For a quick and dirty summary of how TV has changed over the last couple of decades, just take a look at the slogans for HBO. Contrast the late-’90s snobbery of “It’s not TV. It’s HBO” with the current tagline, a warm and fuzzy declaration of feel-good humility: “It’s what connects us.”
In “I Like to Watch: Arguing My Way Through the TV Revolution,” the critic Emily Nussbaum describes how she grew to love and appreciate television when the medium was still, culturally speaking, under siege. The year was 1997; she was studying for her graduate degree in literature and started to watch a new show called “Buffy the Vampire Slayer,” thinking it would be a fun way to kill time while taking a break from her analysis of “Daniel Deronda.” But that episode of “Buffy” made for an ecstatic conversion experience: “I fell into a trance of joy.”
Onscreen, a high school principal was getting cannibalized by a group of hyena-possessed kids; poor “Daniel Deronda” didn’t stand a chance. Nussbaum scrapped her plans to become a Victorianist and headed for magazines, eventually becoming the veritable institution she is now as the TV critic for The New Yorker, where she won a Pulitzer Prize in 2016.
That word, “institution,” makes Nussbaum sound like one of those stuffy arbiters who praise television only when they deem it a worthy imitator of other forms, like the novel. What Nussbaum does is thrillingly different; she treats television as art in its own right — not the kind of rarefied, fragile museum piece that requires you to handle it with a hushed reverence and kid gloves, but a robust, roiling form that can take whatever you throw its way. Her approach comes out of the early online communities that sprang up around shows, where fans could kibitz and argue, exchanging detailed exegeses of episodes and (back then) bootleg videotapes.
In a sharp opening essay, Nussbaum recalls a cultural moment when participating in those communities felt both marginal and illicit — an era that seems quaint now, when the internet and the proliferation of prestige TV has made fandom mainstream. “What happens,” she asks, “when your side wins the fight, the drunken cultural brawl that you’ve been caught up in for nearly two decades?”
[ This book was one of our most anticipated titles of June. See the full list, and our picks for July. ]
It’s not an idle question, and though “I Like to Watch” is mostly a selection of Nussbaum’s reviews and profiles over the years, you can see how the residue of that “drunken cultural brawl” still seems to animate her. When she began writing, she had a mission: “Television deserved a critical stance less hobbled by shame.” TV at the time was still mostly a network phenomenon: episodic, collaborative, forced to accommodate the length of a network season and the inevitability of ads. Those compromises didn’t have to be corrupting, Nussbaum argued. They could make the medium singular and interesting and elastic — vital, even.
The shame is gone from television criticism, but a strain of defensiveness still lingers in her work. Her defiance is often rousingly generative; it gives her reviews an edge and a vibrancy, as if she’s still embattled the way she was in the early aughts, when “The Sopranos” (a show she loved) was critically lauded for being “masculine, literary, weighty, bleakly challenging,” and “Buffy” (another show she loved) was condescended to as an entertaining “girl show.”
So Nussbaum doesn’t fixate on Tony Soprano’s brand of aggrieved male antihero, directing her attention — and ours — toward the women, especially Carmela and Dr. Melfi. She also knows that to make the case for shows like “The Good Wife” and “Jane the Virgin” as more durable than fleeting pleasures, she has to show us that they’re doing something beyond pinging the dopamine centers of the brain. She describes how “Jane” has an “unusual optical density” that gives it a creative, manic energy; “The Good Wife,” in her telling, turns out to be a sly, subversive condemnation of capitalism.
This is confident, dauntless criticism — smart and spiky, brilliantly sure of itself and the medium it depicts. But as appealing and seductive as it is, it lugs some of its own baggage too. Nussbaum reacts to a gendered cultural hierarchy by deploying the weapons of that hierarchy against it: a certain combativeness, a bold swagger. It’s a feminism steeped in the toughen-up language of cultural libertarianism. Writing in the wake of the Harvey Weinstein story, she herself wrestles with this legacy in a long, bravura essay that asks, “What should we do with the art of terrible men?”
Woody Allen, Roman Polanski and Louis C.K. are the main terrible men in question, but even more than her searching considerations of their deeds and their art, what strikes me most is the moment she turns her critical lens on herself, conceding that the #MeToo movement stirred up an “ugly awareness” of how she had subconsciously absorbed the myth of male genius even as she consciously tried to resist it.
Nussbaum candidly describes the attitude that helped her flourish in her own career: “If you act like a polite associate editor in a beige cardigan, your voice will be small. If you pretend you’re Norman Mailer, you can take up some space.” #MeToo and the work of the comic Hannah Gadsby revealed to her how such assumptions allowed the conversation to continue to revolve around men, structuring it in their terms and according to their twisted priorities. Mailer was crassly contemptuous of women and so determined to “take up some space” that he stabbed his wife. Could it be that a polite associate editor in a beige cardigan might not be so bad after all?
“My old method had been the sociopath’s approach,” Nussbaum writes. “Treat the artist and the art as separate.” It’s a harsh light on a standard critical truism, and even though Nussbaum doesn’t entirely “cancel” or “delete” her old method — one of the most exhilarating aspects of the essay is how she treads a line that’s fine but also forceful — she’s clearly open to trying out new ones.
As ardent as Nussbaum’s critical responses are, she also knows that art and our judgments of it aren’t necessarily chiseled in stone; there’s a contingency that can be inevitable and even potent, should we choose to accept it. In 2014, she skewered the portentous first season of “True Detective” with a perfect line that’s still scathing but reads rather differently now, five years later: “The show has got so much gravitas it could run for president.”
Follow Jennifer Szalai on Twitter: @jenszalai.
I Like to Watch
Arguing My Way Through the TV Revolution
By Emily Nussbaum
366 pages. Random House. $28.
Source: Read Full Article