“Middle American Miserabilism”: Charting the Feel Bad Genre in Recent HBO Mini-series

Conference: The European Conference on Media, Communication & Film (EuroMedia2021)
Title: “Middle American Miserabilism”: Charting the Feel Bad Genre in Recent HBO Mini-series
Stream: Mass Communication
Presentation Type: Virtual Presentation
Margaret Tally, State University of New York, Empire State College, United States


Miserabilism was originally a term that was used to describe a pessimistic philosophy or a consistently miserable outlook. This pessimistic worldview has been seen in television depictions of welfare recipients who live in low-income communities in both the UK as well as the United States. Also labeled "poverty porn", in such wide-ranging shows as "Hillbilly Elegy", on Netflix to "Benefits Street", criticisms of these shows usually center on the way they dehumanize their subjects by portraying them in their worst light and without any other context than their dire circumstances. In this paper I look at two recent HBO mini-series, "Mare of Easttown", and "I Know This Much is True", and explore both the business and creative decisions that went into their creation as well as the larger cultural implications of these kinds of portrayals of working-class despair in recent American television series. This will be contrasted with the recently canceled series "Superstore", which portrayed a small-town milieu from a more humane and positive perspective. In so doing, these shows, with varying strategies, are reigniting an old fight about the best way to portray the poor.

Virtual Presentation

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