Topple the Top 10 List: The Millions Interviews Emily Nussbaum

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.

The Failures of Unfailing Optimism: The Broadway Debut of ‘To Kill a Mockingbird’

“I was guilty as soon as I was accused,” says Tom Robinson to Atticus Finch.

“I get called an optimist a lot. What I don’t get called is stupid,” Atticus responds, trying to convince Tom to sign the “not guilty” plea that sits before him on a wooden table. He assures Tom that the trial “will happen in an American court of law.” Tom “should have faith in that institution.”

It’s early in the first act of Aaron Sorkin’s Broadway adaptation of To Kill a Mockingbird, and Gbenga Akinnagbe as Tom is squaring off against Jeff Daniels as Atticus. Akinnagbe, masterfully bottling up Tom’s bottomless anger and sadness, offers a sort of half-laugh at the privilege inherent in blindly trusting an American court in 1934 (or any other year).

“I know these people,” Daniels continues. “Do we have ignorant citizens who are stuck in the old ways? Yes. Does that extend as far as sending an obviously innocent man to his death?”

A long pause ensues before Tom responds, “You gonna answer that question?” The audience laughs knowingly.

By the end of the conversation, of course, Tom Robinson agrees to plead “not guilty” to the rape he did not commit. “And just like that,” says Scout, in her role as narrator, “everyone’s fate was sealed.”

This interaction, which does not exist in Harper Lee’s 1960 novel, nor the 1962 film version, is the first of several invented scenes intended to flesh out the perspectives of the story’s previously one-dimensional African-American characters. In each of them, Atticus Finch is not the wisest person on the stage.

To Kill a Mockingbird opened on December 13 at the Sam S. Shubert Theatre under the direction of Bartlett Sher. The play has had an unusually public path to Broadway, garnering national headlines in a dispute between mega-producer Scott Rudin and Tonja Carter, the lawyer who now controls Harper Lee’s estate. As Sorkin recently revealed in an essay for Vulture, one of the concessions of the settlement between the parties was that his version of Atticus could not use the Lord’s name in vain.

In that essay, Sorkin revealed his desire to put Atticus at the heart of his adaptation (in the book, Atticus’s daughter Scout is the protagonist). Of course, any tragic hero needs a hamartia, but Sorkin realized he “didn’t have to give Atticus a flaw because,” well, “he already had one.” Atticus “believes in the fundamental goodness in everyone, even homicidal white supremacists. He believes … that there are fine people on both sides?”

Enter Jeff Daniels, who tackles the inevitable comparisons to Gregory Peck by playing a different character entirely. Peck’s Atticus is statuesque, his anger measured, his words slow and mellifluous, his voice a carefully-plucked bass. Daniels’s Atticus is slightly stoop-shouldered, increasingly short-tempered, and more urgent. He delivers his lines in a cascading baritone, slurring together syllables in a sing-song Southern lilt. It’s an indelible portrait, so much so that to go back and watch Peck after watching Daniels is jarring.

Daniels is joined by a trio of adult actors—Celia Keenan-Bolger, Will Pullen, and Gideon Glick—as Scout, Jem, and Dill. This casting maneuver elides one of Mockingbird’s perceived narrative flaws: the inconsistency of Scout’s voice. It is so well-executed that not a single moment goes by in which it feels like the wrong move. Each time Keenan-Bolger joyfully stomps around with her brand-new baton, or angrily stomps back and forth in front of the house, slamming her hand against the porch over and over, she wins our love all over again. Pullen deftly channels the uncertain gulf between boyhood and manhood. Glick brings to mind Nathan Lane with his absurdly high laugh rate. (I lost track, but it seemed well over 50 percent, and every word he spoke felt fresh.)

LaTanya Richardson Jackson draws mid-scene applause as Calpurnia with her withering critiques of Atticus’s liberalism. (I would happily watch a sequel all about her.) It is through Calpurnia’s eyes, and Tom’s, that the overwhelmingly white audience sees Atticus’s perfect whiteness: He has the luxury of wrongly believing in people, whereas she and Tom are required by circumstance to rightly understand systems.

The empty stage is constantly being reinvented via Miriam Buether’s set design. It’s a courthouse, it’s a front porch, it’s the yard of Boo Radley. This is all done with workmanlike precision and grace, as a combination of automated and actor-controlled set pieces rise and fall and roll and lock into place.

