Uncomfortable Television, Hunter Hargraves

‘Uncomfortable Television’ and the Postmillennial Spectator

Academic Hunter Hargraves’ Uncomfortable Television considers the postmillennial spectator an active participant and contributor to the neoliberal society that is shaped by today’s television.

Uncomfortable Television
Hunter Hargraves
Duke University Press
February 2023

It’s been more than two decades since American Television entered an era called ” the golden age” by most critics and academics. Cable TV shows overtook networks, sweeping the public (un)consciousness with “prestige” series’ of varied genres. Often unlikeable and always morally dubious yet relatable (white) men emerged as the Western world’s favored protagonists (think of characters like The Sopranos Tony Soprano to Mad Men‘s Don Draper, Breaking Bad‘s Walter White, and even network darlings like Lost‘s Jack Shepherd and Boston Legal’s Alan Shore). Narratives of societal decline and the futility of one’s pursuit of happiness or stability stood out as keynotes of most of American television’s most beloved and iconic shows of recent times. 

Serialized drama isn’t the only thing in television programming that has changed in the postmillennial setting. Reality TV also proliferated and became more visceral and more “shocking” than before. This proliferation, i.e., amplification of distributed content, brought about by the intermediality of the new media and our perennial fusion with the many devices through which the content is disseminated, has had a profound impact on us, the viewers. The “postmillennial” spectator is also an active participant and contributor to the culture shaped by television content: they remix, meme-ify, share, and perform the countless snippets and signifiers of the hundreds of shows out there, thus modifying and prolonging the effects of a certain program on the public.

When analyzed thoroughly, all these shifts in how television is written, produced, distributed, and ultimately consumed make for spectacular insights into contemporary neoliberal society and its power structures. Hunter Hargraves, a professor of television studies at CalState Fullerton, has dedicated most of his career to researching affect, diversity, and representation on American television, along with how these occurrences and phenomena derive from or relate to the existing sociopolitical order. 

His debut book, Uncomfortable Television, is an intriguing overview of the above and many related topics, provoking important questions regarding our relationship to television and the effect its contents (are supposed to) have on us. Ultimately, Hargraves’ goal is to demonstrate that the ways viewers derive and construct meaning from the overabundance of content they are served is far from innocuous, often serving no purpose other than to perpetuate the values of the current system, despite alleged “wokeness” or “intellectual prestige” found in many of the most lauded contemporary television shows. The bottom line is that the viewers find pleasure in being disturbed and that we need to better understand how the feelings of anxiety and dread shape and drive us to break away from the ideological manipulations of the neoliberal power players, which include television producers and even writers. 

Over the course of a much-needed, terminology-heavy introduction and five chapters, Hargraves examines disparate TV-related phenomena, from affective representation in postmillennial comedy and the addictiveness of reality television to the affective economies of perversion in televisual remix and the misrecognition of discomfort in the era of “Peak TV” (this and past decade). Uncomfortable Television‘s critical fourth chapter focuses on “prestige” serialized drama and its “appropriative intermediality” laced with “white guilt”, trying to explain why a “dislikable or morally repugnant protagonist is presumed to be a necessary component for televisual risk-taking”, along with why contemporary drama tends to be compared to literature or cinema, traditionally considered to be higher forms of art.

All of Uncomfortable Television‘s chapters, introduction included, are centered around one specific program, ranging from Louis C.K.’s comedy Louie and Lena Dunham’s Girls to David Simon’s The Wire and reality series Intervention. The narrow contextual focus allows for a deep dive into some of the lesser-examined phenomena of televisual spectatorship, including narcoanalysis (defined by scholar Dave Boothroyd as “the critical approach to culture from the perspective of its articulation with and by drugs”) or the role of affect in the perception of television programming as “realistic” or “authentic”.  

If this sounds like a lot to take in, that’s because it is, especially over barely 200 pages. Hargraves casts his terminological and heuristic web wide and far, offering bountiful relevant insights into the mechanisms of political power channeled through affect. Ultimately, Uncomfortable Television ends just short of providing a coherent analysis of its overarching themes.  

Uncomfortable Television is loaded with speculative observations and snippets of varied theories stemming from varied disciplines, often going off on tangents mid-chapter instead of consistently expounding on an expected leitmotif, e.g., a sociopolitical critique of the phenomenon of affective processing of televisual content. The issue of theoretical coherence makes a concise journalistic review of this work all but impossible. The phenomena touched upon are too many to tackle in a single article (or a single book, for that matter), so I’ll stick to a high-level overview of Uncomfortable Television‘s thesis, hopefully expanding the space for discussion. 

