“I know I’m incredibly handsome, but please, let’s try to forget about that.” That line might sound like it comes from a pulpy teen show like Riverdale, the CW’s sexy-noir spin on the Archie Comics, but it’s actually from the HBO drama The Young Pope. Although these two shows are targeted at different audiences, they’re similarly outlandish. Just as TV in the early oughts was dominated by the Brooding White Middle-Aged Antihero across a variety of shows (Tony Soprano, Walter White, Don Draper), these shows are signifying a new trend: the rise of absurd TV.
The Young Pope has sparked its own meme culture, in part because its premise is ridiculous and can be summarized with “What if the Pope was, like, young and hot?” Although Riverdale has not generated quite as much internet chatter yet, it’s got a similar jumping off point: Take a cultural entity that’s widely known as being square and make it improbably sexy.
Now that concept isn’t absurd on its own. With over 400 scripted series having sprouted in 2016 alone, weird ideas are bound to leak through. But it’s just how far Riverdale and The Young Pope run with their premises that’s noteworthy. As each show unfolds, it becomes increasingly difficult to tell if they’re in on their own joke or are the result of the golden age of television pushed to its limits.
Bursting with self-important proclamations like “I am a contradiction!” and scenes such as Jude Law dramatically emerging from a pile of babies under baroque lighting, The Young Pope is either a parody of prestige TV or prestige TV that’s become a self-parody. Some reviewers are taking the former stance, some the latter.
Riverdale lives in the same liminal space. It’s brimming with lines that are either trying way too hard to be a Cool Edgy Teen Show, or it’s actually poking fun at Cool Edgy Teen Shows. Veronica is often the focus of dialogue like this. She asks, “Can’t we, in this post James Franco world, be all things at once?” at a dance, and after kissing Betty, she’s told, “Faux lesbian kissing hasn’t been taboo since 1994.” Tonally, each show plays it straight, but the content is so outlandish that it prompts one to wonder just how self-aware they are.
Of course, that’s precisely why absurd TV is the most fitting entertainment for our current era. With Donald Trump in the White House — a sentence that still feels outlandish — our very reality has become a joke that’s gone too far, only with no accompanying laugh track to signify that it’s on purpose.
It’s no coincidence that The Young Pope comes across as a startling parallel to the rise of Trump. Just as sci-fi and fantasy shows help us to filter unbelievable reality through fictional lenses, absurd TV helps us grapple with an era where nobody’s sure if or when to laugh. In the era of alternative facts and rogue national park Twitter accounts, when a reality television star has the nuclear codes, we’re left waiting for a punchline that never seems to come.
In the entertainment world, shows that straddle the line between commenting on their genres and demonstrating the worst of their impulses have never been more relevant. The rise of absurd TV has only just begun.