As the creator of the hit CW network series “Riverdale” and the Netflix series “The Chilling Adventures of Sabrina,” Roberto Aguirre-Sacasa has reinvented the world of the long-running Archie comics to create dazzlingly original shows that have ascended to be two of the top five most popular programs on the planet right now. As a result, he recently scored an $80 million production deal to create even more series.
Yet prior to his current TV career and status overseeing Archie Comics’ TV and movie projects, Aguirre-Sacasa was an acclaimed playwright as well. In 2003, he wrote a play called “Good Boys and True,” about Brandon Hardy, a golden boy senior at St. Joseph’s Prep who is accused of being in a kinky sex tape. The accusation could shatter everything he’s worked for and his family reputation, and Brandon swears he’s not the boy in it — and the play follows him and his mother as they pull out all the stops to clear his name, which leads to the unearthing of shocking secrets that affect the entire school and their town.
Aguirre-Sacasa decided to use his newfound TV success to revive the passion project play, and is mounting it as “Good Boys” at the Pasadena Playhouse from Wednesday through July 21.
Speaking recently with the Pasadena Weekly, he shared the surprising inspiration for the play, how it’s more relevant than ever now in the #Metoo era and addressed the responsibility that comes with creating shows for impressionable young minds.
Pasadena Weekly: What was the genesis of the play and how did you decide to revive it now?
Aguirre-Sacasa: I wrote the first draft 15 years ago. It’s a play that’s set in a prep school, with its golden boy star athlete with great grades who’s president of his class and finds himself accused of a scandal. A videotape has been found of someone who looks like him having sex with a girl who goes to a public school, and the play’s sort of a mystery: Did this boy do it or not? Is he the guy on the tape? And the further mystery — if it was him, why was it him? It’s sort of about the boy and his mother having a huge reckoning about responsibility, morality and what constitutes acceptable and not acceptable behavior. It’s a prep school play like “Dead Poet’s Society” or “School Ties,” and a thriller about a mother trying to defend her son. I wrote it 15 years ago, and it has had productions, but it’s very rare for everything to come together and work perfectly. I started talking to [Playhouse artistic director] Danny Feldman after the Kavanaugh hearings, and said I want to do a little more work on it, but he loved it and that led it to the Pasadena Playhouse.
Did this play come to you out of some sort of personal experience?
I went to an all-boys prep school just outside of DC where I grew up, but I never experienced anything like what is in the play. What started me writing about this was the Duke lacrosse scandal, where the team had a party where things got extremely questionable and accusations were flying. I want to say it was just about that, but these kinds of scandals are happening with alarming frequency. I wanted to write about my high school experience and sort of combined the two. On one hand it’s very personal about my time there, and on the other it’s about the phenomenon of young men behaving poorly in the rarefied atmosphere of prep school, which has always been a hothouse of testosterone, privilege and insecurity. So it’s both personal and in response to something that happens all too often. The Duke players, as far as I know, were totally exonerated, but the culture that enables it was put on trial, and that’s in the play too.
How were the current rewrites impacted by #METoo?
The play is a period piece, set in 1989. Even the language we talk about — me too, toxic masculinity, check your privilege — these phrases didn’t exist back then. They were things you didn’t talk about or question and it’s unchecked. In that way it’s a period piece, very much an old boys’ locker room mentality, and not many people are challenging it. The main character, the mother, is challenging it but she’s very much a lone wolf on this. It’s not the revolution it is now. In the play she’s on her own, navigating these uncharted waters. She’s never been inside the gymnasium, locker room, coach’s office. In the play her husband always handled this, and he’s now out of town on a trip so she’s forced to get involved. Part of the challenge is asking is it possible to indict an entire system when it should be done on a case by case basis? The mother tries to blame the culture, saying, ‘My son wouldn’t have done this if not for the culture.’ The coach says, ‘Don’t kid yourself, there are a lot of kids in this culture who haven’t done anything remotely like what your son has been accused of doing.’ I agree there’s nothing more pressing and demanding to do than to look at the cases individually and judge as individuals.
“Riverdale” sparked some controversy by having occasionally racy sexual scenes between its teenage characters, and “Sabrina” was accused by some for depicting a teenage witch deciding whether to follow her family’s bloodline into working with Satan. Yet “Riverdale” is extremely anti-drug and has basically good kids fighting evil, while “Sabrina,” in its final episode thus far, shows her unequivocally acting against Satan and picking good over evil as well. What do you have to say to your critics?
It’s funny, I was raised Catholic, and I love scary movies like “The Omen,” “Rosemary’s Baby” and “The Exorcist.” In many ways, “Sabrina” is much more wholesome and innocent than “Riverdale.” The kids feel like real teenagers, and I think the show needed that innocence and optimism to balance out the darker elements. If the teens were older and more sexually active like they are on “Riverdale,” you wouldn’t get the delicious contradiction of Sabrina, a young woman of 16 facing down the Dark Lord. It’s also about her family and always defending the underdog and her friends, so it’s hard to ignore that. You can find reason to be offended by anything, but when you really look at Sabrina it’s so clear that this isn’t reality, that she and her family love each other, and they fight for good even if they were raised to say ‘Hail Satan.’ If you’re looking for a cause to be offended, you will find it. But that’s not what the show is about. It’s really about a kid finding their place in the world.
To me the difference is the kids are in committed relationships in “Riverdale,” and hooking up is not a constant focus of the show. And you fight drugs with Archie. On “Euphoria,” there’s constant drugs, teen date rape, and a trans kid gets raped by a man. Its creator laughs, saying they’re making the most messed up show imaginable to freak out parents. Where do you draw the line or feel responsibility?
I saw “Euphoria” when it premiered and I really, really enjoyed it and I thought going in it might be really nihilistic and I don’t want to see teenagers suffering. But I really enjoyed it, thought it well done and was captivated by it and the kids on the show. But “Riverdale” is so different from it. We’re so far from reality. It’s so heightened, we often get criticized because our kids are never in school — they’re running clubs, owning restaurants and solving murders. It’s escapism. I think every artist draws the line with what they want to explore, depict and show. We’ve kind of gone there, we had one episode where Cheryl Blossom was slipped a mickey and was going to be date raped but the Pussycats showed up and beat the tar out of them. You have to decide what you want to put out there and what you want to say, but I’ve always been more interested in escapism and genre, crime and pulp.
“Good Boys” runs from Wed.-July 21 at the Pasadena Playhouse, 39 S. El Molino Ave., Pasadena. Tickets are $25-$95. Call (626) 356-7529 or visit pasadenaplayhouse.org.
To hear the full, extended interview with Roberto Aguirre-Sacasa, recorded on the “Man Up” radio show Kozlowski co-hosts on KRLA AM 870, visit manupshow.net/episodes.