Interview: ‘Riverdale’ Writer and Co-Producer, Ted Sullivan

You said that very well. That’s a good quote. I’m sorry, this is probably going to be the least cohesive interview you’ve ever had, because we’re going to switch gears again. When I opened up the question to Twitter to ask anybody if they had any burning questions, we got a lot of them about mental health and if that’s ever going to be explored further in the context of the show.

TS: I think so, but….here’s what I would say about that. You know, like we did our episode with Mrs. Burble and people had to do some therapy. But even in that, it was bizarro world. Like Alice came in and busted her way into the meeting with Betty and Mrs. Burble was talking with Jughead who wasn’t even a student at the school at that point. If you try to put too much of real world moments into this heightened reality, I think it runs the risk of undermining what those issues truly are.

I think the best way to think of it is this: we will be dealing with the fallout and the mental health issues, but it’s better to deal with them, with characters on the show as opposed to someone sitting down and going to therapy because you can’t real-world therapy into this Riverdale world.

But what you can do is show how friends support each other and help each other see that they’re hurting or they’re not facing their trauma. You don’t want to trivialize what real world therapy is. This is not Better Call Saul. You know, it’s not even, like I said before, a Shonda show. This is a comic book that is brought to life on TV. And if you do scenes of someone going to therapy over and over again, well then you start to put a real world sensibility onto the heightened reality in a way that I think runs the risk of trivializing the incidents that they’d be talking about. So, if you sent Cheryl to see a therapist, you’d be saying, “Well, you had a brother stuffed downstairs in the crypt.” and everyone on the show has murdered someone.

I mean, we will deal with the emotional fallout from a lot of this stuff, especially in season five. That’s something that we’ve talked about quite a bit, but it’d be like having Luke Skywalker go to a therapist talking about Darth Vader, his dad. I’m not sure that those two things line up.

I understand what you’re saying. There’s a sensitivity that needs to be had with those sort of tellings that might not necessarily fit into the genre of what Riverdale is.

TS: Yeah. The other thing that you’d run into, the show does not live in a super sincere, grounded world. Imagine if you have a therapist for like three episodes, dealing with some of this, you’d be waiting for the other shoe to drop. Probably like, “Well who’s the therapist working for and what is the therapist’s agenda?” Because there’s always someone that always has an agenda or someone always has blackmail. And if you then brought in a therapist and they had blackmail or had an agenda, you’re suddenly saying to the audience, “Well you can’t even trust therapists!” And that might be a horrible message to send.

I think you have to be really careful on a show like this about doing things like that. It’s one thing to have the mayor or the police chief be corrupt. But when you start running into that, suddenly smearing a profession which is there to help people deal with trauma? And look, I’ve had a lot of trauma in my life and I’ve done therapy. And if you don’t have that that bond and that safety bubble, you won’t get better, you’ll only get worse. And I understand the importance of that and I would be very, very hesitant to involve something like that in a show that’s supposed to be fun.

Now, like I said, you could do a lot of this stuff you would do with a therapist, with a friend. So, Archie can help Jughead deal with stuff. Jughead can help Archie deal with stuff. Toni can force Cheryl to face some trauma that maybe she’s not facing and that will only serve to bond those characters even more. The other thing you run into is if you’re playing a therapist and you’re putting one of our characters with a day player over and over again, I’m not sure that our fans would really be into it over time.

That makes a lot of sense. So, every show has a writer’s voice and through a character the writers get to speak to the audience. I’ve noticed that it’s usually Cheryl or Kevin and sometimes Jughead, who also acts as the narrator. Is there any particular reason you guys lean towards those characters to be your voice?

TS: Well, I think Jughead is the main voice of the show because in one sense, it’s almost like we’re seeing Riverdale through Jughead’s eyes. Cheryl, I think you can make the argument is one of the smartest characters that we have on the show. Certainly able to see through people’s facades and through the defenses that they put up. So, she makes a really good character to be able to call out the truth.. And it also helps Madelaine (Petsch) is such an incredible actress that really understands the character and can say those lines that in someone else’s voice might be insulting or devastatingly cruel. Madelaine makes them fun and somehow she gets away with it (laughs). So, she’s just inherently a joy to write for and have her character be able to say things that no one else would have the guts to say.

And Kevin observes a lot, you know? One of the things that I loved that people liked was Kevin just saying in the last episode, “Let the fanfiction begin.” Kevin is the one character who breaks the fourth wall and looks right into the camera and says something that can speak for the audience, which I like. Part of it — that’s like Casey’s (Cott) sweet spot. I really like Casey. He’s a smart, well-trained actor. And when we were shooting episode 12, the Punisher episode, well he walked in and the Punisher almost killing Archie and he goes, “What the hell is going on?” And then he and Archie run down the hall. The director had set up the shot with a long lens, they were supposed to come around the corner, come running toward the camera, then the Punisher (played by Sandy Robson who is just amazing) was going to come around the corner and charge at them.

Well, all that was scripted was Archie and Kevin run down the hall. The Punisher comes around the corner and starts charging them. The problem is when you get on to set sometimes, the amount of time waiting for the next cue of action, can feel really long. And they can feel silly if they’re not doing anything. And Casey came up to me and said, “Can Kevin say something here?” And I said, yeah, let me think of something. I walked away and I walked up to him and I said, what if he says, “This school is insane.” And so Casey said, “That’s great. I can totally sell that!”

