Streaming Enthusiasm and the Industrious Family Drama
By Michael SzalayJune 23, 2021
It’s safe to say that TV will not be 100 percent streamed by 2024, if by streamed we mean delivered over the internet. Streaming has gained significant ground on cable and satellite but has not yet achieved a decisive dominance: according to a 2021 Pew Research report, the percentage of Americans who watch on cable or satellite has fallen from 76 percent in 2015 to 56 percent this year. Then again, enthusiasm over streaming has never been about numbers alone. From academic titles like The Television Will Be Revolutionized and Distribution Revolution to the always enthusiastic pages of Wired, a legion of scholars, critics, and fans have proclaimed that internet distribution has fundamentally changed — no, revolutionized! — television, such that it has become something entirely unprecedented, a new medium entirely.
Writing the same year as Auletta, Amanda Lotz waxed similarly breathless while describing the shift from TV’s mass-market “network era” to its micro-cast “post-network era”:
The changes in television that have taken place over the past two decades — whether the gross abundance of channel and program options we now select among or our increasing ability to control when and where we watch — are extraordinary and on the scale of the transition from one medium to another, as in the case of the shift from radio to television.
I’ll return to the question of when and where we watch TV at the end of this essay. Here I note that Lotz can declare TV a new medium in part because of the importance she accords technology: “Rather than enhancing existing business models, industrial practices, and viewing norms, recent technological innovations have engendered new ones.” But enthusiasm over TV’s new tech and its ostensibly changed medium gets us only so far. If we want to take the full measure of what streaming has meant — and what it hasn’t — we need to look more closely than we typically do at TV content itself.
Technological innovation does seem to have transformed the industry. As of this writing, Netflix’s market capitalization is around $225 billion. Legacy studios have rushed to replicate everything from Netflix’s cost-plus financing production (which gives production companies less profit participation in what they produce than does deficit-financing models) to its compression algorithms. That rush has resulted in an abundance of offerings, which providers tailor to consumers as never before — again, with new tech. Netflix caused a stir a few years back when it claimed to use taste algorithms to determine viewer preferences among “76,897 micro-genres.” The New York Times thought those algorithms would allow the company to make “the mysterious alchemy of finding a hit […] a product of logic and algorithms.” Then again, finding a hit might not be the point. The more advanced the algorithms, and the more diversified the field of production, the less necessity there is for single hits to tentpole mass audiences. Certainly, Netflix seems eager to make us each an audience of one, the recipient of bespoke TV. Our customized user icons whisper to us, this TV is for you.
And yet, if we look away from the dizzying array of choices that confront us when we log in, we might ask ourselves not simply if Netflix really knows us all that well, but also if the genres that we watch now are really so very different from those we watched 10 or 15 years ago. And if not, does it make sense to say that TV has evolved into something unprecedented? Though newcomers like Netflix have produced an abundance of offerings, a new age of quantity TV, the TV industry remains organized around quality TV, and to a still largely invisible meta-genre that has governed its production for some 20 years. That meta-genre’s function has been both to coordinate more long-standing and familiar genres and new ones as they now emerge, and to selectively endow both with the patina of quality. In thus producing distinctions within and thereby governing TV’s larger genre system, it has been the programming, as it were, the old media software, that has mattered most to the industry.
In a forthcoming book, Television’s Second Lives, I call that meta-genre “the industrious family drama.” Codified by shows like The Sopranos, Big Love, Weeds, and Breaking Bad, and still replicated in streaming fare like Ozark, the genre finds white middle-class families living secret second lives, while working furiously, typically in black markets, to outpace a threatening downward mobility. Shows with these general features — and they are legion — might well appear on your Netflix homepage as a microgenre. But the industrious family drama proper is not simply an averaging of this or that plot, style, or mood. It is also, more fundamentally, an argument — about what it means to watch TV now, some 50 years into the US economy’s deindustrialization. Streaming — and indeed technological innovation generally — plays a very small role in that generic argument. And this important genre has changed relatively little since streaming’s advent.
It’s worth recalling just how ardently journalists and critics greeted The Sopranos and the dramas made in its wake. By all accounts, here was an aesthetic revolution rather than a technological one. No popular entertainment has since received anything like the sheer quantity of impassioned praise heaped on cable dramas in the years following the premiere of The Sopranos. The New York Times compared HBO’s crime drama to the films of Erich von Stroheim and Rainer Werner Fassbinder on the one hand and to James Joyce’s Ulysses on the other, while crowning it “the greatest work of American popular culture of the last quarter century.” Brett Martin thought The Sopranos inaugurated the “twelve- or thirteen-episode serialized drama” that would become “the signature American art form of the first decade of the 21st century.” Critics have given these dramas a multitude of names: not simply “quality TV,” a term that’s been around at least since the 1970s, but also “Prestige TV,” “Complex TV,” “the Complex Serial Drama,” “Peak TV,” “New TV,” and “Third Golden Age” TV.
