Hunter Hargraves is Associate Professor of Cinema and Television Arts at California State University, Fullerton. His new book Uncomfortable Television examines how postmillennial television made its audiences find pleasure through discomfort, showing that televisual unease trains audiences to survive under late capitalism, which demands that individuals accept a certain amount of discomfort, dread, and irritation into their everyday lives.
In your introduction, you describe your book as “a historiography of television’s formal relationship to pleasure” (7). In layman’s terms, how would you summarize the project or main intervention of Uncomfortable Television?
Uncomfortable Television examines why, as television’s key forms, genres, and viewing practices changed dramatically throughout the early twenty-first century, television also began to make us feel more uncomfortable. For most of the twentieth century, TV was popularly thought to be a family-friendly entertainment medium. Audiences found pleasure in the simple setups of a sitcom, for example, and knew when to laugh thanks to the canned laugh track. Or they would watch a police drama and know who to root for, since these programs had clearly defined heroes and villains. In the twenty-first century, however, we derive pleasure on TV from much darker affects and situations. We cringe at irritating and awkward protagonists. We binge series that depict frequent instances of sexual assault and racialized violence, occasionally asking audiences to show some degree of sympathy for these “antiheroes.” As television evolved throughout the 2000s and early 2010s to include more serialized narratives, more high-quality aesthetics, more legitimation from cultural elites, more fan cultures, and more programming in general, it used these changes to mask this shift in pleasure—that’s the thrust of the book’s intervention.
In addition to this historiography, Uncomfortable Television both argues for an attention to affect and performance in television studies and offers a critique of neoliberalism. How do you connect these cultural and political/economic components in your analysis?
With respect to the first part of this—the attention to affect and performance in television studies—it’s partly coincidental: as television changes in the 21st century, affect studies also begins to emerge as an interdisciplinary field, giving scholars across the humanities and social sciences new vocabularies to make sense of cultural texts. Within media studies, most of this engagement with affect tends to focus on film, however, which I attribute to television’s “low” commercial status; at the time, television was thought as formally too uninteresting and too simplistic to merit affective inquiry. I argue that television has always been invested in the production of affect, but its looser narrative structure means that this investment occurs on different terms. In the book’s first chapter, for example, I go even further back and look at the British cultural historian Raymond Williams’ canonical writings on television and on affect—what he calls “structures of feeling”—to diagram how television represents the habits, behaviors, and feelings of everyday experience.
As far as neoliberalism goes, the connection is a little more direct: late capitalism thrives on an uncomfortable viewer/consumer in part because it can offer costly solutions to alleviate this discomfort. Beyond this, however, the changes to society enacted by neoliberalism—the outsourcing of the welfare state to private institutions, the valorization of entrepreneurship despite the precarity it engenders, and the reorganization of consumer society around the individual rather than the nuclear family—all pave the way for the proliferation of discomfort. Targeting the individual viewer rather than the family unit, for example, means that producers are no longer required to make family-friendly content, since narrowcasting has enabled each member of the family to watch different programs on different devices, thus resulting in programming with less restrictions when it comes to profanity, sex, and violence. Television has consistently taught audiences how to adjust to new economic realities going as far back to its popularization in the 1950s, which was strongly connected to the development of a postwar consumer society and the middle-class, suburban lifestyle associated with the “American dream.” Uncomfortable Television argues that postmillennial television has a similar function, teaching its audiences how to live under the anxiety and precarity common to neoliberalism.
Can certain forms of discomfort be productive, or otherwise preferable to or distinct from others? How might you distinguish become “uncomfortable” and “offensive,” for example?
Discomfort is tricky to dissect, in part because it is pretty subjective: in your example, what is uncomfortable for one viewer might be offensive to another viewer. (And I acknowledge how my own position as a queer White male influences my readings of discomfort throughout the book.) But because television criticism has expanded throughout the twenty-first century, encompassing blogs, think pieces, podcasts, and social media commentary, I think it becomes a lot easier to map the nuances of audience discomfort. Now, that doesn’t necessarily recoup it as fully productive: in the book’s first chapter, I look at HBO’s Girls and the celebrity persona of its creator, Lena Dunham, who is satirically characterized as an irritating and entitled millennial who just doesn’t have it together. Irritation is rarely thought of as “productive” because it is too minor to provoke serious action. But I read Girls as reclaiming irritation in all of its forms—such as trolling or calling out—as weapons of survival for millennials in an economy stacked against them, which can result in fundamentally strange and contradictory feelings of joy and pleasure.
You assert that “television is a medium fundamentally of the present” (8). Can you expand on this distinction between television and other forms of media and on their differing temporalities/relationships to time?
Within television studies, TV has been historically thought of as a “medium fundamentally of the present” because of its liveness, since for the first half of its history its programming wasn’t easily archivable or replayable, aside from syndication and re-runs. This is why so many of the programs that garner high ratings over the past twenty years—sports and big reality competitions—rely on an unspoiled viewer watching live, despite advances in recording technology. Beyond that, and more relevant to my book’s project, television’s scripted storylines also creep out across several seasons, making it hard to periodize easily. A stand-alone film that moves towards closure more easily reflects its time of production and release, whereas television can tell a story across several years or even decades, making it harder to categorize affectively. One aside I make in the book is that even though shows like Friends and ER were some of the most popular series of the 2000s, their episodic forms are of the 1990s, so that throughout their runs they present a mix of historically-specific affects that isn’t always recognizable at their moment of broadcast. In Uncomfortable Television’s conclusion, for instance, I look at discomfort from the perspective of when a program’s comedic style feels too dated or problematic for the current time. I use the example of blackface in 30 Rock, which audiences enjoyed ironically fifteen years ago but now is considered inappropriate; in fact, series creator Tina Fey pulled episodes containing blackface from streaming platforms following the 2020 murder of George Floyd and the subsequent Black Lives Matter uprisings.
What’s your favorite television show (that would hold up under critical scrutiny, in your opinion), and what is your “guilty pleasure”?
This is hard, since I have so many favorites! Most of my recreational viewing actually falls into so-called “guilty pleasures”; I have a perverse interest in reality television, watching a lot of gamedocs like Big Brother and melodramas like the Housewives. Sometimes I think I became a scholar of television in part to rationalize my love of these programs and to subject them to the kind of critical scrutiny that still accounts for their many voyeuristic pleasures. But as far as more legitimated television goes, I tend to stan series that are invested in narrating the complexity of minoritarian experience—Paramount+’s The Good Fight might be my favorite drama from the past few years.
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