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Uncomfortable Television: A Conversation with Hunter Hargraves

From Film Quarterly, Spring 2023, Volume 76, Number 3

Bruno Guaraná

Looking back at my television diet of the past twenty years or so, I can point to many moments of discomfort. They have come up frequently in some series, more fleetingly in others. Often, though, these moments seemed to test the range and limits of my affective responses. Was I meant to empathize with or scorn Walter White’s final chance at providing for his family after learning of his fatal cancer in Breaking Bad (AMC, 2008–13)? Should I enjoy or despise the main characters in Girls (HBO, 2012–17)? Have I been a victim of or accomplice to Don Draper’s calculated charm in Mad Men (AMC, 2007–15)? Apparently, rather than providing satisfaction, these television shows have been daring viewers to keep watching as they push the envelope, dangling cultural affects of discomfort and opening wide the structures of feelings associated with television programming.

These are not typical popcorn shows, for spectators’ viewing pleasure does not seem to be their primary concern. Nor are they unique in their engagement of affects of discomfort. To the contrary. In his provocative new book, Uncomfortable Television, Hunter Hargraves contends that the so-called new golden age of American television at the turn of the millennium operates according to a distinct affective logic centered on discomfort and other unpleasant affects. As Hargraves readily admits, discomfort is a rather elastic affect, highly contingent on subjective evaluation. What may be uncomfortable for one viewer might produce no effect on another. Nor does discomfort necessarily preclude pleasure; indeed, postmillennial television demonstrates a penchant for complicating, if not outright disrupting, audiences’ viewing pleasures.

In turning to affect, Hargraves employs an analytical framework rarely embraced by television studies. His focus on discomfort widens the scope of this third golden age of television well beyond the traditionally lauded male-centric quality dramas like The Sopranos (HBO, 1999–2007). While such series have been crucial for the wide recognition of new televisual approaches, Hargraves places them side by side with less revered genres such as comedies and reality television.

Most importantly, Uncomfortable Television explores postmillennial television’s connection to a neoliberal culture. According to Hargraves, it is only in the 1990s and 2000s that the average American finds on television the cultural effects of neoliberal policies, when practices of narrowcasting fit nicely into the neoliberal discourse of individuality over collectivity. The televisual texts analyzed throughout the book include affects such as discomfort, irritation, and disgust precisely because they privilege individual address over mass appeal, in turn profiling taste and increasingly segmenting the market.

Through this investigation into a medium that was once conceived as reassuring entertainment but now provides viewers “a means to understand and process their discomfort, thus turning it into pleasure,” Uncomfortable Television addresses a wide variety of television programs, from highbrow comedy series to prestige dramas, as well as reality television and televisual remix (163). In the first chapter, Hargraves analyzes HBO’s Girls in the context of think pieces across the media discussing the series’ successful engagement with millennial viewers and criticizing its lack of racial diversity. Underlining Hargraves’s analysis is a sense that the series works because it reflects a guilt-ridden discomfort on the part of the viewer in recognizing themself (and their incongruities) in its regular cast, as well as by investing in its dubious pleasures. In his words, “Girls irritates both through an excess of its representative capacity (since it is too privileged, too white, too narcissistic) and through a deficiency of the same capacity (since it will never be realistic because it lacks ‘authentic’ diversity)” (51).

In his second chapter, Hargraves turns his focus to what he terms “recovery television,” a subgenre of reality television that focuses on diagnosing and reforming the addictions and compulsive behaviors of its participants. Recovery television provides viewers the pleasure of recognizing themselves as savvy and ironic, thus justifying their excessive consumption of television. As Hargraves demonstrates, the production of the ironic viewer is already baked into the narrative structure of these shows, as they highlight—in a rather sensational manner—the terrible, often extreme consequences of the addictive behavior of their (real) characters.

Hargraves focuses on Intervention (A&E, 2005–), the critically acclaimed “docuseries” whose episodes center on one or two subjects with addictions and/or compulsive behaviors and how those impact their family and friends. As the show’s title indicates, each episode climaxes in an uncomfortable, staged-for-television event in which participants are confronted by their loved ones. In contrast to its on-screen subjects, spectators are positioned as morally superior and presumably in control of their own possible addictions, impervious to the show’s ideological operations. As Hargraves explains, “[I]ronic viewing may provide certain audiences with a justification for excessive consumption” that enables them to continually return to these programs (77).