Soap operas and primetime dramas like Hill Street Blues and Twin Peaks paved the way for the complexly plotted serial storytelling at the heart of “quality TV,” the term I use. Many add that this TV has cinematic and literary characteristics. Sopranos creator David Chase insisted that episodes of his drama were “mini films,” not TV at all, and HBO, of course, had been declaring its fare “Not TV” for decades before enthusiasts like Barnes attributed the “blurring” of TV and film to the streaming “onslaught.” Novelists saw their own craft in this new TV. Jennifer Egan said her Pulitzer Prize–winning A Visit from the Good Squad (2010), optioned by HBO, was inspired by Marcel Proust’s In Search of Lost Time and … The Sopranos. Others described conversion experiences and joked about a seismic inversion of hierarchies; “I’ve given up on fiction,” quipped Gary Shteyngart. “And like every other writer in America, I’m working on an HBO series.” As Michael Chabon put it, “There can’t be a novelist in America who watched The Wire and didn’t think, ‘Oh my God, I want to do something like that.’” “The tapestry is so broad, it’s like a 19th-century novel.”
Television’s newfound prestige gave top-shelf talent permission to decamp into TV production, even as Hollywood abandoned small- and medium-scale film productions and doubled down on heavily branded blockbusters. And Netflix began very quickly to model itself on legacy studios. In 2011, some four years after it started streaming, Netflix announced it would move into original TV production. As Netflix Chief Content Officer Ted Sarandos put it just before the release of House of Cards, the provider’s first entry into serial drama, “The goal is to become HBO faster than HBO can become us.”
A different version of that convergence of old and new media played out at the level of content. Quality serialized dramas prompted comparisons between otherwise distinct media (visual and print, say) and genres, broadly conceived (the serial TV drama and the novel, say). “Television,” said famed futurist William Gibson in 2010, “particularly at the HBO level in the United States — [has] become a completely new genre. Something like Deadwood or The Wire is a whole new thing — there was no equivalent to that medium before. It’s like a new way of telling stories.” Here was the novelist who popularized “cyberspace” and first fictionalized a version of the internet announcing a new kind of drama as if it were revolutionary tech. But what does it mean to consider a “new way of telling stories” a new genre as well as a new medium?
When considering the usefulness of the term “medium,” Raymond Williams wrote that “[e]very specific art has dissolved into it, at every level of its operations” — both “specific social relationships” and “specific material means of production, on the mastery of which its production depends.” Those specific relationships and materials express generalized social and technical relations of production, and there should be no account of any artistic medium, Williams argued, that does not establish the significance of both. In Television: Technology and Cultural Form, he showed what this meant for broadcast TV, by tracing its origins to the “transformation of industrial production, and its new social forms, which had grown out of a long history of capital accumulation.”
For Williams, broadcast was a response to “new and larger settlements and industrial organizations [that] required major internal mobility.” That mobility produced “the dispersal of extended families” and created a need for “new kinds of social organizations.” TV kept an otherwise isolated nuclear family connected to a larger world. “[N]ew homes might appear private and ‘self-sufficient,’” he wrote, “but could be maintained only by regular funding and supply from external sources, and these, over a range from employment and prices to depressions and wars, had a decisive and often a disrupting influence on what was nevertheless seen as a separable ‘family’ project.” TV shaped and sustained that project, by reconciling the family’s imagined autonomy to its external dependencies.
Television Studies has long recognized the importance of that family project. But, preoccupied as it is with infrastructure, its critical terms rarely encompass what Williams calls “the long history of capital accumulation.” Indeed, if on the one hand the discipline offers few comprehensive accounts of how the TV industry and even specific media transnationals function within a larger capitalist system, on the other, it offers little in the way of systematic narrative analysis (work on global TV formats is an interesting exception). When not taxonomizing genres with categories supplied by the industry itself, the discipline tends to identify extremely broad rubrics (Lotz’s “cable guys,” for instance). Jason Mittell’s Complex TV is an outlier to this general pattern; even so, it doesn’t read TV complexity so much as insist that it is there. Jeffrey Sconce thinks the discipline’s eschewal of close reading prevents it from considering TV’s medium as it otherwise might: “Despite the isolated efforts of scholars […] to initiate debate over the aesthetic properties of the medium, television remains for the most part a technological and cultural problem to be solved rather than a textual body to be engaged.”
TV Studies might read that textual body more closely than it does, but not, I would stress, in the name of aesthetic appreciation. Reading genres as they emerge within a larger genre system, not simply as they are marketed, for instance, allows us to conceive of TV’s system more accurately. It also allows us to think of TV’s medium in a new way. Because however much “specific social relationships” might “dissolve” into exclusively technological considerations of the medium, they remain visible as content — above all, as content that speaks to TV’s contradictory “‘family’ project.”