Each time Akinnagbe’s Tom Robinson enters or exits, he, too, is pushed or pulled by a cast member. Akinnagbe’s physical resistance increases as the play progresses, but even in his quietest moments, he loathes the controlling hands. Tom’s body, it is clear, does not belong to him.

When the inevitable verdict is reached—and you may want to skip this paragraph and the next one if you have not read the book, or if you don’t remember—we hear it repeated 12 times, one “guilty” for each juror. It brings to mind the verdict in the Laquan McDonald case, in which each count was read aloud, one “guilty” for each of the sixteen shots from the gun of Officer Jason Van Dyke.

That verdict took a full two minutes to read. And while it was a more hopeful verdict than the one that meets Tom Robinson, the gap between the two Black men, one real and one fictional, is a small one. Late in the play, Calpurnia insists that Atticus share how many times Tom is ultimately shot during his attempted prison escape. (Puzzlingly, the answer is five, while in the book, it is seventeen.)

This is a production that is well aware of how far our society has not come since 1934, or since 1960. In the theatre’s basement, Mockingbird merchandise is on sale alongside a T-Shirt that reads “Patriarchy is a Bitch,” a woman’s tank top with the words “consent is sexy,” and a gray hoodie emblazoned with the name “TRAYVON.” The offerings are the result of a partnership with Liberated People, a brand founded by Akinnagbe. According to a sign on the gift kiosk counter, some portion of the proceeds benefit the Monroe County Public Library, the Southern Poverty Law Center, and the Trayvon Martin Foundation.

The Atticus Finch onstage at the Shubert Theatre is many people. He is the two-time Obama voter who eventually goes for Trump, as we know he did in Go Set a Watchman. He is the white Obama-Clinton voter who never saw a Trump victory coming, right up until all those swing states went red, one by one. And he is Obama himself, who, as Ta-Nehisi Coates has written, is “unfailingly optimistic about the empathy and capabilities of the American people.”

Obama looms large over this play, not least because he lovingly quoted Atticus in his January 2017 farewell address to the nation. In a segment focusing on race relations, Obama enumerated policy recommendations, but also noted that “Laws alone won’t be enough. Hearts must change. They won’t change overnight. Social attitudes often times take generations to change.” (In the play, Calpurnia mocks Atticus’s patience with the glacial pace of change in Maycomb, asking, “How much time would Maycomb like?”)

“But if our democracy is to work the way it should in this increasingly diverse nation,” Obama went on, “then each one of us need to try to heed the advice of a great character in American fiction, Atticus Finch, who said, “you never really understand a person until you consider things from his point of view. Until you climb into his skin and walk around in it.”

This advice comes early on in the play, after an ugly front-porch confrontation between Atticus and Bob Ewell. Scout and Jem are itching for a fight, and Atticus sits them down and reviews the plan for what to do when people say “unpleasant” things to them. “Go for the eyes,” Scout responds, without missing a beat.

Not quite. “There’s goodness in everyone,” Atticus says. “Before you judge someone, it’s a good idea to get inside their skin for a while and crawl around.”

It’s a notable rewrite on Sorkin’s part, substituting the nobler-sounding “climb” and “walk” for the more modest “get” and “crawl.” And it is this advice, as much as Tom Robinson himself, that is on trial throughout the play. It is brought up three more times in the first act, once by Scout and twice by Calpurnia, and all three times the women are spitting Atticus’s advice back at him defiantly.

Whether to “go for the eyes” or don your opponent’s skin is a tension deeply felt in Obama’s inner circle today. This October, former Attorney General Eric Holder, who once called To Kill a Mockingbird “America’s story” and credited Atticus with launching countless law careers, was on a campaign stop for Stacey Abrams in Georgia. He referenced the former first lady’s Atticus-like words at the 2016 Democratic National Convention. “Michelle always says, ‘When they go low, we go high.’

“No, no,” he corrected. “When they go low, we kick ‘em.” Amid the laughter and applause, some members of the crowd chanted, “fight, fight, fight!”

Atticus, who is on the Obamas’ side, ends the play diminished. Deaths and injuries have piled up around him. Each one is in some way the result of his optimism, and each one flies in the face of his faith in his friends and neighbors. Calpurnia and Tom, meanwhile, are on Holder’s. And not a single moment goes by when their clear-eyed vision of the world is proven wrong.