boat. When I got to set, they were like, 'So, we're gonna put you in a wetsuit.' And I was like, 'Excuse me? A what?'"

Petsch steeled herself for the task but then learned that while safety measures were in place, Stines had never operated a watercraft before. "I was having a panic attack. No one knew I was freaking out," Petsch added. Everything ultimately went swimmingly. "Once we started shooting, I was fine. I was like, 'It's fun. It's Cheryl. It's not me.'"

Riverdale is great, but is it worth death threats?

In Season 2, actress Vanessa Morgan joined the cast as a semi-obscure Archie Comics character made modern and edgy: Toni Topaz is a pink-haired, motorcycle-riding girl from the wrong side of the tracks. "She's a Southside Serpent, a gang member, and Jughead's first friend," Morgan told Glamour. "So I might stir up the pot a bit with the Bughead relationship. There might be a little love triangle." 

While she eventually wound up in a relationship with Cheryl Blossom, Toni was indeed a momentary hindrance in the Betty-Jughead relationship, or "Bughead" as hardcore Riverdale shippers call it. She and Jughead did a little kissing, but his heart belongs to Betty. Still, the idea of one of the show's central couples experiencing anything but rock-solid bliss forever was something some Riverdale fans could not abide. "I've already had some death threats," Morgan said about reactions before she even appeared in a frame on the show. 

Archie crashed his jalopy

According to The Wrap, Riverdale star K.J. Apa completed a long day of filming on the show's Vancouver set and drove himself home very late on the night of Sept. 14, 2017. And then he crashed his car. No other vehicles or individuals were involved, and Apa walked away unharmed — and even reported to work the next day. A show insider told The Wrap that while production company Warner Bros. has a standing offer to pay for a car service or a hotel room for actors or crew members who feel too tired to drive themselves, Apa didn't ask for any of that.

That sparked rumors of grueling work conditions on the Riverdale set. After the accident, Warner released a statement calling the idea pure nonsense. "We have a large cast of series regulars, and our actors do not work every day. On the day of the accident, K.J. worked 14.2 hours. The previous day he worked 2.5 hours, and the day before that he worked 7.7 hours." The statement insisted that "K.J. has repeatedly been informed about making production aware if he is tired or feels unsafe." Nevertheless, Hollywood's actors union, SAG-AFTRA, promised to investigate the matter further because it is "deeply concerned about the safety of performers" on the teen soap.

The guy who plays Archie doesn't like Archie's songs

Riverdale revived the old Archie universe trope of Archie Andrews' desperate desire to be a pop-rock musician. In 1969, a group of sessions musicians posing as "The Archies" recorded the cheery pop hit "Sugar, Sugar," which Archie and the gang have been shown performing on a variety of Archie TV cartoons over the years. On Riverdale, Archie is a solo act — less bubblegum and more of a singer-songwriter in the Ed Sheeran vein (because he's both redheaded and very emotional). Actor K.J. Apa is reportedly up for the musical challenge, considering he really does play the guitar. (He even brought his guitar along when he auditioned for the show.) However, Apa doesn't write those original-to-the-show songs he's been shown performing at Riverdale High events, including "I Got You" and "Dance, Dance, Dance." Those tunes are composed by staff songwriters. 

One guy who isn't a fan of the aforementioned songs: K.J. Apa. "I don't know how to say it, but we're not at the same level, you know what I mean?" he told The Last Magazine. "The songs that he writes, I don't think I would listen to them. I do not have the same taste in music as him. I'm into harder stuff than Archie is." So, what, like Josie and the Pussycats?

Too many Bettys!

As the clever and crafty Cheryl Blossom, actress Madelaine Petsch steals most every Riverdale scene in which she appears. It helps that she's responsible for the show's comic relief, providing a cheerily delivered bit of wordplay to break up the otherwise dour and violent proceedings. Clearly, the Riverdale casting team nailed it with Petsch, but in some alternate universe, the actress actually won the role of Betty Cooper.

Petsch auditioned for a part on the CW's Legends of Tomorrow in 2015, but casting director David Rapaport had other plans. "He was like, 'I love you for this role,' but [added], 'I want you for a pilot I'm casting right now,'" Petsch told Glamour. "He brought me in for Betty Cooper on Riverdale a week later to meet producers," she said, but then told her he had another part in mind that he couldn't tell her about at the time. "You look exactly like I imagine her to look, and you've got the presence," he supposedly said. 

Petsch wasn't the only almost-Betty. According to Entertainment Weekly, 13 Reasons Why star Katherine Langford also went out for Betty.

How Clifford Blossom wigged out

While Riverdale gets a bit more bonkers with every passing season, the show may never top the moment in Season 1 when viewers get an intimate look inside Thornhill, the Blossom family's stately mansion. Therein sits patriarch Cliff Blossom's wig room, an enclosure full of various and sundry red-dyed toupees atop mannequin heads. (Why would he ever need more than one, or two at the max?)