“Serialized drama” is a broad category, and Gibson wasn’t pointing to anything so specific as the industrious family drama when he invoked TV’s “whole new way of telling stories.” Still, that genre, which has come to include 30-minute comedy and 60-minute drama formats, almost exclusively on internet and cable TV, has been dominant for 20 years. Its most significant feature is that its central character or characters live secret second lives. Those lives might involve black markets (The Sopranos, Weeds, Hung, Breaking Bad, Shameless, Sons of Anarchy, Peaky Blinders, Ozark), a hidden or remembered past or closeted identity (Six Feet Under, Big Love, Nurse Jackie, Mad Men, Sneaky Pete, True Blood, Rectify, Orange Is the New Black, The Handmaid’s Tale), murder or espionage (Dexter, Bloodline, Barry, Homeland, The Americans, Patriot, Killing Eve, Counterpart), or an alternate reality (Twin Peaks, The Leftovers, The Man in the High Castle, Counterpart, Forever, Stranger Things, Undone, Lodge 49).
Secret lives might be kept from a variety of actors, from other family members to neighbors to the state. And those lives might take shape within any number of recognizable generic formats: The Sopranos owes its greatest debt to the gangster film; Dexter, to serial killer narratives; The Americans, to the Cold War thriller; Mad Men, to postwar suburban fiction and soap opera melodrama; The Man in the High Castle, to science fiction and alternate reality narratives. What matters is that, in all of these programs, second lives allow characters to “awake,” as Breaking Bad, Killing Eve, and Undone all put it, from the slumber of their first lives. We awaken too: meth makes for more exciting drama than does high-school chemistry.
But the underground to which the protagonists of the TV dramas are drawn are inevitably revealed to be some version of the home writ large, as with Soprano’s two “families.” There is no world beyond the home to which Soprano or by implication the drama’s viewers can escape. Across the genre, alternate worlds disappoint; they cannot transport either their characters or their viewers beyond the domestic tedium from which each desires an escape. As the fantastical becomes again mundane, life beyond the family becomes another version of it. The genre produces a hall of mirrors, in which, say, Tony Soprano’s work in the mob becomes a distorted echo of, rather than a world apart from, his homelife — each “family” now an allegory of the other.
At its baroque fringes, the genre transforms that doubling into identical twins and murderous doppelgängers. But core instances of the industrious family drama created in the two decades following The Sopranos tend to reiterate a key point: work beyond the middle-class household has become indistinct from work within it, such that there can be no escape from one separate sphere into another. What begins as escape must end in allegory. To use a different literary term, these dramas are Gothic to the extent that they describe, to quote Eve Sedgewick, a self that is “massively blocked off from something to which it ought normally to have access.” Across the genre, that something is a world of waged or salaried work beyond the home. More specifically, it is a world defined by “the family wage,” which during the heyday of US industrialization allowed (mainly white) men to support their families on one income.
Typically, when historians trace the retreat of the family wage, they note the entrance of women into the formal workforce and the concomitant rise of two-income households. But whether men or women, the genre’s leads rarely support their families with state-recognized incomes, and they rarely work for the giant concerns that still dominate broadcast TV: corporations, hospitals, police forces, etc. The industrious family drama instead captures the household in extremis, navigating some black-market enterprise. The off-the-books nature of these businesses matters more than the specific commodities or services produced. Because if, on the one hand, informal work allows networks like HBO to romance a stylized underground life, on the other it anticipates the rise in the United States of the grindingly precarious, labor-intensive, gray market “mass industriousness” that defines life in much of the underdeveloped world.
To be sure, industrious dramas evoke the “presence bleed” and “partial presence” experienced by knowledge workers whose salaries obviate time sheet surveillance and who were able, after the advent of the internet, to work flexibly from domiciles that might have felt, as a consequence, a lot less like home. But more fundamentally, they evoke deindustrialization’s upheavals in the lower rungs of the middle class, as once secure career work bleeds into casualized, outsourced, and frequently off-the-books proletarian work. In this growing sector, formal waged and salaried work is no longer adequate to the family’s survival, and no longer fully distinct from the range of informal work with which a growing number of families now supplement their state-recognized incomes.
The genre’s families are industrious to the extent that they scramble collectively and off the books for their economic survival. Along the way, they lose their state-sponsored sanctity. “A family is like a small business,” says Ozark’s Marty Byrde. The fallout from his firm’s money laundering sends his family on the run. The estranged husband and wife come together managing illegal businesses. They now work side-by-side rather than apart, and increasingly with their children — but do so under new auspices. “We are not husband and wife anymore,” he tells her. “We are just business partners.” Across the genre, similar predicaments transform once sacrosanct family values — and any lingering delusion that home is a safe haven, where the heart is. Now, home is where the work is. As a consequence, it is everywhere and nowhere, a true purgatory. Wherever you go at the end of the day, someone asks Philip Jennings in The Americans, “is ‘home’ the right word?” In Killing Eve, a character asks, “Home? What do you mean, ‘home’? Where is that exactly?” Walter White escapes his home to become a drug lord; but his newfound work finds him cooking (meth), cleaning (money), and raising (and breaking) a second son.
