Young adult shows like 'Riverdale', '13 Reasons Why', and 'Pretty Little Liars' fail to accurately portray the lives of young adults

Be it 'Riverdale', '13 Reasons Why' or 'Pretty Little Liars', young adult shows are increasingly becoming unrealistic and absurd. MEA WorldWide (MEAWW) tries to uncover the reason behind this phenomenon

                            Young adult shows like 'Riverdale', '13 Reasons Why', and 'Pretty Little Liars' fail to accurately portray the lives of young adults

Earlier this month, Netflix released the trailer to its latest young adult thriller 'The Society' — a new take on the 1954 novel 'The Lord of the Flies' by William Golding. The thriller follows a group of teenagers transported to a facsimile of their posh New England town without any parental presence. As the series progresses, the group must not only figure out how to go about their now-chaotic lives (for some reason, the trailer shows a lot of burning cars) but attempt to establish order and form alliances to survive.

Some of the most popular young-adult shows on television and digital streaming platforms begin on a thrill like this. Somewhere down the line though, the shows lose track of their original plotline, venturing into a convoluted territory. These shows begin with organic issues teenagers deal with all the time — teenage pregnancy, drug use, bullying, and assault and then move on to a shoddy portrayal of these subjects.

As a result, one can observe that young adult shows consistently fail with the younger generation. Some upset the fanbase over their convoluted storylines, plotholes, red herrings, and unnecessary additions to the cast while others see a downfall because they find the protagonists stuck in a loop, or because the show has become too absurd to be real anymore.

The fact that the shows resort to wildly unreasonable plotlines — really, how many times have you ventured into the woods looking for a masked killer? — is the cause for growing resentment among its own fanbase. Shows like 'Pretty Little Liars', 'The Vampire Diaries' and the most recent of this category, 'Riverdale', saw even crimes and murders getting a Nancy Drew or Hardy Boys-esque treatment.


A still from 'Riverdale' (Image: Netflix/The CW)

But let’s dissect one of the biggest attractions of these shows: diversity. 'Riverdale' became a popular show among the masses because of writers bringing in queer characters. This, however, quickly takes the form of tokenism as the show falls back on tried-and-tested formulae.



Show writers come from different backgrounds and tend to bring in their experiences in their writing — perhaps that is what results in such a botched up, unreal, varied portrayal of the teenage generation. Dr. Andrea Braithwaite, an Associate Teaching Professor at Ontario Tech University (also known as the University of Ontario Institute of Technology), who generates awareness on the role of pop culture representations in gender and sexual inequality, told MEA WorldWide (MEAWW): "Factors like geography, nationality, race, gender, class, etc., help make one young adult's life different from another's. Similarly, different programs and different genres will bring different approaches to how they construct what it means to be a young adult within their fictional universe, so it's hard to offer insight that would apply equally well to the wide range of writers, producers, and channels trying to represent contemporary youth issues."

Fans complain about degrading content quality but continue watching the show. One Twitter fan account MEAWW spoke to (@HaileyWeyand) said how they continue watching the show because of the message associated to it. "Producers and writers [of the shows] are trying to make people realize that bullying, getting pregnant or using drugs is not the answer and they are showing people what can happen to a person. I think '13 Reasons Why' and 'Riverdale' want to set an example to show people that all the stuff they are doing is not ok."

Another fan (@RiverdaleTheCW) believes that producers don't necessarily get the realism wrong. "It's probably because they’re not trying to make it realistic in the first place. I think high school students are used more as a metaphor to show that there is still innocence to characters. Using kids to show certain messages like pregnancy or love or death packs a stronger emotional punch than if the same situations were happening to adults." 

While the shows depict themes of popularity, looks, jock and nerd culture as the center of a young adult's life, in reality, there are much graver issues. To that, the fan said, "Just because there might be 'graver issues' in a young adult's life, doesn’t discount the feelings of more frivolous issues. I’m personally not a fan of saying 'you can’t feel stressed or sad because someone has it worse than you'. That’s not emotionally healthy for anyone. I’m lucky enough to have a job and a home when not everyone does but I’m allowed to have bad days at work or feel stressed. Outside of that, I don’t personally want to watch a show that’s mentally heavy every single second. Sometimes I want to see something silly, especially in 'Riverdale'. Like they’ve dodged how many murderers now? Like their life is a giant horror movie. I’m shocked none of them are on anxiety meds because I’d be popping pills or getting wine drunk daily if I lived there."

The fact that the ratings of a certain show go down in the seasons following the first one, is proof that the makers of the show get lazy. This was something MEAWW discussed in an earlier article when Netflix released 'The Society' trailer. Here's an excerpt: 'Pretty Little Liars' saw a consistently plummeting rating with every season. From the 2.87 rating that it got with the release of its first season in 2010, their ratings dropped to 1.11 by the time they reached the last seventh season in 2016. What bored audiences was not just a really stretched plotline over a span of six years but also how the lead characters were stuck in a reverie.

Netflix's 'Sex Education' was widely praised for its true portrayal of a teenager's life (Image: Netflix)

When it comes to portraying the real young adult life on the screen, perhaps 'Sex Education' has done some good there. Even though it has been only one season, it has set a high standard for other shows running in the race. Maybe it’ll be the first show to truly show who the ideal young adult is and continue doing so.