In 1976, Carol Lopate wrote a remarkable essay about daytime television and the daily rhythms of housework. "The noise of the game shows' shrieks and laughter injects the home with the needed adrenaline for getting up in the morning and doing the heavy chores," she explains, while the "heartbreak, confusion, restrained passion, and romance of families in the soaps provides the anesthesia to fill out the hollows of long afternoons when children are napping and there is ironing or nothing at all to be done."1 Throughout the day, commercial breaks provide predictable opportunities to turn on the vacuum, take out the trash, move the laundry between machines, and so on. The particular function of serialization in afternoon soap operas is an important aspect of Lopate's study of housework. In contrast to the morning game shows, but also to evening serials, which "speeded up to collapse the dull moments of everyday life," soap opera time "expanded . . . everyday life, which often induces boredom and restlessness when taken in its own time, becomes filled with poignancy when the moment can be languished upon."2 In so many ways, it would seem, this programming provided a form of compensation for work otherwise unwaged or low-waged, work that often is not described as work, but called other things instead: responsibility, care, or love. Like any of these concepts, daytime programming concealed work if you're watching TV all day long, it's not really work, is it?

Today, online streaming has taken over this role for many workers as one way we steal back our time from work. As Amelia Horgan argues in her book Lost in Work, such acts of resistance "remind us that the crisis of work is also a crisis of social reproduction, as we are expected to take on more and more paid work, we are simultaneously expected to take on more and more unpaid care work." Individual practices of resistance at work amount to tactics of "[staving off] the boredom that comes from repetitive tasks," Horgan writes, and this often means consuming "lean back" media.3

Taking issue with this notion of "lean back" consumption, former global head of strategy for Amazon Studios Matthew Ball argued in 2019 that we in fact live in an era of "lean out" programming that is, an era of watching-while-working. "Less than half of daily TV time is spent on the living room couch in front of the TV, let alone alongside loved ones," writes Ball in a multi-part essay expounding on Netflix's failings. "Instead it's spent while cooking dinner, running on a treadmill, tidying up, playing bridge or attending to a crying infant."4 Ball claims that quality or "prestige" programming is a distraction, less easily integrated into our working conditions.

What Lopate once observed of the golden age of the soap opera is the way serialization both mobilizes and anesthetizes this practice of watching-while-working. Unending, repetitive, often dizzying, serialization is the logic of housework and so many kinds of work what Roger Hagedorn called the "ideal form of narrative representation under capitalism," precisely for its capacity to both mirror and counteract capitalist temporalities.5

In the post-television landscape of competing streaming platforms, seriality and binge watching have developed as part of what Dennis Broe describes as a "new model of perpetual productivity, or integrated work and leisure."[v] Today's serialized content "tends to imitate finance capitalism in its internal structure," David Buxton suggests. "Potential plotlines are created continuously, from episode one, to maintain a relentless rhythm of accumulation."6 But while characterized by accumulation and longevity, the serial narrative like any narrative is also driven toward finality and closure. It's for this reason that the endings of serials are so often disappointing, unable to resolve this fundamental tension as in David Chase's cruel joke of The Sopranos finale, when we waited to find out if Tony was going to finally get killed, and all we got were the Journey lyrics, "the movie never ends / it goes on and on and on and on" and cut to black. But this is, likewise, the false promise of work: that if you put in your time, and pay your dues, there will eventually be some kind of pay-off. Meanwhile, the truth of the matter is that more and more workers face futures in which there is no horizon of security, just more and more work. Even the endings we experience narratively are quickly absorbed into this unendingness of work-life as in "re-watch" culture, or the franchise industry which meets any site of potential narrative closure with cycles of sequels, prequels, origin stories, and alternate timelines. Whether in movies, streaming series, podcasts, serial culture proliferates as an aspect of the ever-expansionary spaces and temporalities of "work."