The third chapter addresses televisual remix, a booming phenomenon of postmillennial television that blurs the distinctions between producers and consumers. For Hargraves, despite its disruptive impulse, convergent television continues to address single viewers even when these viewers share their experiences via digital platforms and comment sections, blogging, live tweeting, and other interactions. That is, they, too, participate in the same neoliberal economy at which they seek to poke fun. On the flip side, the affective sensibility that transformative works must share with their source allows audiences to engage in the remix and participate in the production of new meaning.

To address such practices, Hargraves resorts to cultural studies when analyzing Jem and the Holograms (syndicated, 1985–88)—a television animated musical series made for children, centered on a female rock singer—and Jiz (Sienna D’Enema, 2009–16), a profane remix of Jem. Hargrave analyzes the interactivity between viewers and Jiz, and traces how the remix adds a sense of discomfort to Jem’s affects of nostalgia. In so doing, it forces viewers to interrogate what they’d longed for in revisiting the original series through Jiz. To Hargraves, this form of nostalgic viewing ultimately disrupts the sacredness of the original. Simply put, “Jiz is a perverted text that in turn perverts the memories of Jem fans” (119).

It is only in the fourth chapter that Hargraves finally turns to the darling of postmillennial television critics: the prestige drama, now contextualized through industry-wide neoliberal practices. Hargraves addresses the industry’s reinvestment in quality television, focusing on how it has generally been appraised via a deliberate discursive practice of appropriative intermediality that enables critics to celebrate “quality television” while debasing television as a medium. Series that are novelistic, journalistic, and/or cinematic are celebrated as such in spite and at the expense of their televisual qualities, through a discursive strategy always already at the service of neoliberal ideology.

Using HBO’s The Wire (2002–8) as a prime example of quality television, Hargraves unpacks its key characteristics to show how such series in fact embrace televisual, rather than intermedial, practices. For Hargraves, The Wire appropriates from daytime soap operas their networked structure, which, in turn, allows it to engage in appropriative intermediality to distinguish itself from its sister televisual texts, such as soap operas and police procedurals.

This distinction of quality—made possible through practices of narrowcasting—frees prestige series from having to conform to presumably widely appealing content. These dramas may often exploit uncomfortable narratives or topics, but remain aimed at a presumed white male spectator who is inoculated from the kinds of (racial, sexual, and gender) violence depicted in them. Such is the case with the five key series of the third golden age of television: The Sopranos, Six Feet Under (HBO, 2001–5), The Wire, Mad Men, and Breaking Bad. For Hargraves, these series’ wide acclaim is the corollary of their racialized construction of spectatorship that remains centered on the privileged white male. The neoliberal ideology enabled by The Wire is one that invites (white) viewers to play the role of social or institutional administrators, managing crises at a distance—not just the distance afforded them by the television medium, but also the epistemological distances of race, class, and gender.

As Hargraves’s analysis makes clear, discomfort neither hampers pleasure nor determines a specific affective response. Instead, as a conflicting affect, discomfort may just as easily produce irritation, numbness, nostalgia, and unease as it may incite their purge. In its latest iteration, since the mid-2010s, discomfort may even generate political consciousness and incite political action. A turn toward “woke TV” may thus owe something to the Trump presidency and an “amplification of toxic affects” that made televisual discomfort nearly intolerable (180). From Hoarders (A&E, 2009–) to Tidying Up with Marie Kondo (Netflix, 2019), from Intervention to Queer Eye (Netflix, 2018–), reality television has become less uncomfortable and more sympathetic than in the aughts.

“Woke TV” is not without discomfort, but this affect has become a form of political expression, and one to be purged by viewers in a process that functions as a gateway for indignation. As Hargraves suggests, in the wake of legislative efforts by the right to “shield” white children from the discomforts of American racial history (to cite only one example), televisual wokeness might deploy discomfort in an effort to wake viewers to the necessity of resistance. Still, as wokeness turns into a hot commodity in the neoliberal economy, its televisual form becomes circumscribed by discourse and aesthetics rather than politics. If it ever does have the potential to form political viewers, they may still remain helplessly stuck in semantic battles, with no recourse to effect social change.

