Many shows that are hitting the 100-episode milestone might use that anniversary as an opportunity to break its usual format for the first time in order to make the episode extra special. But “Riverdale” isn’t like many other shows.
During its first five seasons, “Riverdale” continuously pushed the boundaries of what it could do with tonal shifts (storylines about serial killers and cults, for example) and trying new formats (its musical episodes were always audience and cast/crew favorites). As the team behind the show was approaching the 100th episode, they were already working on another one of these major changes: a five-episode mini-arc that was set in a parallel town called Rivervale where supernatural horror abounded.
The 100th episode, titled “Chapter One Hundred: The Jughead Paradox,” is the fifth episode of the sixth season of the Warner Bros.-produced CW Network drama, which needs to close that Rivervale arc while also easing the audience back into the regular tone and world of the town of Riverdale.
“As soon as we realized that our fifth episode [of the Rivervale arc] would land with our 100th episode,” says creator and showrunner Roberto Aguirre-Sacasa, “we thought, ‘OK, maybe we’ll do something that’s a little bit more meta and a little more a celebration, as opposed to a really dark episode,’ which is what we originally thought was going to happen. We wanted to celebrate not just the show and where the show began, how far the show’s gone, but we wanted to do a love letter to Archie Comics and the source material.”
The first episode of the Rivervale arc introduced a comic book collection that becomes essential to figuring out what is going on in the town in the 100th episode. That motif will then carry over into the regular “Riverdale” world in the rest of Season 6, Aguirre-Sacasa reveals. Similarly, new relationship developments, especially between couples such as Betty (Lili Reinhart) and Archie (K.J. Apa), Jughead (Cole Sprouse) and Tabitha (Erinn Westbrook), and Veronica (Camila Mendes) and Reggie (Charles Melton) will still need to play out during the rest of the season. And the season won’t be shying away from horror, even if the 100th episode is a bit more humorous than usual, Aguirre-Sacasa says.
“The big horror story that we were planning to do for the fifth episode that we shifted once we realized it was our 100th episode, we are still doing that story, but it’s going to be in Riverdale,” he explains. “Death is definitely coming to Riverdale, and it is definitely permanent.”
However, the deaths within the Rivervale arc — Archie chief among them — will not stick once the show is set back in its usual world. Nor will the many surprise returns of characters that show up in the 100th episode as part of the “love letter” to the show’s history be recurring appearances. The ability to pivot so smoothly is what makes “Riverdale” so special, though.
“The terrific thing about ‘Riverdale’ is that the show has never fit into just one genre. From the beginning, it has been a compelling multi-layered series, focusing on relationships between friends and family, tackling everything from serial killers and mobsters to first loves and heartbreaks, while being very grounded in reality and, at times, border on the supernatural,” explains Mark Pedowitz, chairman and CEO, the CW Network. “That is the brilliance of ‘Riverdale’ and what has made it a fixture of today’s popular culture, as well as an integral part of the CW’s brand and ongoing programming strategy, and that is thanks to Roberto and his team.”
“Riverdale” being such a fixture wasn’t a given, though. The characters have roots in almost 100-year-old, beloved comics, but Aguirre-Sacasa’s vision for the series, even in its earliest years, was always a little bit darker and certainly less wholesome than the pastel-colored pages so many grew up reading. The series began in 2017 by introducing Archie in an inappropriate sexual relationship with a teacher, while another town teen turned up dead, for example.
“‘Riverdale’ was an example of something when we were starting to pitch around, people always had a dubious look of, ‘How are you going to pull that off?’” executive producer Greg Berlanti recalls.
The road to getting “Riverdale” on the air at all, let alone keeping it there, was not a quick and easy one. It was one of the first projects executive producer Sarah Schechter brought into Berlanti Prods., and it took a few years to get the show to a place where it was picked up — first as a pilot in 2016 and then to series a few months later. It launched a 13-episode first season in January 2017, underperforming in the live, linear ratings. (Season 1 averaged 1 million total live viewers per episode.)
“We had to fight for it all over again to hope that it would get a second season,” Berlanti says. “There was no audience in the first season, but then obviously it got the Netflix bump that a few of our shows got. So, it’s an example of us championing artists we believe in and stories and ideas we believe in, even when the evidence says otherwise.”
The reason they supported the show so strongly, Schechter says, is because, “even as Greg and I get older, we’ve remained really interested in what it’s like to grow up. The emotional stakes are so high when you’re young and you’re figuring out who you are. There’s so much room for real, emotional storytelling. [And Roberto’s] voice has this really big range, and he gets to sing songs in different keys.”
After the first season finished, “Riverdale” proved to have global appeal and provided ample merchandising opportunities for Warner Bros. After the first season streamed on Netflix, the sophomore run saw a rise in live viewership on its actual network, averaging almost 1.4 million total live viewers an episode. It also dominated conversation on social media: Between the shipping opportunities the show offered, theorizing about the mystery elements of the story and the willingness of the cast members themselves to be so open and engaging on platforms from Twitter to Instagram, “Riverdale” was a commonly trending topic for weeks on end.
“Part of the initial success of the show was that Roberto took characters who are some of the most iconic archetypes of all time, and while staying true to who they are at their core, made them seem at once modern and timeless, and then let them grow as the show progressed,” says Clancy Collins White, executive vice president and head of development, Warner Bros. Television.
As the seasons went on, there was always something new to talk about because of a big-swing plot development, including a time jump after the characters graduated high school. Rather than repeat school stories through college years, the show pushed them more firmly into adulthood, allowing the actors to play closer to their real-life ages and opening the door to more adult storylines, such as parenthood and business ownership.
“‘Riverdale’s’ sophisticated storytelling and filmmaking transcend the high school backdrop, so it has always fit well into the Warner Bros. Television ethos of making high-quality programming regardless of the subject matter,” says Channing Dungey, chairman, Warner Bros. Television Group. “The time jump and event arc only reinforce the show’s deft ability to evolve and keep things fresh while maintaining that high bar of excellence that Roberto and the Berlanti Prods. team set from the beginning of the series.”
“We’ve come a long way,” Aguirre-Sacasa admits. “When we were even pitching the show, we made the decision to call the show ‘Riverdale’ as opposed to ‘Archie’ or even ‘Riverdale High’ to make the show about the town in the hopes that eventually the kids would graduate high school and live in the town. The idea behind that was always that the show would never have to stay in one gear for the entire run. The fear of taking big swings is that the audience will feel betrayed, but I think people are looking for those injections of creativity.”