It's in this current context of serial abundance that anti-seriality presents a set of narrative possibilities for exploring anti-work time. When the world of work constrains so much if not all of our experiences of everyday life, this anti-serial impulse does not so much open up a space to live outside of work, but rather generate a friction through which to imagine life against work. Anti-seriality gestures toward what it might mean to explore "'life' as a possible counterpoint to work," as Kathi Weeks describes, posing a set questions about what it could mean to collectively "get a life": "a life," as she elaborates, "always exceeds what we have, and its getting is thus necessarily an incomplete process . . . rather than burdening life with a fixed content that is, with too many assumptions about what might count as a life beyond work the possibility of the provocation [lies] in its capacity to pose a political project that it does not stipulate and to open a postwork speculative horizon that it cannot fix in advance."7


Grasping at these questions of postwork longing, many contemporary series have tended toward what Annie McClanahan characterizes as the "tipwork picaresque." Looking to series such as Atlanta, High Maintenance, and Easy, McClanahan defines this emergent genre through its focus on "subjects whose working lives are defined by multiple and fragmented social relations and by temporary, uncertain, and fluid working conditions: characters whose stories are not so easily wrestled into more familiar narratives of development, education, and achievement."8 The picaresque, while mirroring this terrain as a representational strategy, also scrambles up the world of work, specifically by antagonizing serialization. Key to the tipwork picaresque's narrative disruption to the logic of work is a certain double movement between the progress inherent to so many depictions of workers and their work lives, and the anti-progress of serialized never-endingness and unceasing work. Anti-seriality not only reflects the changing conditions of work, but captures certain dimensions of our shared longing (however conscious) for a world beyond work.

The recent FX on Hulu series Reservation Dogs explores this dynamic of anti-seriality and anti-work imagination as an ongoing conflict between a spatial poetics of wandering and the central characters' shared desire for escape. When we first meet Elora, Bear, Cheese, and Willie Jack the four Indigenous teenagers at the center ofthe narrative they are united by their goal of leaving life in a reservation in eastern Oklahoma, and moving to California. Together they've been saving money scored through crime, while dodging the suspicions of their local reservation cop, Officer Big, and anticipating the next moves of a rival gang. But as the narrative evolves, this dream of California is increasingly troubled by the series' non-linearity and wandering.

These tensions play out beautifully in a conversation between Willie Jack (Paulina Alexis) and her dad Leon (Jon Proudstar) while hunting deer. "The stuff I want to do, you can't do here," Willie Jack explains. She could be a deadly MMA fighter. Or a gourmet chef. Or a dog rescuer. "Damn . . . that's a lot of stuff," her dad says. When Willie Jack asks her dad why he never left, he tells her there was "nothing out there for me. I just always believed tend to my own garden, let other people tend to theirs."9

Poignant moments arise often throughout Reservation Dogs out of boredom, waiting for something else to happen something bigger, and more dramatic, that never quite happens. Elora (Devery Jacobs) takes a driving test to get her license. At a local clinic, Cheese (Lane Factor) is mistaken for an old woman's grandson, and ends up staying with her and helping her go home. After Bear (D'Pharaoh Woon-A-Tai) gets beaten up, they track down Elora's uncle to teach him to fight. Uncle Brownie (Gary Farmer) agrees to this but demands that they drive him around town, helping him sell a big jar of extremely old weed, and making a stop at the Sonic drive-in. While the four teenagers have their goals, and cling to an ill-defined vision of their future, the storytelling is always a counter-force, pushing them into everyday life, but also toward grappling with the past.

The futurity promised by California, the inescapable past felt in daily experiences of dispossession and intergenerational trauma, the presentness of moving sideways but never quite forward, all coalesce in a thick fog settling over the narrative world of Reservation Dogs. Life on the reservation is not romanticized so much as it is moved through as a space of imposed slackerdom and varied anti-work practices. "It's fun here," Leon tells Willie Jack, "There's things to do here. Eat catfish. Walk around. You can ride your bike. You know and just walk around and look at things." Without idealizing the precarity and settler violence of reservation life, Reservation Dogs troubles the fantasy called "California," loosening from it a utopian imaginary of living against capitalist life as wandering, aimlessness, friendship, and chilling.