Early versions of the genre seethe with a suppurating resentment that white men have been subjected to the housework to which their wives and minorities were long consigned. At its origins, this is a genre of embittered, white male self-pity. As it evolved, the industrious family drama turned to white women facing far more pernicious home confinements. In Weeds, Orange Is the New Black, and The Handmaid’s Tale, for example, women struggle to escape the sexual division of labor integral to industrialization and separate spheres. But here too, escapes fail, and TV falls back upon itself. Again and again, the genre discovers that, in a world defined by a newly capacious category of housework, there is nothing but TV, HBO’s slogan notwithstanding. And as the genre has it, the transformation of the white middle-class family throws into doubt the ability of TV’s electronic hearth to preserve any longer the home’s sanctity while connecting it to a larger world. It declares the end of the family project that Williams places at the heart of broadcast TV.
The broadcast schedule, it’s worth remembering, was built from the ground up around the family wage and the rhythms of the male breadwinner’s 9-to-5 work week. As Nick Browne puts it, even
the position [and content] of programs in the television schedule reflects and is determined by the work-structured order of the real social world. The patterns of position and flow imply the question of who is at home, and through complicated social relays and temporal mediations, link television to the modes, processes, and scheduling of production characteristic of the general population. […] Television establishes its relation to the “real,” not only through codes of realistic representation, but through the schedule, to the socially mediated order of the workday and the workweek.
Writing in the early 1990s, Browne would have witnessed the rise of cable networks like MTV and HBO, and with them, new micro-cast forms of repeat and, later, on-demand programming not necessarily organized around the sale of commodities, no longer fully subject to FCC oversight and, no accident, newly hostile to state authority. But he gets at a truth more fundamental: we cannot understand how TV responds to “who is at home” without first understanding changes in the working day and the composition of the labor force. Far from a bleeding edge that has radically transformed how we live, the streaming revolution has been an accommodation to capital as it adapts to falling rates of profit.
Streaming is casualized viewing for a casualized workforce — its on-demand serialized narratives, above all, a form of surrogate continuity and stability for workers increasingly denied both. Still more specifically, the Gothic claustrophobia of the industrious family drama — which cannot escape either home or work, the two having become the same — is a generic mediation of the lost “divisions within individuals’ lives” that economist Aaron Benanav associates with informal labor, “between labor-force participation and non-participation, between waged and unwaged work, between employer and employee, and between levels of labor productivity.”
It needn’t matter here whether we attribute these changes to “neoliberalism,” “post-Fordism,” or “flexible accumulation.” What matters is that broadcast TV was from the start a state-sponsored system that existed in the service of an expanding manufacturing base. The Big Three received broadcast rights from the state, and in turn disseminated state ideology while selling commodities. These networks were the beating heart of America’s industrial economy. But eventually, and however named, the postwar US order experienced heart failure — in the final analysis, because of systemically declining industrial profits, not because new tech heroically disrupted ossified industries.
The so-called New Economy of the 1990s was a shell game, in which it seemed for a while that the internet and a host of related technologies would generate labor efficiencies capable of reversing deindustrialization ravages. But all that was new was the name: the internet was and is simply the latest technological fix with which capital has endeavored to decrease its living labor costs while increasing its profits. Thus has it been for quite some time. And, as Giovanni Arrighi makes plain, once that cycle exhausts itself in a world-leading economy, that economy enters into terminal decline. The seat of world power then moves elsewhere, typically to an ascendant economy in the throes of industrial expansion.
We remain mesmerized by the New Economy shell game, particularly when we gush about the streaming revolution. The industrious family drama seems beholden to a different illusion. At first blush, it seems to preserve the privilege and prestige of the besieged white family, no less than the power and position of the flagging empire that supports it. In so frequently taking up that family, the crucible of the nation’s self-regard, the genre appears intent to keep the party going, if only for a little longer. But there can be no escaping the failure and collapse that suffuses these dramas. And if we watch closely, we might learn something about the real revolution through which we’ve all been living.
Michael Szalay is professor of English and Film and Media at the University of California, Irvine. He is the author of Hip Figures: A Literary History of the Democratic Party (2012) and New Deal Modernism: American Literature and the Invention of the Welfare State (2000).
Featured image: "HBO Now Apple TV" by Harrison Weber is licensed under CC BY 2.0. Image has been cropped and darkened.
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