Bruno Guaraná: How did you become interested in discomfort as a televisual affect?

Hunter Hargraves: Honestly, back in the mid- to late 2000s, my best friend and I would marathon view DVD box sets of Law & Order: SVU [NBC, 1999–], relishing the most insane plot twists: in 2007, for example, back-to-back episodes, one depicting an HIV-prevention worker using a superstrain of HIV to take revenge on gay men who refused to wear condoms, followed by another in which a white couple secretly conspired with white supremacists to assassinate their adopted Black child for the life-insurance money. While SVU and other police procedurals at the time purported to source their episodic story lines from contemporary news headlines, their excessive narrative scenarios appeared to shock and rattle viewers in a markedly different way than, say, the grounded realism of procedurals in previous decades—like NYPD Blue [ABC, 1993–2005] in the 1990s or even Hill Street Blues [NBC, 1981–87] in the 1980s. These excesses would often compromise the integrity of the “law” and cloud the viewer’s formerly predictable perspective of guilt.

This was right around the time when antiheroes were becoming the norm across cable and premium-cable serialized dramas and when reality television was at its most explosive and exploitative. It seemed television was asking its audiences to indulge in gratuitous discomfort across both its well-established and its emerging genres. This was also right around the time that scholars in the humanities and the social sciences were beginning to historicize neoliberalism and develop affect theory, providing new vocabularies with which to theorize reactions to popular cultural texts. So I started thinking that this might all be a deliberate collision, that television trains us to take pleasure from discomfort as neoliberalism fully begins to wrap its tentacles around us.

Guaraná: How does one identify or measure discomfort in television?

Hargraves: This is a tricky question, because we’re trained to think about our emotional reactions to television as private and subjective. I’ve always been inspired by Stuart Hall’s schema of encoding and decoding in this vein: in which the dominant reading is shaped by the producers of the text, and yet in which, depending on the viewer’s own identity positions and investments, negotiated and oppositional readings can emerge too. In the book I acknowledge how my readings of television are shaped by my own positionality as a queer white male in the professoriat.

However, I believe that one of the most important changes to television over the past two decades has been the widespread democratization of television criticism, with fan cultures expanding the discourse surrounding television across all forms and genres. (Professional TV critics, for example, regularly acknowledge how the current moment of Peak TV feels overwhelmingly exhaustive, rendering it impossible to watch and comment on everything.) Blogs, recaps, social-media posts, think pieces: these are now common barometers through which viewers, fans, critics, and scholars alike react to and debate the details and impact of television. So I situate my own reactions within this discursive field in order to pinpoint and identify TV’s uncomfortable structures of feeling.

Guaraná: What has led postmillennial television to embrace discomfort as a desirable affect? What has been so appealing about discomfort, especially at the turn of the millennium?

Hargraves: Well, I think it took its cues from neoliberalism, which demands a certain degree of precarity, anxiety, and perversity in our daily lives. A lot of foundational scholarship on reality TV in the late 2000s signaled this: how that genre modeled entrepreneurship, performance, flexibility, and self-optimization as ways to succeed in its competitions, and thus in the “real world.” We know that television from its inception has been instrumental in teaching audiences how to act in concert with the political, economic, and cultural aims of the state; late capitalism is no different in this respect.

What I want to add to this scholarship is the changed role of pleasure. As capitalism twists and evolves to really cement individuals and their hustle in a world lacking the protections of the welfare state, those comforting domestic family dramas that invest so heavily in the American Dream no longer feel as current or as relevant. It’s remarkable, for example, that, entering the new millennium, the scripted series that sit atop the Nielsen rankings aren’t necessarily laugh-out-loud sitcoms like Roseanne [ABC, 1988–97], Seinfeld [NBC, 1989–98], and Home Improvement [ABC, 1991–99] a decade prior, but gory excessive procedurals like CSI: Crime Scene Investigation [CBS, 2000–2015]—in addition to juggernaut reality competitions, which invite a certain schadenfreude to viewing. Pleasure itself changed.