With a more dizzying effect, Netflix's Russian Doll delves into anti-seriality and anti-work imagining as a web of seemingly inescapable counter-temporalities. As the series begins, Nadia (Natasha Lyonne) becomes trapped in a time loop, continually re-experiencing her thirty-sixth birthday. She keeps dying in convoluted ways, only to return to the bathroom of her friend's apartment during her birthday party all over again. As her predicament repeats itself, exhaustively mocking serialization throughout this relentlessness comes to imitate the amnesia, disorientation, and monotony of our everyday "work-lives."

Since Russian Doll premiered in 2019, Nadia's time loop has even more eerily resonated with the temporal experiences of COVID isolation, including remote work and sheltering in place. The repetition soon feels inescapable and claustrophobia-inducing. A software engineer, Nadia works from her apartment but as soon as her time-looping begins, her job slowly disappears from her consciousness. Instead, she finds herself digging into questions about her childhood, and specifically, the ways she grieved the loss of her mother. Against the temporal force of this potentially unbreakable repetition, she creates movement in places in her life that had been stagnant, paralyzed by work.

More than serializing Nadia's self-discovery as a linear (and liberal) progress narrative, Russian Doll thoroughly avoids this sense of directionality, often spinning into the unimaginable shifting in and out of comedic and sci-fi registers. When Nadia meets Charlie (Alan Zaveri), who is also trapped in a time loop, the series veers away from the perfect set-up for a rom-com resolution, and instead focuses on each character's temporalities. What's most profound about Russian Doll is how Nadia and Charlie eventually (if only temporarily) escape this nightmare at the end of the first season. Escape comes not through coupledom but from joining a crowd and not just any crowd, but a parade evoking the Tompkins Square Park Riots of 1988, when hundreds of people protested the anti-homeless agenda of a 1 a.m. curfew imposed on the East Village Park. In ways nostalgic for this past struggle and its punk legacy, the conclusion unites Nadia and Alan through a collective, revolutionary experience.

In an era of increasingly atomized niche audiences on streaming platforms, Russian Doll's liberatory vision of collectivity also inspires a certain nostalgia for broadcast television as, in Amanda Lotz's words, "more than a monitor, piece of hardware, or gateway to programming." Lotz defines television "[less] by how the content gets to us and what we view it on than by the set of experiences and practices we've long associated with the activity of viewing."10 Integral to those experiences and practices is an idea of simultaneity, and the maintenance of that simultaneity even if only as a fantasy has become one of broadcasting's survival strategies against the perennial notion of an end of television. There were glimmers of this early into the pandemic like on April 11, 2020, when I tuned into Saturday Night Live for the first time since high school, to watch the debut of "SNL at Home." The three episodes, concluding the show's forty-fifth season, were mostly prerecorded and uninterested in simulating a live recording effect, but were at the same time deeply invested in the production of simultaneous experience. Part of what we yearn for in the idea of television, and the survival of the social practices it implies, is a desire Russian Doll so clearly penetrates: that we might have a time that is our time, and experience it together.


Escaping work is the impossible horizon of seriality. Serial narratives can reflect on (and even reveal) the unfreedoms of work in capitalist life, inasmuch as potentially, and temporarily, estranging us from the temporalities of non-stop working. Whether in the true crime podcast that dulls the drudgery of housework, the workplace comedy that at least situates you in a different enough context of work from your own to provide some mild illusion of variation, or the continual rearticulation of celebrity scandals through which to find some parasocial or voyeuristic moments of relief, the appeal of serial narratives comes from this particular capacity to adapt to, imitate and distort the social totality of work.

