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Second Lives

Black-Market Melodramas and the Reinvention of Television

Second Lives

Black-Market Melodramas and the Reinvention of Television

A history of prestige television through the rise of the “black-market melodrama.”
In Second Lives, Michael Szalay defines a new television genre that has driven the breathtaking ascent of TV as a cultural force over the last two decades: the black-market melodrama. Exemplified by the likes of The Sopranos and Breaking Bad, the genre moves between a family’s everyday life and its secret second life, which may involve illegal business, espionage, or even an alternate reality. Second lives allow characters (and audiences) to escape what feels like endless work into a revanchist vision of the white middle class family. But there is for this grimly resigned genre no meaningful way back to the Fordist family wage for which it longs. In fact, Szalay argues, black-market melodramas lament the very economic transformations that untethered TV viewing from the daily rhythms of the nine-to-five job and led, ultimately, to prestige TV.

336 pages | 50 halftones | 6 x 9 | © 2023

Culture Studies

Film Studies

Media Studies


"The shrewd analysis excels at distilling implicit themes in the entertainment landscape. Media scholars will want to check this out."

Publishers Weekly

“I really love this book. Szalay digs deep under the skin of recent television. Second Lives is compellingly argued, impeccably reasoned, and a pleasure to read. And it unearths the hidden allegories that are at the core of contemporary television. This is an important book, recommended to all who would grapple with TV’s complexities.”

Will Scheffer, cocreator of HBO’s 'Big Love' and 'Getting On'

Second Lives proves that a deep account of the broadest of socioeconomic realities, the total economic order, is necessary to adequately grasp our cultural present. A future classic of TV studies, and easily among the best books on culture and deindustrialization.”

Sarah Brouillette, Carleton College

“If television about white family life has often been nostalgic, Szalay chronicles what happens when that triumphalism encounters today’s uncertainties around gender and sexuality, ethnicity and race, and labor and economic precarity. A rich, resonant book that informs equally about US politics and television today.”

Dana Polan, New York University

Table of Contents

Introduction: Television’s Second Life

1. The Gangster Mourning Play

2. The Informal Abject

Housework and Reproduction in Weeds and Orange Is the New Black

3. AMC’s White-Collar Supremacy

Breaking Bad, Mad Men, and Halt and Catch Fire

4. Managed Hearts

The Americans and News Corporation

5. Waiting for the End in Twin Peaks, The Wire, Queen Sugar, and Atlanta

Conclusion: Streaming and You




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