The introduction, in my opinion, the most informative and illuminating part, builds a solid base for understanding the author’s background and ideas. A college professor with vast experience in teaching, Hargraves deploys a conversational tone devoid of typical academic condescension to introduce the reader to a multitude of critical definitions, including that of neoliberalism, script, genre, discursive intermediality, and more. A very welcome brief history of contemporary television, starting with the presidency of Ronald Reagan and the naturalization of neoliberal and postmodern modalities of viewing, reveals Hargreaves’ Marxist views and his identity as a queer scholar, setting out to challenge the existing, often heteronormative and racist fundaments of televisual programming. 

The issues, though, arise quickly once one realizes that very little is said about the very basis of the book, i.e., the sense of unease that postmillennial television uses to interpellate its viewers into accepting neoliberalism as the “natural” form of governance. “Audiences, I argue, are now so acclimated into discomfort that it may be acknowledged and used productively as a form of resistance, but this resistance is possible only by rewriting the very terms of the spectators’ relationship to pleasure,” he writes in the introduction. However, throughout Uncomfortable Television, surprisingly little is said about affect theory itself, if, why, and how affect shapes the viewers’ reactions to a certain work, or how spectators can, perhaps, recognize their own reactions and process the content they ingest differently. 

I say the following with great caution as I do not by any means intend to banalize Hargraves work or the field of inquiry that informs Uncomfortable Television, but affect theory is a highly complex and contentious, not to mention underresearched theory, whose many historical layers and disciplinary differences should have been laid out and analyzed more thoroughly. Except for seminal works by the critical theorist Eve Sedgwick, culture theorist Lauren Berlant, and the feminist scholar Sara Ahmed (including her 2004 essay, “Affective Economies“) and an occasional nod to psychoanalysis, barely any of the historically relevant authors, works, and even disciplines that have been concerned with affect theory, are referenced in Uncomfortable Television.

To be clear, a lot is drawn from contemporary theorists, e.g., Aymar Jèan Christian, Jane Fauer, and Brenda Weber, but a historical and especially anthropological and political context through which affect theory emerged is lacking. There is no mention of the massive difference between affect in psychology and affect in philosophy (readers are probably mostly only familiar with the former) or the way affect is researched in medicine and neuroscience, the two fields which could shed indispensable empirical light on the way humans process stimuli. 

Despite continuous theoretical meandering between how affect differs from emotions, whether it is pre-cognitive and thus “pre-ideological”, and why it informs our daily behavior, there is no discussion on the potential subjectivity of affect or the works of the countless academics who have posited that affect theory is limited or imprecise. Uncomfortable Television underscores that not many books have been written on the influence of affect on the consumption of entertainment and art. However, it never pauses to explain that this is because many theories do not believe affect to be so relevant or to refute such theoretical views.

Speaking of imprecision, it was surprising to see that, in the last chapter (“The Woke Spectator”), politically charged imagery surrounding the narrative of Bruce Miller’s television adaptation of Margaret Atwood’s The Handmaid’s Tale and the healthcare bill of 2017 protests in Washington by Planned Parenthood that adopted its costumes of oppression, is described as affective, which doesn’t correspond to the definition of affect as pre-signifying and non-ideological. I accept fully that I might have missed or misinterpreted something but at the end of Uncomfortable Television, I still wasn’t sure how Hargraves would define affect in the epistemological sense – and I come from a similar academic background.

I was also taken aback by the high-brow feel of the book past its introduction. Hargraves approaches affect mostly from the perspective of critical theory, informed by the opuses of thinkers such as Pierre Bourdieu, Félix Guattari, Louis Althusser, and even Michel Foucault and Raymond Williams, but doesn’t explain to the reader the broader perspectives of these authors and why their ideas matter to his own ontology of affect theory. While practicing scholars will be familiar with most of the names referenced throughout Uncomfortable Television, it is highly unlikely that anyone not directly tied to cultural, and especially literary theory, will see beyond the quick references and understand the ethnographic and other mechanisms that influenced a certain line of thinking that Uncomfortable Television follows. I was, for example, quite shocked to see a casual note about how the Frankfurt School brought about “hostile attitudes for mass culture” (true, mostly) without ever referencing the school or its influence again. 

The Frankfurt School reference is just one of many – indeed too many – nonchalantly dropped terms followed by no insight, ingrained in the text with a knowing nod to the “knowledgeable” but potentially alienating to most average readers or even scholars. I know well why Althusser’s “ideological state apparatuses” are thrown in the mix on the (neoliberal) systemic methods of manipulation of the populace, of which television is the supreme tool. Still, the truth is – most of the people who should read a book like Uncomfortable Television will likely have no idea who Althusser is, let alone why one Fredric Jameson bags on postmodernism so much.

