This Is Why Adults Are Obsessed with Teen TV Dramas, According to Psychology
When it comes to starting new TV shows, I have a list of qualifying musts: A catchy hook; edge-of-your-seat drama; smart-talking characters that deliver one-liners with the grace of Kate Middleton at a public event.
So when Riverdale, the CW's latest teen drama, came out last year, I knew it was just the show for me. Catchy hook in the form of my favorite comic book characters? Check. Murder-mystery dramatics? Check. Chic teens delivering Blair Waldorf-worthy comebacks? Check and check.
I have no shame proclaiming my love for a show targeted at 16-year-olds and hosted on a network known for its over-the-top soapy-ness (including gems like Gossip Girl and Jane the Virgin). That's me. But I soon realized that many of my InStyle co-workers felt exactly the same way. "GIRL, I LOVE RIVERDALE," said InStyle beauty editor Marianne Mychaskiw (yes, in all caps). "I can't even talk about it!!"
"I know the OG comics were nowhere near as dramatic as an episode of Riverdale," she continued. "At certain points [of the show] it gets so insane that I have to pause the show and just WALK AROUND MY APARTMENT. My neighbors have heard me scream out loud to multiple episodes, and the cast is just great." Edge-of-your-seat drama is clearly a huge appeal for others, but why specifically teen drama? You could easily watch a show about grown-ups like Scandal or Grey's Anatomy, but for some reason, they just don't deliver the same punch as our well-dressed high schoolers.
"I still feel like an angsty, drama-filled teenager myself," said Olivia Bahou, InStyle's assistant digital editor. "Even at 23, I probably still have more in common with Serena van der Woodsen than I do [with], say, Olivia Pope." Plus, it probably helps that the actors playing these teens are past high-school age themselves.
"High school is the perfect drama stew," mused senior multimedia editor Emily Shornick. "You’ve got hundreds of kids from a wide range of backgrounds jumbled together in an environment where they don’t have a lot of control. They are pushed into unexpected pairings for book reports and football tryouts, and are forced to confront their differences at a time when they are still figuring out who they are in the first place." Ahh, now I think we're onto something here.
And it's not just the InStyle staff drinking the Kool-Aid. "Coming-of-age stories are classic tales that resonate outside of the target group. It's something that everyone goes through, and it's interesting to watch young people develop their own identity," explained Sherri Williams, Assistant Professor in Race, Media, and Communication at American University. "Milestones in our own lives are reflected in the show, and we watch with the wisdom we have now."
It's easy for us to excuse any wrong turn or obvious mistake a character might make because, truth be told, at 16, we might have made the same one. Add the drama of a murder mystery, chic clothing, and amazing come backs, and you have yourself a perfect recipe for an addictive show.
"I’m 29 and would never want to return to high school," adds Erin Lukas, an InStyle beauty writer and fellow lover of Riverdale. "But watching the over-dramatic plot lines of teen drama series makes me feel like I have my life together. Just like how people watch fantasy shows like Game of Thrones, I watch teen shows to forget about my own problems for 40 minutes."
"It's escapism," according to psychologist Amy Bucher, Ph.D. "When we get absorbed into the world of a TV show, we're not focusing on our own worries or distressing news stories. TV in particular can be addicting [because] our brains are wired for stories above most other forms of information. A lot of low-brow television does a great job capturing the rhythms of a captivating story—including, of course, the cliffhanger that makes us want to drive right into the next episode." So, as Fred Andrews's fate hangs in the air, Riverdale fans get to obsess and stew over how everything will turn out come season two.
Speaking of Fred Andrews, he and his TV wife Mary are played by two iconic '80s high-schoolers: Luke Perry portrayed brooding bad boy Dylan McKay on Beverly Hills, 90210, and Molly Ringwald needs no introduction. For adults, "There's the draw of the Archie Comics—generations grew up reading Archie—and if you grew up watching Beverly Hills, 90210, there’s Luke Perry," says Williams. "You get to see again him again as the cool dad."
But the big difference between the '80s and '90s high-school drama and today's high-school drama is the depth of the characters. You have the stereotypes—jock, cheerleader, nerd, outsider—but they're much more nuanced and well-rounded. "The stereotype might be a storytelling device to recognize the character, but the storytelling itself is more complex," said Williams. Archie doesn't just play football; he's a singer too! Betty isn't just your classic straight-A student; she's a crime-solving reporter with a special place in her heart for the resident loner, Jughead—who also is more than just the hamburger-eating weirdo we know and love from the comics. He is also, hands down, my favorite character. (Everyone loves Juggie!)
So keep not feeling lame about indulging in the soapy, thrilling, melodramatic antics of Archie, Betty, Veronica, Jughead, and the gang. And don't you DARE miss the season two premiere of Riverdale, this Wednesday at 8 p.m. ET on The CW.