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“TV has transformed as much as I have”

Critic Emily Nussbaum on the charms of modern television-watching.

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When television critic Emily Nussbaum was a young girl in Scarsdale, New York, she would watch TV sitting cross-legged on the floor, getting up to change the channel to watch shows like Sesame Street. It was what she describes as a “classic ’70s TV-watching experience.”

These days, Nussbaum, the Pulitzer Prize-winning television critic for the New Yorker, is more likely to stream shows on her phone. Over the past 50 years, she says, “TV has transformed as much as I have.”

A populist at heart, Nussbaum believes in engaging viewers, which anyone who follows her on Twitter will know. (She also invented New York magazine’s “Approval Matrix” in 2004, rating cultural touchstones of the moment in chart form.) In her work, she examines a wide range of shows and asks viewers to challenge their expectations of television, pressing them to examine why they like what they do, and what our preferences — for The Sopranos, for instance, featuring white men, action, and drama — mean. She is skeptical of lauded shows like HBO’s True Detective, skewering it for its exclusion of fleshed-out female characters, while she elevates series such as Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt and Sex and the City, which she argues are underappreciated or, worse, vilified because of their glittery facades.

In her first collection, I Like to Watch: Arguing My Way Through the TV Revolution, Nussbaum presents more than two decades of keen and earnest essays, most previously published in New York magazine and the New Yorker, as well as two previously unpublished pieces. The book, she says, was inspired when a colleague told her she considered Jane the Virgin a guilty pleasure — and Nussbaum insisted that it is no such thing.

I talked to Nussbaum about how she decides what constitutes TV worth watching, whether shows should have a “message,” and how binge-watching has changed TV.

Our conversation has been condensed and edited for clarity.

Hope Reese

You write about the way we used to consider TV “junk.” When you were a kid, did your family treat it that way?

Emily Nussbaum

I think we did consider [TV] to be junk but also watched it, which was kind of a conventional attitude. I mean, one of the things that is hard to bring back is how much people reflectively talked about TV as an embarrassing, shameful, harmful — but also kind of compulsive and pleasurable — habit, like chain-smoking or eating candy.

Hope Reese

When did TV start being worthy of criticism? And what kinds of shows first received critical attention?

Emily Nussbaum

Because television was regarded not as a creative form, not as an art form, but as something like a bad habit, it couldn’t be seen in any more complex way. It wasn’t seen the same way that books and movies are seen: as something that artists make, that might be intense and powerful and elevating and complex. So even once TV started getting better, people tended to praise it by praising things that made it seem unlike TV. That made it elevated, and they compared it to other art forms that they considered meaningful. And part of what the book is about is the hangover of that.

People want something they can feel comfortable talking about as an adult. One of the things that happened with The Sopranos was that it was immediately acclaimed, not just because it was great but because it was so clearly something that you could talk about proudly at dinner parties and that the New York Times would write about a lot. It was the beginning of this particular stage of prestige television.

There were things that came before that. There was a big phenomenon with Twin Peaks that was somewhat similar: “It’s violated all the rules of TV, and it’s better than the garbage that TV is, and yet it’s on TV.” This is an ongoing phenomenon. I write that I was a fan of both The Sopranos and Buffy the Vampire Slayer, and I was driven slowly mad by the very different critical reception of those shows.

Hope Reese

When Sex and the City came out, many people described it like the candy you mention — as a “guilty pleasure.” Reading your New Yorker essay about the show, which makes a case for its significance, had a big impact on me. How does gender play into our evaluation of whether television is “important”?

Emily Nussbaum

I think it’s a huge part of it. It’s not literally about whether there are women or men in the show; it’s about the kind of show it is. If it’s pink or brightly colored, fun or funny, or related in some way to soap operas, it’s coded as female, whether it’s female or not. So ideas about aesthetics are actually tied in with ideas about class and race and gender.

I make the comparison between disco and rock. It’s not a perfect match, but it came out of a conversation with [cultural critic] Virginia Heffernan about the ways people talk about music that they perceive as enjoyable and uncomfortably democratic, which is disco — everybody dancing to it, and black people and gay people and women somehow being tied to it — whereas rock is coded as a “serious,” authentic male creativity, and therefore was rated higher.