It would also be wonderfully considerate, not to mention useful, to introduce the public to concepts such as reification or other (Marxist) ideas surgically removed from the public discourse in the United States. By relying heavily on shortcuts to illustrate composite, gargantuan theories and biographies, . Hargraves, unfortunately, distances Uncomfortable Television from the general public. Quite likely this book was meant for academics only, which isn’t “wrong”, but it would have been much better to make the contents accessible to different strata of readership. As the author posits, the topics explored in Uncomfortable Television should be discussed on a much broader scale than they have been thus far.

As for comments on content, I am perplexed to see all of television as a medium analyzed in a single book, especially a rather brief one with a plethora of digressions. Serialized drama, in particular, doesn’t belong shoulder to shoulder with remixing, meme-ification, or even some forms of reality TV, as its defining qualities and modes of creation and consumption are fundamentally different from televisual content that isn’t, in the strictest of terms, defined as “art”. To put it very generally, hypotheses about serialized drama here do not consider art history and the world’s relationship to art in general but instead explores smaller-scale affects related to an overly complex history of social psychology the subjects don’t seem privy to. For example, plenty is said about the detrimental effects of binge-watching and becoming addicted to television, but there is no word on whether “traditional” episodic watching, with its aggressive, continuous marketing inviting viewer participation (that’s the meme and remix part), could, in fact, be more calamitous in terms of hooking the subject in the neoliberal affective economy.

Labeled as one of the great perils of our relationship with television, binge-watching is defined as “watching more than two or three episodes of a program in one sitting”. While this can certainly lead to subjects “disappearing” into a show, watching it for hours on end, statistically speaking, this is exceedingly rare. Assuming they “binge-watch”, most people who do so watch, on average, 2.3 episodes of a show in a day. With a median Netflix episode runtime of 55 minutes (this is shorter for many other networks, with plenty of shows sporting a 25-30-minute runtime format), we get a bit above two hours of “bingeing” per day, or the length of an evening after a day of hard work when you fall asleep on the sofa at 10 PM. This is hardly the amount of binge-watching that would disconnect the average viewer from reality, though it is presented as one of the great plagues of our time.

To adequately analyze the binge-watching phenomenon, we would need a deep dive into the demographics of viewership, who, where, and when physically watching a lot of television, subsequently getting into the “why” and “what this could mean”. This is where social psychology and anthropology would come into play, but these are just two fields that Hargraves almost completely overlooks in his analysis and conclusions. Binge-watching, of course, is but one of the dozens of concepts briefly explored in Uncomfortable Television, but we finish the book without any usably expanded knowledge of the phenomenon, as analyzed by prominent scientists or thinkers in humanities.

I lament that Uncomfortable Television is a profoundly American book. I appreciate Hargraves’ focus and experience with American television, but the very fact that in other parts of the world, especially Europe (let’s not pretend that most of this discourse isn’t limited to Western cultures), people’s viewing habits and relationship to television differ tremendously, means it would have been beneficial to investigate these differences in customs, practices, and ultimately effects. Knowing how much the habits of various societies in Europe differ from that of the US society, including those of creating, as well as watching and “perceiving” television, blows the investigation into the theories affective economies and ideological state apparatuses wide open, inviting deeper insights into the political, economic, and ethnological contexts in which television is consumed and processed. I’m afraid that analyzing the society in the US alone cannot provide meaningful answers regarding how affects are created and then directed. 

In summary, Uncomfortable Television is an interesting work that raises many compelling questions about the relationship between televisual content and our own processing of reality and invites further discussion on affect theory and how affect potentially shapes most of our behavior. It is an insightful read for academics, political theorists, and students of many strands of humanities, but it would be a considerable challenge for an average enthusiast, which is a shame.

With his surprisingly casual references to works by the likes of Althusser, Deleuze, or Foucault, Hargraves throws considerable hurdles at any reader who isn’t versed in the specific terminology of 20th-century continental philosophy. The omission of more detailed analyses of complex phenomena and a lack of reliance on the breadth of disciplines that have influenced affect theory ultimately negatively affected the “usefulness” of the book in terms of its contribution to the discourse of media studies. It would have been better to make the said material more accessible and analyze it more in-depth, especially since the gist of Uncomfortable Television tackles some of the most important topics that haven’t yet made it to the general public.