Guaraná: How does uncomfortable television relate to the solidification of a neoliberal culture in the United States?

Hargraves: One explanation I offer throughout the book is that a confluence of factors—advances in recording technology that allow viewers to escape the temporal confines of the prime-time programming schedule and the acceleration of narrowcasting and niche programs that target demographics primarily organized by identity and genre, to name two—replace the family unit with the individual spectator as the predominant way in which to organize the TV audience.

The image of a unified family sitting down in a living room to watch television together ends with something like American Idol [Fox, 2002–16; ABC, 2018–]; beyond that, in the 2000s individual family members would scurry off to their respective spaces to consume TV on their own devices. This is all in line with the economic logic of neoliberal culture, which now regularly targets consumers with algorithmic precision in order to deliver personalized content. But without the family unit as an organizational metric, producers are no longer under the same responsibility to create uniformly family-friendly programming—compounded by the entrance of cable and premium-cable networks into original programming that has fewer restrictions than broadcast when it comes to profanity, nudity, and violence.

Guaraná: How does uncomfortable television overlap with what the industry has termed “quality television” and its practices of narrowcasting and franchising?

Hargraves: Narrowcasting—which starts in the 1980s with basic cable—concretizes by the 2000s into more-intense personalization. One effect of this is that universally perceived comforting television for children no longer is the norm, since this demographic gets quickly segmented into Nickelodeon families, Disney families, and so on. But the other effect of this is that certain television for adults becomes associated with a kind of cultural elitism, an amplification of the ways that television has always sought urban, so-called sophisticated audiences.

Thus you have HBO’s long-standing advertising slogan, introduced in the late 1990s, “It’s not TV, it’s HBO,” which many scholars before me have tied to television’s larger project of cultural legitimation. Gatekeepers of “high art”—the kind of people who proudly claim that they don’t watch television but somehow have a DVD box set of The Sopranos or The Wire in their closet—often value discomfort as a marker of artistic value, since it becomes a stand-in for a text’s authenticity or its commitment to realism. I’m not saying that HBO and other premium cable networks alone are responsible for this turn toward discomfort, but money talks, and as the millennium ushered in a number of mergers and network consolidation, having premium cable networks invest in programs that were branded as cosmopolitan helps normalize the antihero as a character trope as well as the overall aestheticization of sex and violence, which becomes a new baseline for streaming services as they usher in the era of Peak TV during the 2010s.

Guaraná: The controversies around Girls tended to center on issues of representation (of gender, race, and class) and on its tone, perceived as irritable. How can irritation become, as you propose, “productive,” in a political sense?

Hargraves: This is also tricky, because irritation is rarely thought of as politically productive: that’s why these stereotypes of millennials as entitled and as always complaining persist in the cultural imaginary. (I’m on the cusp of being/am an Elder Millennial, for those interested in my bias here.) Girls—and by extension its creator, Lena Dunham, because the two are so synonymous with each other—is well aware of this, and the series deploys her engaging writing to troll both irritating millennials and their equally irritating critics.

Despite criticisms of the series for being too white and insincerely representative of its class politics, I’m interested in how the series locates a certain joy in its trolling. What’s fascinating about Girls is that, while technically a comedy, it withholds immediate laughter in response to its jokes, as do many of its peers in cringe comedy. Thus, the series redirects the pleasure found in laughter to the act of calling out or to the act of being irritated (and subsequently the act of irritating others). And that pleasure can forge solidarity among others, even if it feels weird or cringey.

Calling it “productive” works only under the terms of neoliberal precarity, but Girls is insistent that its world is an inherited one—that for many young people who will never be able to buy a house or pay off their student debt, trolling late capitalism and those who enable it (including, reflexively, Lena Dunham and the television industry) is a limited form of pleasure, but an effective one nonetheless.

Guaraná: Do affects of discomfort really explain the explosion of reality television at the turn of the millennium? Why is the subgenre you call “recovery television” so symptomatic a manifestation of neoliberalism?