For this reason, the vacation murder mystery premise of The White Lotus one of many recent series to revive the week-by-week temporality and of a primetime network era "water cooler" show seems noteworthy. At the heart of the series is the fact that the vacation, while promising escape from work for its guests, is nevertheless a site of ongoing work. The series troubles the genre of the vacation murder mystery (à la Love Island) by bringing the working conditions of the tourist industry into the foreground. The best characters, especially in the second season, are always service industry workers.

While strategically tapping into contemporary anti-work impulses, The White Lotus is thoroughly confused about its politics at every step. Hatred of the rich is tremendously marketable, that much is clear. The political conflict that compels the series, between seeking vengeance on the obscenely rich and fetishizing the lifestyles of the obscenely rich, is also a conflict between genre and form. Inasmuch as anti-work sets up most of the punchlines in its comedy, The White Lotus offers up precisely the kind of escapist fantasy it seeks to sabotage. What's happening with anti-work and class satire at the level of genre, in other words, seems to be always beholden to the reality show contest that's really going on. Just as we might turn to series like The Great British Baking Show or The Bachelor each week with predictions for who will be the winners and losers, The White Lotus escalates episode by episode toward the final reveal of which characters will leave the vacation resort in body bags. Seriality takes hold as the ultimate escape, including from the complexities of anti-work longing.

Dreams of post-work life certainly animate much of today's serial imaginaries, as streaming platforms currently go to battle with various fantasy franchises what J.D. Connor has described as the era of "cash dragons." Elsewhere, contemporary series seek out transcendent visions of work in copious representations of high-stakes workplaces. By contrast, what's most remarkable about series like Reservation Dogs and Russian Doll is how this prolific fantasy of escape is turned in on itself, and with such care. Rather than contriving another world in which to merely recreate the dystopia of work anew, both series meditate on the possibilities of serial narrative for thinking with anti-work time and facilitating postwork imagining. In each case the anti-serial impulse develops as a way to critically inhabit and undermine the serial logic of work, as well as the work-logic of serialization. Escape may be the desire compelling these narratives, but the critique that unfolds along the way, sometimes with several steps sideways or even backwards, stages a much more powerful confrontation with what appears, at least, to be inescapable in our everyday lives. 

Madeline Lane-McKinley is the author of Comedy Against Work: Utopian Longing in Dystopian Times (Common Notions Press, 2022), co-author of Fag/Hag with Max Fox (forthcoming: Rosa Press, 2024), and an editor of Blind Field: A Journal of Cultural Inquiry. She has a PhD in Literature from UC Santa Cruz, where she now teaches writing. Her next book, Solidarity with Children: An Essay Against Adult Supremacy, comes out from Haymarket Press in 2025.


  1. Carol Lopate, "Daytime Television: You'll Never Want to Leave Home," Feminist Studies 3, no. 3 (1976), 70.[]
  2. Lopate, "Daytime Television," 78.[]
  3. Amelia Horgan, Lost in Work: Escaping Capitalism (London: Pluto Press, 2021), 116[]
  4. Matthew Ball, "'Quality' Is a Distraction If It Exists at All (Netflix Misunderstandings, Pt. 6)," []
  5., May 3, 2019. See also Roger Hagedorn, "Technology and Economic Exploitation: The Serial as a Form of Narrative Presentation," Wide Angle 10, no. 4 (1988): 4-12.[]
  6. David Buxton, "Serialization in the Age of Finance Capitalism," Routledge Companion to Literature and Economics, edited by Michelle Chihara and Matt Seybold (Routledge, 2018), 412[]
  7. Kathi Weeks, The Problem with Work: Feminism, Marxism, Antiwork Politics, and Postwork Imaginaries (Durham: Duke University Press, 2011), 233.[]
  8. Annie, McClanahan, "TV and Tipworkification," Post45: Contemporaries, October 1, 2019.[]
  9. Reservation Dogs, season 1, episode 6, "Hunting," directed by Sterlin Harjo.[]
  10. Amanda D. Lotz, The Television Will Be Revolutionized, (New York University Press, 2007) 29-30.[]