I Like to Watch is the first book by Emily Nussbaum, The New Yorker’s TV critic. It combines nearly two dozen of her Pulitzer-Prize-winning reviews with essays on subjects ranging from product placement to Joan Rivers, profiles of showrunners like Kenya Barris and Jenji Kohan, and a new 17,000-word essay on the question of separating the art from the artist in the age of #MeToo.
Nussbaum traces her love affair with television back to 1997, when an episode of Buffy the Vampire Slayer changed the way she thought about the then-derided medium. She has spent the two decades since arguing for the once-unpopular notion that TV is an art form central to our culture and worthy of our attention and criticism. Since then, television has entered its current “golden age,” and Nussbaum’s side has won what she calls “the drunken cultural brawl” over the importance of TV. In the process, the best shows have slowly shed adjectives like “novelistic” and “cinematic” and earned respect on their own terms: as television. But along the way, she says, too many great series were ignored or met with condescension. And as innovations from TiVo to Netflix transformed the industry, the very definition of television itself became less and less clear.
Nussbaum and I sat down last month at a Park Slope café to talk about underrated shows, the downside of technological advances, and the benefits of Twitter. (And if you need a new show, she said she was looking forward to Season 2 of Succession; and she recommended Los Espookys, The Other Two, the most recent season of High Maintenance, and the final season of Orange is the New Black.)
The Millions: A key part of the case that you’re making in I Like to Watch is that we should be celebrating shows with female protagonists like Buffy the Vampire Slayer and Jane the Virgin and Sex and the City and Crazy Ex-Girlfriend. In fact, in a piece about your book, Mother Jones said that you’re shaping an “alternative canon” for television’s golden age.
A lot of my female partners and female friends have loved those shows over the years. And honestly, I’ve ignored most of them in favor of shows like Mad Men and Breaking Bad. So your book definitely gave me pause. I’m wondering: Do you feel like this part of your argument has been less successful than your larger argument, which is that we should be valuing TV?
Emily Nussbaum: Well, it depends on who you’re talking to. I think your experience is not unusual at all. And I do think that, to the extent that the book has kind of a pugnacious project, it is to say: Cast your attention elsewhere. So, I think that the point made in that Mother Jones piece about an alternative canon is true.
It’s not that I’m trying to put down certain great shows of the masculine antihero type. Several of them are among my favorite shows, including The Sopranos, which I have an essay on [in the book]. And I think The Wire is an extremely brilliant show. It’s not about creating a new hierarchy. It’s about exploding the false status anxiety and, to a certain extent, the gender bias that’s basically kept all of those [female-centered] shows categorized as “optional” shows that girls and teenagers watch. It’s like: topple the top 10 list, the anxious hierarchy. Look across the universe at different kinds of creativity, and find ways to celebrate and critique all of them for what they’re trying to do.
[The undervalued shows belong to] a bunch of overlapping categories. Some of it’s about gender, some of it’s about comedy, some of it’s about genre (like sci-fi), some of it is about shows that are bright and warm and deal with domesticity and romance—and that stuff gets coded female.
The main theme of the book is about celebrating television as television. And a lot of those shows that you mentioned actually fall into categories that people deride as particularly “TV-like.”
TM: Like the romantic comedy…
EN: Romantic comedy, sitcom, soap opera. They have arch or stylized qualities that I think people condescend to.
But I have to say, TV is not the only medium that this happens in. [Another is] books. There’s a major issue with male friends of mine who have literally never read a female author. It’s a real rancorous struggle.
It’s always a little shocking to me that some men that I know haven’t watched certain overtly great female-centered shows: Broad City, Crazy Ex-Girlfriend, Fleabag, Lady Dynamite. It is a perpetual frustration for me. I hope that the book shames people into watching good TV shows. I’d be happy!
TM: It’s not that I haven’t ever watched any of them, but you have made me think…
EN: Not every show is for everybody. I mean, I don’t require people to love Sex and the City. Some people really don’t like that show. I get it. But part of my thing is to oppose the default condescension, and also the sort of stink of, “oh, that’s a teen girl show. I don’t want to watch with teen girls, because that’s somehow embarrassing…”
Sometimes I get frustrated when female shows are only compared to other female shows. Some of the pieces in this book are about trying to break the ghettoization of things. So it’s not like, ‘if you like Jane the Virgin, you might like Claws!’
