“Riverdale,” a teen drama fueled by little more than smut and thin mysteries, is currently airing its fifth season on The CW. How has this critically panned show managed to carry on so long?
“Riverdale”’s first season relied heavily on association with the Archie Comics and the excitement of seeing popular characters come to life as it followed the murder mystery of a local boy. Then, in season two, the show introduced the family-friendly plotline of serial killers, cults and mass hysteria. Now in season five, the show leans on far-fetched antics and resorts to soft porn to keep viewers interested. In its most recent season, three of the characters are in a love triangle and a literal war is being fought on the football field. I have to admit, I am invested and have embarrassingly watched all of the seasons — but why? What keeps fans coming back?
“Riverdale” is inherently a horrible show. The show introduces very concerning and mature themes for a teenage target audience and frustratingly never resolves them. Outlandish plot points are initiated, like when Betty Cooper (Lili Reinhart) becomes a webcam girl as a minor, Veronica Lodge (Camila Mendes) operates a speak–easy and Archie Andrews (KJ Apa) has an affair with his teacher, but none of these actions ever have any full resolution. The technical writing of this show is lazy. The dialogue is unrealistic. Characters never undergo a full character arc, and if they do, it is quickly abandoned.
Fortunately for “Riverdale”’s sake, bad television isn’t a new phenomenon. From the rise in popularity of reality television and the flooding of the young adult market with teen programming, muddled and melodramatic shows have been in the forefront of pop culture.
Many avid viewers hide their consumption of shows that are objectively bad and chalk them up to being guilty pleasures. But there is no reason to be embarrassed. There is a psychological reason why audiences like bad television.
For some, shows like “Riverdale” are comforting because viewers do not need to think while watching them. Arguably, if you did try to comprehend “Riverdale,” it might actually make the programming more confusing. Scientifically speaking, bad TV shows create a sense of comfort because they are unchallenging for viewers whose everyday lives carry a great deal of hardship.
The fascinating thing about shows like “Riverdale”— or equivalents like “Teen Wolf” or “The Vampire Diaries” — being viewers’ first choice for comfort shows is that their plots are consistently dark.
Some viewers find comfort in watching shows about people who are worse off than they are. Security can be found in seeing characters experience similar or worse things than they do. This is what psychologists refer to as social comparison. This psychological theory asserts that individuals gauge their own self-worth based on how they compare to others. So when some people watch “Riverdale” and see an opposing gang beat up Jughead Jones (Cole Sprouse), they can think to themselves with relief, “Yikes, well, at least I am not him.”
But this is only one side of the “Riverdale” equation. The other half of the programming is composed of steamy scenes of intimacy. It is hard to remember, but the characters of “Riverdale” are teenagers despite running drug rings and fighting in gang wars.
The fact that sex sells is nothing new. All forms of media and advertisements show this. It makes logical sense that with a plot as skewed as “Riverdale”’s, producers will hone in on what keeps the people coming back — a shirtless KJ Apa.
The problem with an overwhelming majority of young adult programming like “Riverdale” is the level of ease these teenage characters have very mature sex. Programs typically depict unrealistic and easy–to–digest versions of sex, which offer a warped perception of the realities of intimacy to younger viewers.
There are plenty of shows that offer entertaining and healthy depictions of sex, like “Sex Education” or “One Day at a Time.” But in order for bad television to succeed, it relies on steamy scenes to keep audiences engaged, and it works.
Despite its poor writing, “Riverdale” does not look to be going away anytime soon, as The CW has renewed it for a sixth season. Much to my dismay, successful bad TV has a foolproof formula that works. So on principle and out of respect for quality television programming, I vow to stop watching “Riverdale” — just as soon as I finish season five.