At a 2018 PaleyFest panel (via Entertainment Tonight), creator and executive producer Roberto Aguirre-Sacasa shared that the whole thing was an elaborate joke. Actor Barclay Hope, who plays Cliff Blossom in Season 1 (and his twin brother, Claudius, thereafter) didn't want to dye his hair that signature Blossom hue, so the production had to rely on wigs. Then some executives at the CW told Aguirre-Sacasa how fake and bad those toupees looked on Barclay. The crew decided to film the actor rocking his naturally gray hair, and then write a scene explaining that he wore wigs, thus providing the perfect opportunity to construct and film a ridiculous room full of terrible wigs.

Hats off to you, Jughead

Speaking of odd things people on Riverdale wear on their heads, it just wouldn't be an Archie adaptation without Jughead's crown-meets-beanie hat. It's technically a "whoopee cap," a style of chapeau popular with the teens back when Jughead and his pals first appeared in print in the 1940s. Times changed, fashions adapted, but Jughead kept his hat through 70 years of comics. In what was probably one of the most difficult things about the Archie mythos to modernize, Riverdale costumers fashioned a chic-looking cap for Cole Sprouse to sport as Jughead, and that thing is precious. 

When the cast appeared on The Tonight Show in 2017, Sprouse brought the hat for Riverdale superfan Jimmy Fallon to try on, with warnings from Lili Reinhart and K.J. Apa to be careful because "there's only one." They'd apparently been burned before on the backup beanie. "We did get another one at the end of last season," Sprouse shared, "but it was stolen when I placed it on a lunch table in the scene where Cheryl slapped Jughead."

Sabrina lives just down the road

Just a few months after Riverdale aired its first season in 2017, TVLine reported that a spin-off was in the works, focusing on another Archie Comics character: Sabrina the Teenage Witch. But Chilling Adventures of Sabrina is not a traditional spin-off; Sabrina didn't make an appearance on Riverdale before headlining her own show. However, both are dark takes on old, corny comic books; both are the creations of Roberto Aguirre-Sacasa; and both shows are set in towns adjacent to the Sweetwater River — Riverdale in Riverdale and Sabrina in Greendale, respectively. 

Apart from that, Sabrina is full of meta, and often confusing references to its television predecessor. In episode one, Sabrina (Kiernan Shipka) brings an Archie thermos to school. In another episode, a jock asks the witchy Weird Sisters if they attend Riverdale High. That means Chilling Adventures exists in a world where Archie Andrews is a comic book character … but also a real person?

Things get extra weird in episode 7. The possessed Mrs. Wardell (Michelle Gomez) orders a pizza, but eats the pizza boy instead. That ill-fated delivery guy wears a name tag that reads "Ben." The actor who plays the pizza boy, Moses Thiessen, also plays a character named Ben on Riverdale who also dies. Just what is going on here?

Cole Sprouse fought to keep Jughead asexual

"Girl craziness" is a hallmark of Archie Comics. For example, Archie perpetually pursues Betty, Veronica, and almost every other girl in Riverdale on occasion, and so does that cad Reggie. The only major character who isn't hopelessly burdened by his teenage hormones is Jughead. He's far more interested in wolfing down cheeseburgers and milkshakes than he is in exploring his sexuality. In a 2016 issue of Jughead, writer Chip Zdarsky and artist Erica Henderson made the character's fundamental lack of sexual interest canon, and made Jughead Jones officially asexual. The comic earned praise for offering representation to a community seldom depicted in popular culture, but Riverdale didn't keep up that mantle.

Jughead (Cole Sprouse) is definitely interested in physical love, specifically with Betty (Lili Reinhart). Sprouse reportedly pushed hard to keep Jughead true to the comics. "I think, in this show, he's not a romantic and not asexual," Sprouse told Glamour. I argued in the beginning, creatively, that he should be both, but in this show, he's kind of a tortured youth that ends up finding a comfort and a resonance with another person who's going through a lot of trauma."

How will Riverdale handle Luke Perry's death?

Riverdale, a show for teens, cleverly cast teen idols from previous generations in adult roles. For example, Archie's parents were played by John Hughes muse Molly Ringwald and Beverly Hills, 90210 star Luke Perry. But tragically, on March 4, 2019, Perry, just 52, died after suffering a massive stroke. 

When the news broke, Riverdale temporarily shut down production for the devastated cast and crew. Casey Cott, (Kevin Keller), tweeted: "I'm totally heartbroken. Luke took me under his wing the day I was cast and made me feel like I belonged." Madelaine Petsch (Cheryl Blossom) Instagrammed a cast photo with a caption that read, in part: "From day one of this show you were the most amazing mentor to me. Thank you for teaching me not only about this industry, but also about kindness and being a family and how to foster and nurture those important relationships."

At the time of Perry's untimely death, Riverdale's crew was in the midst of filming a third season episode. At the end of the March 6, 2019 episode, the show "closed with an In Memoriam card dedicated to Perry," per Deadline. Producer Roberto Aguirre-Sacasa said "all episodes" will be dedicated to Perry "for the rest of our run."