[The Sex and the City essay] was a Trojan horse piece for me. I essentially tried to restore Sex and the City’s status, vis-à-vis The Sopranos and all of television, and treat it as a serious, meaningful, ambitious, fascinating, funny, cool, endlessly analyzing kind of show. That weekend [the essay] came out, I was filled with a sense of dread, because I thought, “Ugh, every time you write about Sex and the City, you just get this hatred poured on you.” The opposite happened — I was deluged in emails. It was a tentpole piece for me as a writer. It did give me satisfaction and pride in the fact that it’s meaningful to talk about exactly the kind of shame and how harmful it is.

My book came out, in part, about a different show: Jane the Virgin. I was talking with a younger colleague and I asked, “What are you watching?” And she said, in that exact way people would say about Sex and the City, “Oh, you know, just guilty pleasures like Jane the Virgin.” And I was like, “Jane the Virgin is incredible!”

Hope Reese

With so many new shows coming out, how do you decide what to watch? And how long will you spend watching a show you don’t like?

Emily Nussbaum

It’s impossible, but I try my best. Sometimes I’ll watch two episodes and think, “You know, I don’t like this — and the way I don’t like it is boring. It’s not going to necessarily be worth engaging with.” Sometimes I watch something and it confuses me, or I have a negative response, and then I feel obliged to watch the whole thing so that I can actually sort out my responses to it.

I keep a list of stuff I want to watch. I consult this website, the Futon Critic, to know what’s coming out next. I also use Twitter quite a lot for this; I ask people and other critics, “What have you seen that’s interesting?” When I started this job, I was a little more orderly about it. I had this idea that I should try to have variety, and go back and forth from network to cable, and move from the big thing that everybody was talking about to drawing attention to tiny gems people hadn’t seen. But I don’t really do that anymore.

I also heard that every five columns, you should weigh in with a critical or negative review. I try to choose shows where, if you criticize them, you’re actually thinking not just about the show but about TV. Those seem more worth pursuing at this point.

I’m totally honest: [My process is] way more chaotic. I have stickies all over my computer, and I make lists, and while I’m watching screeners, I’ll make notes in the sticky and then I’ll roll it up and I’ll consult it later.

Hope Reese

Where do you watch TV? At home? At the office of the New Yorker? And how much time do you spend watching TV?

Emily Nussbaum

I watch shows in bed on my phone or computer. I watch shows down in my living room where I have a large-screen TV. I watch shows at a local bar where I sometimes write, where I use the [wifi] in order to watch streaming screeners on my computer screen. And I watch shows in my office on the computer screen.

Everybody asks me how many hours I watch. I have no idea. Maybe I should keep track of it. I’m not constantly watching TV; that would be impossible. I also wouldn’t be able to write or think if I did that, and I definitely miss shows because of it. But I have to balance things out. What I love is when I watch a show and I think I’m just testing screeners, but it’s so good that I immediately have to watch every episode they’ve sent me. That most recently happened with Netflix’s Russian Doll. I stayed up until 3 am, ignoring everyone in my family so I could watch it.

Hope Reese

What do you think about bingeing shows? Do you do it? How has it changed the way we view TV?

Emily Nussbaum

It is very enjoyable when there’s a really wonderful show and people go into a dream state of just engaging with it. I also have a kind of corny nostalgia for the week-to-week model of TV, because part of my fascination with the medium is that it’s the rare art form that’s affected by the audience as they watch it. Because when TV comes out week to week, people respond to episodes, the episodes get made slowly over time, and the TV makers respond to the responses they get.

So I’ve always been very interested in that looping, slightly live quality of making TV. When streaming shows come out all at once and people binge-watch, there’s two effects. They make all the episodes before anybody ever sees them, which has both good and bad qualities. But the other thing is that everybody watches the show at a different time, so sometimes it’s hard to keep track of the conversation. Like, when are we supposed to talk about this?

Hope Reese

You contend that TV is a reflection of who we are as a society. But have you observed it affecting society?

Emily Nussbaum

I just wrote a column about HBO’s Chernobyl and Netflix’s Orange Is the New Black and Ava DuVernay’s miniseries on Netflix about the Central Park Five [When They See Us] — and part of that piece is about the value of TV that uses storytelling skills to make people look at very difficult social issues that they have a tendency to look away from.

But at the same time, I’m very resistant to the notion that TV should be good for people. I think TV should be interesting and original and good art. I want TV to be challenging and varied and surprising. Like, when I first found HBO’s High Maintenance, I was like, this is doing things I’ve never seen a show on TV do. It has this silence and ebb and flow and emotionality that is really different from conventional TV. And in a lot of ways, that’s more important to me.

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