When I watch the CW’s “Riverdale,” two thoughts come to mind: One, this show is horrible and two, I can’t stop watching it. As an updated, mystery-filled adaptation of the Archie comics, “Riverdale” makes for equally fantastic and absurd entertainment. Coming to terms with this paradox made me want to explore how “Riverdale” became such a phenomenon and why it’s an example of modern day trash TV.
Trash TV, by definition, refers to a subgenre of television with a focus on controversy and confrontation. The term is often associated with tabloid talk shows that play on miniature TV sets in doctor’s offices or at the DMV: “Dr. Phil,” “Judge Judy,” “The Jerry Springer Show,” you get the idea. But more recently, the connotation of trash TV has broadened to include any show, tabloid or not, that sensationalizes and exploits violence, profanity and nudity as spectacle. Essentially, a trash TV show is considered so awful, you can’t look away.
This definition has found its way into more reality-based shows like ABC’s “The Bachelor” and its spinoff, “The Bachelorette.” Both programs illuminate the worst parts of human relationships through a dating competition show, where one lucky hot person must decide whom to marry among a selection of 25 other hot people. Despite critical ire, “The Bachelor” and “The Bachelorette” have been met with commercial success since their premieres in 2002 and 2003, respectively. Other iconic trash TV shows like MTV’s “Jersey Shore” and “Teen Mom” have also encountered similar prosperity during their runs, attracting loads of viewers for their tasteless portrayals of American life. Even though they weren’t the most sympathetic subjects, douchey club-goers from New Jersey and pregnant teenagers from rural American towns made for great television.
How, then, does “Riverdale” fit into the trash TV mold? For starters, “Riverdale” is a hot mess. It has the melodramatic, mawkish appeal of a daytime soap and the contrived acting of a teen after-school special. The show also lacks compelling writing, with characters mustering up excessive pop cultural references that are way too obscure, cheesy and confusing for its own good. “Can't we, in this post-James Franco world, just be all things?” was a legitimate line of dialogue from the pilot — let that sink in. The characters themselves, unfortunately, don’t do any justice for the script either, resembling far-fetched, one-dimensional caricatures straight out of a campy musical about high school (no disrespect to “High School Musical”). Even though “Riverdale” may not embody the typical traits of a trash TV show, it certainly embodies a trashy, cringe-inducing ethos.
Along with exemplifying the spirit of the trash TV show, “Riverdale” also gets an extra boost from its online popularity. According to a Vulture article, the streaming platform may have had a role in “Riverdale”’s continuing success when the first season was made available on the streaming platform. There is plausibility to that argument: “Riverdale”’s second season, which premiered on Oct. 11, reached a ratings high, peaking at 2.34 million in the first episode.
And “Riverdale” isn’t the only serialized TV show that has capitalized on their trashy appeal through an online presence. Back in 2012, Spike TV’s “Blue Mountain State” drew a heavy cult following once its first three seasons made its way to Netflix. The show depicted a fictitious college football team that indulged heavily in the stereotypical, over-stylized luxuries of American college life. For devoted fans, the insane binge drinking, toxic masculinity and objectified female characters inherent in “BMS” made the show both relentlessly amusing and wildly idiotic. The show’s growing, post-mortem fanbase was enough to ignite a Kickstarter campaign for a “BMS” movie that reached its goal of $1.5 million. Perhaps trash TV deserves more merit than we give it.
Of course, “Riverdale” isn’t without its perks. Underneath its flashy murder mystery plot, the show has a charming, diverse cast, stylish production values and tight structuring. Like other teen dramas, “Riverdale” discusses topical themes, such as mental illness, sexuality, the strains of friendship and family dynamics, with surprising nuance. Though most of the characters aren’t exactly A-level complex, “Riverdale” makes a concerted effort to develop their arcs. And during some of its most climactic moments, “Riverdale” understands how laughable the drama can get.
Cole Sprouse (“Suite Life on Deck”) exemplifies some of “Riverdale”’s best and worst traits as the introspective Jughead Jones, playing his role with an equal amount of grating self-seriousness and sly self-awareness. One of his most infamous scenes, which involves telling Betty (Lili Reinhart, “The Kings of Summer”) that he’s a weirdo, has spawned numerous scathing responses. At the same time, it has also become one of the most memorable, defining moments in “Riverdale”’s first season, enough to spark momentum and conversation among fans and non-fans of the show.
To be clear, “trash TV” isn’t just bad TV that gets good ratings (looking at you, “The Big Bang Theory”). It’s the type of “so-bad-it’s-good” show that breeds its own intense, devoted fandom, whose presence becomes so powerful that it develops into a cult following. People watch trash TV not just because it is so ineffably entertaining, but also because it inadvertently forms its own community. Watching a crappy TV show like “The Bachelor” with a group of people seems just as common nowadays as watching an acclaimed TV show like “Games of Thrones.” Trash TV remains a relevant staple in modern day entertainment, even in the age of so-called prestige television. Whether you love to hate “Riverdale” or hate to love it, it’s a show that subverts the dominant standard of quality TV. Depending on your taste, maybe that’s something we can all get behind.