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Emily Nussbaum on Her New Book, I Like to Watch: Arguing My Way Through the TV Revolution

Emily Nussbaum, television critic for the New Yorker, is an avid watcher—and re-watcher—of her favorite medium. Soon after she leapt from her first full-time critical gig at New York Magazine to the New Yorker, she won a Pulitzer Prize for her essays on David Letterman, "The Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt" and rape culture, and an appreciation of Joan Rivers in which she invokes the poet Sharon Olds. Nussbaum's literary chops are formidable: A former doctoral candidate in Victorian Literature, Nussbaum found that her late '90s fandom of "Buffy the Vampire Slayer," along with teaching and a slew of freelance editing and writing gigs, "overloaded" her drive toward a dissertation. Her best essays are collected in I Like to Watch: Arguing My Way Through The TV Revolution (Penguin/Random House). 

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How did you become a critic?

I wrote some book and poetry reviews for the New York Times Book Review, which had come out of my work for Lingua Franca, but I felt some ambivalence about criticizing poetry. You have to be able to write negative criticism as well as positive. Yet it felt cruel, because so few people read poetry. Poetry is a personal project, respected but very little read. Poets make no money! It felt like an aggressive act to about poetry in a negative way. And dishonest to just praise it.

Television felt like the opposite of poetry: It is made collaboratively, it is condescended to, it makes money. Even a negative review was a way of praising television. A way of showing you believed in television. This is part of the origins of me writing about TV. Not so much to write cultural criticism, but to write about the way people respond to TV.

HBO's tagline, when you started writing reviews, was "It's Not TV – It's HBO." Critical praise for "The Sopranos" used words like operatic, novelistic, cinematic, as though its quality sprung from something other than The Box, the Boob Tube. 

That's the origin of the book: "The Sopranos" and "Buffy the Vampire Slayer"—I love both shows—and it was extremely frustrating, witnessing the different critical reception to them. "The Sopranos," praised for the ways it was not like television that came before, so it assuaged the status anxiety that clung to TV as a whole. "Buffy" definitely was TV, from the network it was shown on (the WB and the CW) to the way it was made, collaboratively. When it was praised it was in a sort of marginalized way. That contrast remains a theme for me. There was a wave of copycat shows in the aftermath of "The Sopranos," many of them not very good, which cemented certain cultural ideas of quality TV: gritty, kind of violent, with a troubled middle-aged man at the center. Even as TV has expanded and changed and become more ambitious, technologically, is that it has retained this "Sopranos" era anxiety about what counts as an adult, quality show. That is part of what I'm opposing. And I'm not the only one. There's a vibrant conversation of critics and viewers on Twitter.

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A conversation, you argue, between viewers and television makers, too. You write about the rise of the "Bad Fan," the viewers who agree with the bigotry of Archie Bunker, who thrill to the gangster life of Tony Soprano, and who find an alter ego in "Breaking Bad"'s Walter White. What happens when TV makers talk—or bite—back?

Well, they don't talk back to me! I argue in "The Long Con," an essay about the very divisive finale of The Sopranos," that part of what David Chase did, in a groundbreaking and unusual way, was bridle at people's worship of Tony Soprano. A couple of seasons in, he started aggressively pushing back at the glamorization of this worship. The show got colder and more punishing in ways that seemed thematically meaningful. Which shows how much more that TV can do this than any other art form: It can respond to the audience. Creators can play up to audience desires, reject them, incorporate them. And the show creators change over time, which creates an unusual loop between TV makers and audience. Authors cannot go back into their novels and change them in response to how people read. But TV is made in front of people.

Why can't film—which is increasingly reliant upon franchises and recurring characters—do the same?

You mean like with the Marvel movies? I just haven't seen enough. I sometimes see the superhero movies compared to a TV series, or called sort of cartoon-y movies. Which seems dismissive. Merely because they are part of a series, and they come from comic books and they are episodic in a way that movies are not. Usually. 

I was thinking more of filmmaking's longer, sometimes decades long development times, the higher sunk costs and interest over time, and the strong expectations of a franchise audience, which leaves less room for experimentation. 

I don't know. I haven't seen enough of them to have an informed opinion. These movies are not like a TV series, but a series of sequels, and sequels to sequels. I'll tell you what I really object to: TV makers who say, when they've made a series: "Oh, It's actually a six-hour movie." As though that is somehow better and more elevated to work on a movie than in television. Sometimes they are being pretentious. Sometimes they're completely earnest. That said, there is a great deal of blurring, movies coming out on streaming platforms.

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Prime time programming is drawing upon the medium's Golden Age, with more prime time game shows and live, one-off broadcasts of plays and musicals. Which I understand you are a fan of—or at least a follower of on Twitter.

I am a huge fan of musicals, of Broadway. There was a burst of shows with musical elements: "Crazy Ex-Girlfriends," "Bunheads," which I liked very much. I wrote a kind of affectionately mean about hate-watching "Smash." And I wrote about the series "Documentary Now!," about their take on "Martina Abramovic: The Artist Is Present" and the Sondheim episode, the musical episode—those two episodes were particularly great. My favorite show of all time is not a musical, but the backstage drama "Slings and Arrows," a Canadian series which is unfortunately hard to find.

We consume TV and film everywhere we go. Do you really sit down and watch every screener on a big TV, taking notes, or are you at your computer? 

I caught "Vanderpump Rules" in line at the supermarket. I've probably seen every episode of "Law & Order SVU" and "NCIS" while on the treadmill. I get ideas of what to write about from twitter or a website called The Futon Critic, that updates me on what's coming out. I chat with other critics online. "SVU," I’m sure others have written about it, but I wanted to write about it then because of its place in the sexual violence on TV, how aesthetically different it was, to take stock of what it meant that it was junky and formulaic. But that it veered off in different and unexpected directions. I watch at home: I have big flatscreen TV. I watch screeners on my computer, which is not ideal for many shows, but it's a pretty good image. Like a lot of people, I am platform agnostic. I couldn't tell you what my total cable service bill is per month. A fair amount. I am fortunate in that it's my job, so I can write it off. 

To order your copy of I Like to Watch: Arguing My Way Through the TV Revolution, click here

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