Professor Michael Szalay, “Succession and Prestige TV’s Fascism Problem”
In mid-September, Professor Michael Szalay published an essay in the online magazine Public Books that became the most read piece on the site for over a month, circulating widely on social media and X/Twitter and appearing in the New York Times as well.
Professor Szalay is an expert in the genre of so-called prestige TV. His most recent academic book, Second Lives: Black Market Melodramas and the Reinvention of Television, is about the development of the genre roughly since The Sopranos.
But Professor Szalay turned to a more general readership in his latest work. Like many, he followed Succession closely for years and found he had something to say after the series finale. He wrote the essay for an online forum because, he said, “when writing about television, you want to strike when a given show is still on people's minds.” He never really considered sending the piece to an academic journal because they take more time to vet and then publish writing; and their readership is often far smaller than that of online sites like Public Books and the Los Angeles Review of Books.
Professor Szalay enjoys writing in a more accessible voice. “I feel like there's more freedom when writing for a public. You can have fun with the writing in ways that are harder to do when writing for academic journals,” he says. He plans that his next book will be made up almost exclusively of essays that appear first in public-facing outlets.
Professor Szalay says he has always been an avid TV fan. “I'm addicted to serialized, long form storytelling, and have been since growing up on science fiction, fantasy, and comic books,” he says. Serial television has become very novelistic, which made it natural for him to transition from writing about novels to multi-season prestige dramas. “I do believe that watching prestige TV and reading the novel require similar interpretive skills. Both formats ask us to attend to character, plot, and larger social dynamics.”
In the classroom, Professor Szalay is more inclined to teach film than TV because of the sheer length of most TV series. He says, “The Wire is a singular work of art, for example, but it clocks in at 60 hours.” One key difference between either film or TV and the novel, of course, is the use of visual as well as verbal languages to communicate. But even so, broadly literary protocols for close reading do in fact pay dividends when applied to both film and prestige TV.
Those dividends clearly paid off for a widespread readership in the Public Books piece. For someone who is “pretty much never” on social media, he says, “The response has been really gratifying!”