Family No Longer Sustains: On Michael Szalay’s “Second Lives”
By Olivia StowellJuly 29, 2023
Second Lives: Black-Market Melodramas & the Reinvention of Television by Michael Szalay
Beyond my surprise about the frequency of televisual texts in their answers, I’m also surprised by how much of the TV they watch isn’t the newer, buzzier stuff (zero mentions of Succession or The White Lotus so far, and when I asked, only one of them had ever even heard of The Bear), but rather popular artifacts from the late 1990s and early 2000s. And I’m not alone in noticing this—journalists have written about why “every young person in America [is] watching ‘The Sopranos,’” or why Gen Z adores The Office despite the increasingly slim likelihood of them ever experiencing the form of work it documents. But as Emily St. James argues, “The Office has slid from [being] a show about the drudgery of work to an aspirational fantasy,” appealing to younger viewers in part because it documents a form of work that increasingly feels residual and therefore nostalgically desirable, rather than dominant.
Residual and eroding structures of work, family, and daily life are also the primary concerns of what Michael Szalay terms the “black-market melodrama” in his new book Second Lives: Black-Market Melodramas & the Reinvention of Television. As a genre, the black-market melodrama (which includes both 30-minute comedies and 60-minute dramas) features characters who “have two lives rather than one: an official and legal life and one lived—at the genre’s core—in or proximate to black markets for illegal goods or services,” such as drugs, sex work, or guns. Szalay’s understanding of this genre, however, extends beyond the obviously criminal secret lives of the protagonists of shows like Breaking Bad, The Sopranos, or Weeds (all deeply and thoughtfully interrogated throughout the book). The black-market melodrama’s second secret life can also include programs in which the official, legal lives of the protagonists are proximate to other kinds of secret lifeworlds, such as espionage (Killing Eve, The Americans), alternate realities (Twin Peaks, The Man in the High Castle), murder (Dexter, Barry), or a secret past or hidden identity (Mad Men, Big Love).
The black-market melodrama’s doubled lives, Szalay argues, illustrate the contradictions of the narratives and myths the white middle-class US family has developed about itself, that it has told and retold to itself over and over (often, though of course not solely, through popular media). Throughout Second Lives, Szalay plumbs the depths of these stories, considering, across its five chapters, the genre’s origin in melodrama, gangster films, and mourning plays; reproductive labor and housework; gendered and racialized anxieties; emotional labor and affective self-management; and the stasis and repetition of seriality. In discussing these concerns, Szalay demonstrates how deindustrialization and the loss of the “family wage” have produced the black-market melodrama’s “most essential discovery […] that distinctions between home and work cannot in fact be maintained.” Prestige television—or “TV’s quality renaissance,” as Szalay calls it (and which he traces to the emergence of the black-market melodrama)—works in part to represent, mediate, and negotiate this discovery, even as it also represents, mediates, and negotiates the conditions under which this revelation has become the case.
As Szalay, drawing upon Raymond Williams, writes, “TV facilitated the illusion that the newly isolated nuclear family was independent, while still connecting it to a larger world.” In other words, television has historically worked to figure the nuclear household as an autonomous social engine, while simultaneously cultivating feelings of wider communal belonging and obscuring the family unit’s imbrication in ideological-material processes. Yet the genre of the black-market melodrama suggests that, even as “[s]ome kind of family is the individual’s last best hope—the only remaining collective” under neoliberal atomization, “family no longer sustains.” Amidst the collapse of micro and macro communal structures, the protagonist of the black-market melodrama, like the contemporary worker, remains at sea, in search of a meaning that neither professional nor domestic life can seem to provide.