Hargraves: I want to preface this by saying that I sincerely love reality television, in part because it is trashy and excessive, often demanding ironic viewing. And it’s important here to note that not all reality programs traffic in discomfort, like a lot of competition shows. But the reality programs that style themselves as documentaries are full of awkward moments, in part because the audience is positioned as a voyeur watching someone fall apart. It’s hard to justify ironic viewing when you’re confronted with someone who cannot function due to their compulsive and self-destructive behavior, especially when the roots for that behavior are often located in economic tragedy.

This is true in “recovery television,” a subgenre of reality television that I explore in richer detail, in which subjects with behavioral problems—drug and alcohol addiction, hoarding, eating disorders, and extreme OCD or anxiety—were profiled in a number of cable series in the late 2000s and early 2010s. These series were incredibly formulaic, always documenting the subject’s abject behavior at the beginning and rehabilitating the subject with the help of experts by the episode’s end. These series are also rather easy to binge, even though that was a new term used primarily to describe quality television. I see recovery television as helping viewers negotiate their own relationship to television consumption, using the uncomfortable exploitation of addicts as a mechanism through which to disavow addictions to television: no Intervention needed here. . . .

Guaraná: Can you discuss quality television’s reliance on what you call an “appropriative intermediality”?

Hargraves: Throughout the 2000s and 2010s, there is a tendency in the academy for scholars of literature to get excited about these quality programs, claiming them as the twenty-first century’s equivalent of Victorian novels because of their gritty realism and, most importantly, their serialization. And yes, we should make those historical comparisons, since the inspiration for many screenwriters obviously extends beyond the history of television. But this characterization of serialized TV often conveniently ignores the popular prime-time soaps of the 1980s or the daytime soaps of the twentieth century, in part because of the feminization of these TV forms and genres, as many scholars in TV studies have observed.

What I add to this conversation is the lens of “appropriative intermediality”: quality television of the early twenty-first century appropriates these elements of soap-opera storytelling while disavowing its televisuality. It becomes rebranded instead as “novelistic” from a narrative perspective or “cinematic” from an aesthetic perspective. And making audiences uncomfortable helps this rebranding, because it allows them to feel cultured while still tethering the collective imagination of “television” to cheesy soap-opera acting styles and definitive episodic resolution, even as dramatic television was moving away from both of these. Intermediality—the ability for a text to shape-shift and be perceived culturally as of another media form—becomes one way in which those cultural gatekeepers confer designations of “quality.” That all these series primarily feature ethically challenged white male antiheroes who epitomize the tragic pathos of late capitalism helps shield these series from comparisons with soap operas.

Guaraná: What explains the ubiquitous praise for The Wire despite its insistence on affects of discomfort and disgust?

Hargraves: The Wire is the series that benefits the most from this invocation of “novelistic” television. Despite being a series that regularly portrays poverty, homicide, and drug use as endemic to urban life, it was broadcast on HBO (and via DVD box sets) during the 2000s primarily to white upper-middle-class audiences who fetishize it for its realism, defined most often by its writing and its cinematography. And I like the series and find it innovative in many ways—really!—but many film and literature scholars wanted to view the series as this urtext of neoliberal urban decay.

In the book I closely read Fredric Jameson, Slavoj Žižek, and Linda Williams, all of whom in different ways rhapsodically ascribe something greater than televisuality to the series. I agree with much of what this trio of scholars in particular has to say about the series. In using The Wire as an exemplary critique of neoliberal policies and thought, however, they downplay how the series relies on a schema of particularly racialized identifications, often minimizing the visceral representations of violence, for example, or erasing the many mentally ill, addicted, and unhoused characters who are not afforded any of the character development symptomatic of quality television.

To me as a white spectator, a significant reason The Wire is considered one of the best series of the twenty-first century is, in part, that it aims a critique of the neoliberal metropolis at the presumed white guilt of its HBO-subscribing, “sophisticated” audience. That’s a key reason why Williams, for instance, is able to claim the series as a melodrama in her book on the series.

Guaraná: What is woke TV, and how does it signal a departure from postmillennial television?

