The CW show Riverdale first began airing in January 2017, during my senior year of high school. I was, at that point, bored and ready to graduate, so after watching a few trailers and stalking the actors’ Instagram accounts, I began watching the first season.
Loosely based on the Archie comics, Riverdale immediately establishes itself as surreal and otherworldly, set in a parallel dimension painted in lurid greens and reds. A murder sets the overarching plot line from the first episode, narrated in ominous undertones by Jughead Jones, and the show increasingly ratchets up the tension, somehow incorporating street gangs and corporate scandal, illicit love affairs and burgeoning music careers to create an enormously complicated story that unravels as the show continues on.Riverdale haters have the kind of hate that spurs them to action—an act of hate-creating, if you will.
I watched the first 10 episodes and then stopped, mostly because the show’s ludicrousness eventually exceeded my ability to suspend my disbelief. Months passed; I started college. Riverdale became a successful TV show, airing over 70 episodes and turning its actors—KJ Apa, Lili Reinhart, Camila Mendes, and Cole Sprouse—into stars.
Meanwhile, on the internet, a cove of Riverdale haters emerged. An internet personality named Elijah Daniel tweeted, “Does the Riverdale fanbase know the show sucks and don’t care or do they just not know,” garnering over 23,000 retweets—and also, incidentally, inciting the wrath of several Riverdale actors. A video popped up in my recommended feed on YouTube titled “riverdale having bad writing for 2 minutes straight.” Curious, I clicked on the thumbnail. What followed was a series of video clips that pieced together all the worst bits of dialogue from Riverdale, intercut with memes and floating white text pointing out the ridiculousness of the dialogue. In one clip, actor Camila Mendes somehow delivers the line, “I beg your misogynistic pardon?” with a straight face. In another, Mendes’s character, the capable and sophisticated Veronica Lodge, leads the high school’s cheerleaders in a dance showcase outside of the local prison, to the benefit of the boys locked up inside. A simple Google search revealed that videos and tweets and comments and memes like these exist in legion.
“I feel like [the characters] speak in sim language sometimes,” wrote user xjupitvr, in the comments section of one of the other compilation videos. Another commenter noted, “It’s like the writers read a bunch of Twitter posts and just assumed that this is how all teens talk.”
The kind of hate directed toward Riverdale isn’t anything new. Consider the overblown infamy of Rebecca Black’s song “Friday” or the hoopla surrounding The Bachelor, literally anything on TLC or even Fifty Shades of Gray. In a BBC article titled “The Joy of Hate-Watching,” writer Jennifer Keishin Armstrong points out that, due to the vast amount of content available for people to watch, we can now afford to not only express our love for our favorite TV shows, but also “regularly revel in finding plot holes and analyzing awfulness.” Armstrong cites television critic Emily Nussbaum’s 2012 essay in the New Yorker as a moment when the act of “hate-watching” rose into the wider consciousness. In “Hate-watching Smash,” Nussbaum compares the show Smash with a failed Aaron Sorkin drama called Studio 60, pointing out that both were “bad in a truly spectacular way.” And yet, she writes, she still watches Smash. And she loves it.
With hate-watching, however, there’s a sort of implied passivity in the practice. You might sit on your sofa and tweet about how awful the show is, or talk about how much you hate it with your friends who also hate it. But Riverdale haters have the kind of hate that spurs them to action—an act of hate-creating, if you will. And this action, in turn, produces these memes and tiny bits of pop culture that function, almost, as a labor of love. After all, you can’t make compilation videos without first watching the show, noting which lines are the most ridiculous, hunting down the specific footage, and tying it all together in iMovie. And the end result is not that much different than the compilations that, say, fans of Gossip Girl or Gilmore Girls upload on YouTube—ever seen “The Chuck and Blair Story”? Or watched through the playlist of all the best Jess and Rory moments? These videos are in the same genre of internet video as “2 minutes of riverdale having bad writing,” but they’re based on a different thesis. You love it, or you hate it. What results from this display of emotion ends up being almost the same thing.
Hate-watching is performative, argues TV critic Ryan McGee. “No one truly hatewatches something they actually hate,” he claims. “What they hate is the execution, not the premise, which means that hatewatching is engaging with the potency of the idea versus the potency of its reality.” Madeleine Davies writes in a Jezebel article that hate watching functions as a justification of sorts, saying that “we use terms like hate-watch and guilty pleasure so we don’t have to admit that Honey Boo Boo makes us laugh.” Even if your enjoyment bases itself in schadenfreude, she says, it’s nevertheless still enjoyment.
But even beyond these things, both hate-watching and hate-creating reveal the contrariness of human nature and our own self-awareness. Hate-watching, on paper, does not make sense. Why would you watch something you hate? Why would you make an entire video compilation dedicated to something you hate? And yet we do. The motivation behind this can be any number of things; the term hate-watching simply stands as a code. It can mean that we love to hate it. It can mean that we don’t actually hate the show, but we’re just too ashamed to admit that we secretly love it. It can mean that we’re the kind of people who would also watch a train wreck, if it happened in front of us, or perhaps an airplane crash. It can mean that the viewer in question is crazy.
It could also mean that we seek to be more than we are, which is something we’ve done from the moment that Eve saw that the “tree was good for food, and it was a delight to the eyes, and that the tree was to be desired to make one wise.” Hate-watching sometimes functions as a byproduct of the desire to be more than we are by being better than everyone else—smarter than the people who were somehow duped into loving Riverdale, classier than the stans who hang onto every word that drops from the actors’ lips. To hate on something that other people love, when it is so “obviously” bad, sometimes means to look down on other people who love the show and to feel better by proximity. You are above this show, but not so elitist that you refuse to partake completely.
After all, we’re not eating the fruit; we’re just hate-eating the fruit. Which is better. Right?