In the wake of deindustrialization and neoliberal shifts in the structures and rhythms of work (not to mention demographic changes in the people who constitute the workforce itself), it is increasingly difficult to “separate family time from firm time.” The black-market melodrama indexes a relentless drive to escape from, as well as a relentless desire for, the family unit. It allegorizes nostalgic and utopian desires for collectives, even as it posits that all such collectives—within and beyond the nuclear family—cannot fulfill their protagonists’ overwhelming sense of emptiness. They have a feeling that, in the words of Tony Soprano, they “came in at the end. The best is over.”
Though this genre may seem at first glance a bit too capacious (including programs as varied as Peaky Blinders, You, Buffy the Vampire Slayer, and Six Feet Under), throughout Second Lives, Szalay compellingly argues for the black-market melodrama’s influence on the wider TV landscape, as well as for the ways it mediates and represents not only the conditions of its own production but also the entire contemporary economic order. In some ways, Szalay’s term for the genre functions as a valuable corrective to the more commonly used popular vernacular that refers to these programs as “antihero dramas.”
By moving from “antihero drama” to “black-market melodrama,” Szalay imagines the characters and concerns of these shows socially rather than individually, analyzing the socioeconomic conditions from which the texts emerge. In some ways, this cuts against the texts’ own imaginings of their protagonists; Breaking Bad and Mad Men, as Szalay’s third chapter details, figure Walter White and Don Draper as singular geniuses, even as both men diminish and rely on the work and talent of subordinates (Jesse Pinkman and Peggy Olson). As Szalay puts it: “White’s art is Jesse’s subordination.”
These programs figure these men as geniuses, Szalay suggests, in order to allegorize their own creator-showrunners as singular geniuses as well, even as they depend upon their writing staff, production teams, and below-the-line workers, and even as they negotiate their dependence upon their networks. The myth of the TV auteur, whether David Chase or Vince Gilligan or David Simon or Matthew Weiner, plays out also in the near-mythic genius and power of figures like Tony Soprano and Walter White, protagonists that “sugges[t] the greater importance of the creative showrunner […] Breaking Bad was about an outsized talent who almost always got what he wanted, which was autonomy, control, and credit.” Szalay does not merely suggest that the black-market melodrama allegorizes its own production, however; he zooms out further to implicate the genre in larger economic processes. In a typical gesture, Szalay connects the thematic content of Breaking Bad not only with the dynamics of Gilligan’s writer’s room and the corporate structures of AMC but also with the causes and dynamics of the Great Recession, the manufacturing and use of methamphetamines during the crisis, and the way that period fits within the larger story of the past 50 years of deindustrialization.
This move, to my mind, is Second Lives’s greatest strength and contribution: it weaves together incisive, revelatory textual analysis (Szalay’s reading of the Sopranos opening credits particularly stands out, as does his reading of the representation of reproductive labor in Weeds) with a consideration of both the operations of media industries and socioeconomic reality. Szalay’s account of the relationship between television and deindustrialization serves to illuminate the workings of both as well as the relations between them.
In the wake of recent shifts in the television landscape—particularly the Warner Bros. Discovery merger, the new paradigm of “disappearing” TV shows from streaming platforms, and the WGA and SAG-AFTRA strikes—the need for this sort of wide-ranging analysis is clear. The future of television, and the US entertainment landscape more generally, feels actively in question, even as television itself feels increasingly ubiquitous, enabled by the portable screens we carry with us everywhere and the apps and platforms that increasingly rely upon video content with a televisual flow. Television, it seems, was not eclipsed by the rise of the portable digital device but expanded by it; at the same time, with the ascendency of streaming and the attendant decline of residuals, television appears, like most industries, increasingly contracted and immiserated by the exigencies of profit-seeking. Thus, as Szalay suggests, we can turn to television categories like the black-market melodrama to “learn something about the real revolution through which we’ve all been living”—about how the real content of the supposed revolution of digital technology is simply another “technological fix” for capital. Rather than actualizing the techno-optimist visions that characterized the early days of the web, high-tech development has been marshaled to “decrease [capital’s] living labor costs while increasing its profits.”