And they actually used that line in the trailer for the episode because Casey just gets that Kevin can be a character who can comment on the world around him because often he’s standing on the outside looking in and that’s a fun aspect of him and a fun aspect of Casey as an actor.

So, I think those three are the ones that do it the most. I mean Jughead’s obviously as a writer who’s commenting on it. For all we know, the real Riverdale is bright and sunny and all we’re seeing is Riverdale through the eyes of emo Jughead!

(laughs) That would be an excellent twist!

TS: That would be the ending where you’re just like, “Oh no, this was all in Jughead’s head!”

Oh God. Yeah, that would be great. That last shot of the series is him sending it off to a publisher. That’s amazing. So there is a lot of speculating about season five. Can you comment on if there’s going to be a time jump?

TS: What I can call you is there was a time jump that was definitely on the table. I don’t know what is going to happen now. I mean, there’s a lot of stuff that has been changing on a daily level. There’s stuff that has changed even in the last couple of weeks. So I mean, I can’t promise anything. I mean, one, I, I love my job, so I really can’t promise anything.

I’m really happy that Skeet and Marisol have said, “Yeah, we want to come back and finish season four.” And I know that Roberto announced the other day that they’re not dying. Which we were very adamant, all of us in the room, knew there was no way we were going to kill these characters. Just because two actors want to go and do other stuff, which makes sense after you’ve done something for four seasons, doesn’t mean that they don’t want to come back and do guest star roles and things like that. The only thing I can promise is we’ll see those guys from time to time and whenever they have the time and the inclination.

I think that that will relieve a lot of people. What has been like your favorite fan theory that you’ve seen floating around and are like, “Oh wow, that’s good.”

TS: I will be honest. I started not reading things online. I was really enjoying being at Riverdale on social media at the beginning, but once the subset of the shippers start attacking you and saying really nasty things, after a while you feel like, “I don’t need this toxicity in my life.” So, only occasionally do I put my toe back in the water and look around and most of it’s just screaming at me that I’m an idiot so I haven’t really read the fan theories, I don’t really look at it. Plus, it’s also because I don’t want to be influenced by fan theories in the writers room coming up with stuff.

Yeah, that could open up a whole can of worms so I completely understand that. And that’s actually a really good transition into our final question. There’s so many showrunners, specifically on the CW, that shy away from any mentions of ships or relationships on social media. You guys, however, are really good about kind of playing to your audience with that which is wonderful to see. Because so many people end up feeling like, “Well what am I doing here? Since you don’t even want to hear what I’m saying.” So, is there anything for all those shippers that you could tease for them about the upcoming season?

TS: I mean, what I can tease is you’re going to go through a rollercoaster of emotions, but at the end of the day, these characters all love each other. Especially the core four are a group of people who are going to be in each other’s lives forever. And that’s because of how Roberto has formed them in this show. But also because they are part of a larger, meta, franchise where they’ve been together for half a century or more than half. They’re not going away. And they will find their way back to each other, maybe not how people expect, or maybe not in a way that people want immediately, but I think in a satisfying way.

And as they continue to grow, that’ll be an exciting journey. I mean, I think people have to keep in mind that the seasons are long stories. They’re not just individual episodes. There’s a reason why they’re called chapters and not episodes. These are chapters in their lives. But what’s really cool about where we’re going next is we’re going where Archie comics has never gone before. And that’s beyond high school.

Archie never gets past high school (in the comics) and we’re going to do that. So what does that mean? What is the core four? What is Cheryl? What is Toni? What do they look like and how do they act and how does the world outside of Riverdale change them when they’re back in Riverdale? All those things will be interesting questions to answer and hopefully people will go on that ride with us.

Well, I, for one, I’m looking forward to it.

TS: I know when I’ve gone to my high school reunion it’s really interesting to see who was stuck in high school and who has completely rejected high school and who looks at high school as a phase of their life that colored them, but they’re not controlled by it. I mean, that’s what life is all about. So, we’re going to explore those things.

Well, it sounds like season five is going to be a treat whenever it does come back. Those were all the questions that I had!

TS: I hope I answered them to the best in a satisfying way.

You did. They were great!

TS: Awesome. All right, well thank you. It was really cool. And, I love the fans and I try to interact with them as much as possible. Soon I’ll be posting some more behind the scenes pictures from episode 19 over the next couple of weeks in lieu of having new material to be able to talk about.

If you’re a Riverdale fan, you should really check out Katy Keene. It’s super fun, super great. And it’s all going to be streaming and Michael Grassi and Roberto did an incredible job, so I would highly recommend people check that out if they’re Riverdale fans that are aching for new material and haven’t checked out Katy Keene!

Well, there you have it, folks! Thank you so much to Ted for taking the time out of his day to talk with me. (And also for sticking to his writer roots and doing an edit and saving me a night of proofing, tbh). Riverdale may be not airing new episodes but the entire series (to date) will be available to stream on Netflix this upcoming Thursday, May 14th!

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