[For example,] there’s a piece in the book comparing House of Cards to Scandal. Those are the same show, just done in an aesthetically different way—and one of them has a sense of humor. I’ve written a couple of pieces like that, that are basically just pointing out the incredible similarity of shows that people generally think of as in different categories. I think that’s a valuable thing for critics to do—to break the boxes that people have created for art, that keep people from seeing them in a bigger vision.
TM: There have been other books that have been so specifically trained on the male antihero drama as the epitome of the golden age. So it’s really helpful to have a book like this…
EN: You know, poor Brett [Martin] wrote this great book, Difficult Men. But then I used it as a teeing-off point for my piece [about Sex and the City].
TM: Which was totally fair.
EN: It was fair! Brett really treated those antihero shows as something that transcended television. And he had a very dismissive attitude toward a lot of the shows that I find artistically substantial. So his book ended up being a perfect launching point.
But Brett is great. He sent me a tank top that said “Difficult Woman.”
TM: Another thing you talk about as far as the way TV has evolved is that there have been these huge technological advances. You say that some of them were necessary in order for TV to have the ascension that it’s had—for example, the ability to pause and rewind TV makes it a text that can be analyzed. Are there ways in which you think these massive changes have been harmful?
EN: The fact that people tweet while watching things is ironic, because it’s overlapped with the expansion of visual ambition in TV. Historically, TV was not a highly visual medium, for economic and pragmatic reasons. It’s not as though people had the money or the ability to film on-location, or in idiosyncratic ways. If you were making a network show, you had to produce 22 episodes, you had to do them on sets, you couldn’t confuse the viewer. Recently, there have been these really beautiful and visually specific shows that have a lot of silence, that have different kinds of framing that never existed before. And this has coincided with people constantly looking at their computers while the show is on. So I do think that that is unsettling. Sometimes there’s a show that I think of as a very visual show, and it worries me that people live-tweet. (But on the other hand, I sometimes do that.)
One other thing: I love that streaming puts out whole seasons at once. There’s something powerful about being able to watch a whole show. But it also bums me out on several levels, one of which is that I’ve built my whole career on being interested in the unique looping relationship [between shows and their audience] over time, and streaming changes that. Another damaging thing is that sometimes you’ll have a great show come out, and people don’t know when to talk about it. Streaming has really rattled the ability to talk about shows in any kind of logical way, because you can watch them any time you want, and you watch all of them.
TM: As opposed to the kind of appointment television that used to exist 20 years ago on Thursday night on NBC.
EN: There is something beautiful about the episodic week-by-week model. It’s easy just to be nostalgic about things because they’re older, and I don’t want to fall into that. But the episode itself, as a thing, is definitely changed by the release of a 10-episode season. The way you experience episodes, without the pause in between—I think it benefits some shows and is actually worse for other shows.
TM: A couple months back, you posted a thread on Twitter about Friends and homophobia. You were talking about how calling the show homophobic was “short-sighted, silly & simplistic.” There were hundreds of comments, including a few from people who identified as gay, saw the show as children, didn’t pick up on certain nuances you were arguing for, and instead absorbed it as homophobic. My reading of your responses was that your perspective shifted a little bit. Is that accurate? And is that one of the things you’re intentionally using Twitter for—to have your mind changed?
EN: One hundred percent. Definitely. It’s not that I changed my mind about the point that I was trying to make—which was that adults watching Friends at the time perceived it in a specific cultural space. That show had pretty clear pro-gay bona fides in that period, because there were very few gay characters on TV, and that show had a lesbian couple. Several colleagues of mine, gay journalists around my same age, talked about their own reactions at the time: that it was thrilling to see a show set in New York in which gay and straight people were constantly acknowledging one another and had relationships. (That hardly seems radical now, but it was true at the time.) And to me, the jokes about Joey and Chandler, which read very poorly now to a lot of younger people watching the show, seemed to be making fun of Joey and Chandler for their insecurity. The target of the jokes was [straight] male anxiety about the increasing visibility of gay men.
But, yes, in that thread, several people were like, “I was ten or eleven when I was watching the show. And the message to me was that straight men, when they’re alone, are incredibly nervous about being seen as someone like me.” And I found that incredibly helpful. It did change my mind.
It definitely was a fruitful conversation—and that’s happened a lot on Twitter. It reminded me that TV always sends multiple messages to multiple audiences. What seemed, to a bunch of urban friendship groups in cities, like this sophisticated show making fun of straight men for their homophobia, struck gay children as this frightening representation of themselves as the source of anxiety and the butt of the joke. Both of those things can be true at once.