If the black-market melodrama has been the animating generic force in television over the past two decades, Second Lives left me wondering what will become of it as the entertainment industry continues to shift and consolidate, and as the general economic context continues to trend toward forms of gig work. In other words, where does the black-market melodrama, and TV’s generic tendencies more generally, go next? We may note, for instance, that many “quality” comedies and dramas no longer even bother to allegorize their commentary on television production via other industries and markets, instead choosing to directly document life and work in the entertainment industry (see Hacks, The Other Two, I Hate Suzie, and Reboot, to name a few).
Other TV series take that tendency to even greater lengths. The Emmy-nominated Jury Duty, for instance, features a nonactor unwittingly dropped into a completely staged fictional trial (all other participants are actors) and follows him as he navigates contrived situations without knowing they are entirely contrived. Similarly, Nathan Fielder’s The Rehearsal follows Fielder helping everyday people “rehearse” life scenarios via increasingly elaborate recreations of those scenarios using actors and sets, ultimately culminating in him choosing to cast himself in a woman’s rehearsal of parenthood. Both The Rehearsal and Jury Duty employ conventions associated with reality television in order to explicitly enfold questions of TV’s production and labor into the text itself. Szalay, following Jane Feuer, identifies reality television as quality television’s “other,” yet he also notes how both genres are united in acknowledging that “home is where the work is, and no longer a haven from economic life”—that “there is no difference between producing and consuming,” that “all of our waking hours are work.”
So, then, perhaps these programs that are explicitly interested in working out the contradictions of television within the diegetic boundaries of the text simply represent another side of the coin of the discovery of the black-market melodrama—that, under deindustrialization, neither the firm nor the family can hold. In the ever-expanding reach of capital, nothing evades capture; as Szalay writes of Tony Soprano: “Tony’s two families, as well as his home and work, do seem to collapse, but less because they are identical than because they share so very much.”
One does not have to look far to see the reverberation of this logic across the television landscape. We perhaps have no more perfect example than the recent finale of season 10 of Bravo’s Vanderpump Rules, where one can watch cast member Ariana Madix weep on camera over her dissolving decade-long romantic partnership in the program proper, and also see her smilingly serve as a corporate sponsor for Bic razors and Uber One in advertisements referencing her breakup during the commercial breaks. Not only do the commercial breaks and the program itself echo and buttress each other, but both also come together in a flow of production and value generation. Madix’s on-camera unveiling of her private domestic life and her presence in advertisements referencing her personal life are not identical, but they certainly do share a similar logic. Reality television and the black-market melodrama, despite their differences, both document what it looks like to attempt to live under capital’s ever-reaching grasp.
Both, too, document our attachment to particular narratives (and particular illusions), and in both, I would say (as Szalay says of the black-market melodrama), “there can be no escaping the failure that suffuses these desperate melodramas”—a failure of institutions, of collectives, and of the family unit. The only thing remaining in the domestic space that soothes us, then, may be television itself.
Olivia Stowell is a PhD student at the University of Michigan, where she studies race, discourse, and power in relation to reality television and digital media. Her scholarship has appeared in Television & New Media, New Review of Film and Television Studies, and the forthcoming volume Feminist Posthumanism in Contemporary Science Fiction Film and Media: From Annihilation to High Life and Beyond, while her public writing has been published in Post45 Contemporaries, ASAP/J, Avidly, and elsewhere.
LARB Staff Recommendations
Michael Szalay on what the rise of streaming platforms and their dark family dramas tell us about the US flagging empire....
Sophia Stewart finds a lot to like in “I Like to Watch: Arguing My Way Through the TV Revolution” by Emily Nussbaum....
Did you know LARB is a reader-supported nonprofit?
LARB publishes daily without a paywall as part of our mission to make rigorous, incisive, and engaging writing on every aspect of literature, culture, and the arts freely accessible to the public. Please consider supporting our work and helping to keep LARB free.