Hargraves: As I was writing this book, it became clear to me that television was changing again during the mid- to late 2010s, from acculturating spectators to taking pleasure from discomfort to weaponizing discomfort or withholding it as a form of political resistance. I attribute this to two different factors. First, streaming platforms and their algorithmic obsessions transformed Hollywood, giving cultural minorities more access and bandwidth to stories that would comment on the trauma of minoritarian life in culturally specific ways that don’t feel gratuitous. A series like Atlanta [FX and Disney+, 2016–22], for example, is interested in unsettling its spectators in its critique of identity politics, but it’s less explicit on this point than a series like Girls, choosing absurdist innovation in episodic form over the snappy dialogue of trolling.

Second, I think the election of Trump in 2016 scrambles the affects of American television in really fascinating ways. Reality television, formerly invested in shame and ironic viewing, becomes nicer and more comforting. Think of the harmony found in the reboot of Queer Eye compared to its predecessor, which followed a more traditional makeover formula. Or, conversely, watching a series like The Handmaid’s Tale [Hulu, 2017–] and its repeated scenes of sexual assault feels more political, to the point in which handmaid cosplay now frequently appears at protests surrounding reproductive rights. These factors demonstrate to me that in our current age of Peak TV audiences are often taking discomfort quite seriously and placing it into conversation with larger political projects.

Guaraná: What are some key examples of uncomfortable television that fall outside of your historical framework (say, before the turn of the millennium, or since you have completed your book)?

Hargraves: Hmmm, I’m not so sure that the discomfort of postmillennial television translates to earlier iterations of TV, because of the standards and practices that governed so much network television and because so much of television was aimed at the nuclear family. My book intentionally ignores, for better or worse, a lot of speculative television—science fiction, fantasy, or horror—because I find their generic commitments functioning as the kind of disavowal that helps spectators work through their discomfort. To me, creepy series like Twin Peaks [ABC, 1990–91]and The X-Files [Fox, 1993–2002, 2016, 2018], for example, don’t aspire to the same dimensions of realism as the postmillennial television I study here does, while realist procedurals from that time like Homicide [NBC, 1993–99] or ER [NBC, 1994–2009] move toward episodic closure in a way that again helps the viewer process the discomfort of violent crime or of the visceral gore of an emergency room.

I think part of the answer to this question lies in how historical distance clouds our perception of discomfort: by our standards in 2023, for example, watching The Cosby Show [NBC, 1984–92] can feel gross. Maybe you have to go back to something like All in the Family [CBS, 1971–79] or Roots [ABC, 1977] from the 1970s, in order to think about how white audiences specifically were made uncomfortable in order to incite a changed consciousness toward race in America. As for the present, I think that we’re so hyperaware of how discomfort works post-Trump that again, we either repurpose discomfort explicitly in the name of politics or we avoid it completely. But that’s in part because for a large percentage of the American public, the news itself feels so uncomfortable, to say nothing of reality! I define “postmillennial TV” as being that from the early/mid-2000s to the mid-2010s in part because discomfort became something new for audiences that they had to negotiate. By the late 2010s, we’re so acclimated to discomfort . . . that by the time Fleabag [BBC, 2016–19] comes out in 2016, audiences are familiar with this trope and know how to deal with that kind of character.

Guaraná: What is your next project about?

Hargraves: I’ve been thinking a lot about smartphones, actually, and how after their introduction into our rhythms and habits they also interfered with television’s order of operations. Just when television is beginning to be legitimized as a cultural art form and fans are able to geek out to all of its narrative complexity and aesthetic quality, along comes this handheld device that competes for your attention.

Television had to adapt in order to neutralize this competition, so it cannibalized and adopted many features of the smartphone, which we now recognize manages and governs our daily lives in so many powerful ways. Many series are aesthetically shot as if through an Instagram filter, for example, and text messaging has become a powerful way to advance an episode’s narrative (while also being superimposed onto the screen itself). I’m curious about how this misconvergence has affected television spectatorship, and would love to tease out these larger implications for TV in the next book—that is, if I can tear myself away from my phone long enough to write it!

BOOK DATA: Hunter Hargraves, Uncomfortable Television. Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 2023. $99.95 cloth; $26.95 paper. 264 pages.

The introduction to Uncomfortable Television is available here.

© 2023 by The Regents of the University of California. All rights reserved.