by Tierney Bricker | Tue., Jan. 24, 2017 12:00 PM
The CW is going back to school.
Launched in 2006 after The WB (RIP!) and UPN (RIP again!) merged, the network built its initial viewership base by targeting younger audiences, experiencing its first breakout success with its high school soap Gossip Girl, with The Vampire Diaries and 90210 following suit.
But as the network matured, so did its shows. Gone were the teenagers and lockers, replaced with more superheroes and characters legally able to drink as DC Comics universe has proven to be a seemingly endless well of success for The CW, with Arrow helping to launch two spinoffs (The Flash and DC's Legends of Tomorrow) since debuting in 2011, and Supergirl later joining in on the fun.
While the superheroes have soared on the network, it's also led the way for more mature material in other genres, with The CW earning their first-ever Golden Globe wins, with Jane the Virgin's Gina Rodriguez and Crazy Ex-Girlfriend's Rachel Bloom taking home the award for Best Actress in a Comedy Series.
And now, after a string of failed high school-set dramas, Riverdale, the network's newest series debuting on Thursday, Jan. 26, seems to be The CW's last hope in the coming-of-age genre—and possibly TV's, too.
Dramatic? Sure. But there's no denying the lack of high school-centric shows on TV, these days. (Degrassi—may it air forever—notwithstanding.) And Riverdale's success—or failure—could very well change that.
From executive producer Greg Berlanti (the man responsible for The CW's DC dynasty) and Roberto Aguirre-Sacasa and Jon Goldwater, two of the creative forces behind Archie Comics, Riverdale is a sexy noir take on the iconic characters we all know: Archie (K.J. Apa), Betty (Lili Reinhart), Veronica (Camila Mendes), and Jughead (Cole Sprouse), the gang's all here, Josie (Ashleigh Murray) and her Pussycats included. Centering on a small town filled with secrets and shaken by a murder, with a slightly '50s aesthetic, Riverdale is the TV equivalent of the cronut, with Twin Peaks as the croissant and Gossip Girl as the donut.
Though there are adult characters, with Luke Perry (Yes, Dylan McKay is now a "hot CW dad"), Marisol Nichols and Madchen Amick taking on the parental characters, Riverdale is mostly set in the hallways of Riverdale High School and the bedrooms of its teenage students, as well as Pop's Chock'lit Shoppe. But CW president Mark Pedowitz said the network didn't look at the show as "a high school drama," as Riverdale is comprised of "adult storylines" happening with teenagers.
"There is an adult level to it. We looked at it from that aspect," Pedowitz said at the 2017 Winter TCA Press Tour.
Also a deciding factor? Filling "a need in the marketplace," as a massive void will soon be left by several massive teen dramas coming to an end this season, including the network's long-running hit series The Vampire Diaries, as well as MTV's Teen Wolf and Freeform's Pretty Little Liars.
"For us, it was very simple. We had grown enough that we could go back into a genre that we thought we'd edge up a little bit and put it as part of our programming mix," Pedowitz said.
While it's a high school-set show, there are darker elements at play on Riverdale, ones that never would've rocked Dawson Leery's boat on Dawson's Creek or caused a shake to drop in Beverly Hills, 90210's Peach Pit in the days of pre-social media yore. But now, a show lives and dies by its trending topics and its. gif-ability.
During their first meeting for the show, Aguirre-Sacasa said he talked about wanting to do a coming of age-meet-slice-of-small-town-life show. But Berlanti, who, in addition to the DC Comics shows, was behind slice-of-life dramas Everwood, Dawson's Creek and Brothers & Sisters, to name just a few, immediately knew the show needed a hook to land a time-slot on a network TV schedule in 2017.
"Greg said, 'You're going to need a dead body, though,'" Aguirre-Sacasa said during Riverdale's panel at the 2017 Winter TCA Press Tour. "And I remember thinking, 'No, no, no. We're not going to need a dead body. No way we're going to need a dead body.' And we took a pitch out that was more slice of life and coming of age, and Fox bought it, and one of the first things they said is, 'We need to make this a little edgier. It needs to have a little bit more of a hook.' And seven months after Greg said to me, 'You need a dead body,' I was sort like, 'We need a dead body.'"
When the man behind Joey and Pacey's relationship tells you you need a dead body, you get a dead body, which Riverdale did, and the mystery of Jason Blossom's murder will be one of the show's driving forces in season one.
"That's when the show really crystallized artistically," Aguirre-Sacasa said of the deadly epiphany. "It went from just being a coming of age show to a loss of innocence show, and it really kind of framed every story we would tell, which would be kind of a more traditional Archie coming of age story, but something that was also a little bit darker, a little bit moodier, a little bit more noir."
High school and noir has proven to be a winning combination on TV, as The CW's Veronica Mars amassed a cult following, and The Vampire Diaries becoming one of the network's biggest hits, thanks to the earlier seasons' mixture of Gothic vampire romance and relatable teen drama, such as making the cheerleading squad or making sure prom isn't ruined by someone getting murdered.
However, ticking off one of the sub-genre boxes doesn't always lead to success as Star-Crossed, the last high school drama The CW launched in 2014, focused on futuristic human-alien integrated school, and averaged less than a million viewers during its one-season run. And Berlanti's remake of The Tomorrow People, which launched in 2013, failed to land a renewal after underwhelming ratings.
"The show just did not generate the audience we hoped it would generate," Pedowitz said of the show's cancellation. "It did not generate on air as much as we hoped and it did not generate digitally as much as we hoped."
A major advantage for Riverdale is its comics roots, given the network's monster success with Arrow, The Flash, DC's Legends of Tomorrow and Supergirl, which first premiered on CBS before moving to the CW for its second season.
But this isn't the Archie your grandparents may remember, as the comics have taken a edgier turn since 2010, when Life With Archie launched, featuring the long-running series' first gay character, and themes such as gun control, same-sex marriage, among others. Then, in 2013, Aguirre-Sacasa wrote Afterlife with Archie, which found Archie in the zombie apocalypse, and Jughead was revealed to be asexual in a 2016 issue.
"The backlash was all good. People were thrilled that we changed it. You can only go down that road for so long and then you need to change the dynamic," Goldwater said of initial negative response to Archie's new tone. "So the backlash was good. It showed in our sales, and to be candid, I'm anticipating the same great backlash when people see Riverdale. I don't think there's going to be anything but a great backlash, to use that word."
For Aguirre-Sacasa, the circumstances, wild and zombie-filled as they may be, don't matter as long as the characters remain true.
"Even though Archie was now in the middle of a zombie apocalypse, he was still the character we knew," he said. "He was still basically a good kid trying to do the right thing, often messing up and making things worse before they got better. That's sort of been our kind of guiding star through all of these, including Riverdale, putting them in perhaps more adult, more edgy situations, and having those situations test the integrity of the characters."
If Archie can survive the zombie apocalypse, his sophomore year at Riverdale High and freshman season on The CW should (hopefully) be a breeze.
Riverdale premieres Thursday, Jan. 26 at 9 p.m. on The CW.
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