“Master Class in American History”: A Review of ‘I Like to Watch: Arguing My Way Through the TV Revolution’ by Emily Nussbaum

TV shows get locked into little capsules of history. Their reputations (however legendary) are first defined by the membranes of the times in which they were created. They are dependent on audiences for both their creation and their longterm survival. I Like to Watch: Arguing My Way Through the TV Revolution (Random House), Pulitzer Prize winner Emily Nussbaum’s collection of reviews, blog posts, and long-form profiles, traces both the evolution of the medium and Nussbaum’s work as a critic. Nussbaum got her informal start writing in chat rooms, and her criticism is built on that foundation: the need to seek out those who are equally obsessed with something and squeal about it; to argue, and to make people laugh. Nussbaum shoots from the hip, but she’s a good shot. She writes as a fan addressing other fans—not only to convince, but to advocate. Reading her critiques, we learn not only about television, but about ourselves.

Nussbuam writes about the shows she champions, but more importantly, she has always advocated for “a critical stance less hobbled by shame—a language that treated television as its own viable force, not the weak sibling to superior mediums” (namely films).  Most of the material in this collection comes from her stints as the television critic for New York magazine and The New Yorker, although there are a few new pieces written expressly for the book. It is arranged thematically, not chronologically, but an evolution is still discernible. Nussbaum writes, “Criticism isn’t memoir, but it’s certainly personal, so you can consider these essays to be a portrait of me struggling to change my mind.”

Nussbaum’s epiphany came in 1997 while she was pursuing a doctoral degree in literature at New York University, a time when television was thought of as “a disposable product, like a Dixie Cup,” or as “a sketchy additive that corporations had tipped into the cultural tap water, a sort of spiritual backbone-weakener.” One night, while flipping through the channels, she lands on an episode of “a horror comedy about a superpowered cheerleader leading a double life.” She was immediately smitten with Buffy the Vampire Slayer. Nussbaum writes, “My Buffy fanhood was not unlike any first love. It was life-swamping, more than a bit out of proportion to the object of my affection, and something that I wanted to discuss with everyone, whether they liked it or not.”

At that time, what a lot of people wanted to talk about was “HBO’s mob drama” The Sopranos: “It was real art, which meant that it was worthy of real criticism.” Nussbaum writes, “From my perspective, both of these shows were equally radical interventions into their medium: One of them was a mind-blowing drama about postwar capitalism and boomer masculinity; the other a blazing feminist genre experiment about mortality and sex. But only one of these shows transcended television. The other one was television.”

Here’s where the river splits, both in how television was popularly thought of, and of how Nussbaum now started to define it critically. She sees television both as “an episodic art form” and “collaborative, writer-driven, and formulaic; it was gorgeous not despite but because of its own wonky elasticity, the way it altered with time, in conversation with its own history.” Nussbaum sees this as “my model of criticism, too. It’s about celebrating what never stops changing.”

Nussbaum prefaces each piece in the book with a brief introduction explaining the reason for its inclusion and sometimes a summary of the piece’s initial response (some generated fan letters; some hate mail). They include reviews of series (including such shows as The Good Wife, Jane the Virgin, Law & Order: Special Victims Unit, Lost, and Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt), noting that “The best series rattle us and wake us up; the worst are numbing agents”); reality television (“an easily mocked mass artistic medium that’s corrupted by half-hidden deals, but it also provides a magnetizing mirror for the culture, dirty and mesmerizing”); and the unique moment we’re living in now, with shows like The Comeback, “a scripted series about a reality series about a reality star making a scripted series about the time she made a reality show about a scripted series.

In the longform pieces, profiles on show creators and frontrunners Kenya Barris (Black-ish), Jenji Kohan (Orange is the New Black, Weeds), Ryan Murphy (Pose, American Horror Story, Glee), Nussbaum recedes. Her tone is different. The focus feels more directly on her subjects, not explicitly on what she thinks. Nussbaum makes her feelings known more subtly by the details she notices and the quotes of her subjects she uses, such as Murphy noting of his latest series, Pose, “‘There’s something for everybody—and there’s something to offend everybody. That’s what a hit is.”

One of the original pieces written for this collection brings Nussbaum front and center. “Confessions of the Human Shield” is a response to the Harvey Weinstein story and the #MeToo movement. “What should we do with the art of terrible men?” Nussbaum wonders, opening her essay with a declaration of her love (particularly as a young woman) for Woody Allen’s movies, now seen in the light of the fact that he has since been accused of “molesting his young daughter.” Nussbaum unpacks her responses carefully. “I was most confident in arguing that we should not reject the art of bad men when it came to artists I did not love, a situation that made the ethical choice abstract. Bill Cosby, for instance, had never been my guy.” Nussbaum also finds that “[i]t was easier to detach myself when it came to music or painting or sculpture; it was much easier with medium (jazz and abstract expressionism, say) that felt less narrative, more mathematical. It was harder with someone who made you laugh, because laughter is intimate, a loss of control. It was easier when I hated both the art and the artist. It was harder when the work felt like it was about me, my world.” Of Louis C.K.’s show Louie, Nussbaum realizes, “I’m its creature, the way we are all creatures of the art we care about, even if we decide to throw it in a garbage can,” and notes, “It’s hard to find your footing as the ground is shifting. These days, we are all performing what a friend of mine once called ‘the audit,’ struggling to reconcile the stories we used to tell ourselves with the ones we tell ourselves now.”

Several of Nussbaum’s reviews highlight the political uneasiness of the present moment. She introduces “How Jokes Won the Election: How Do You Fight an Enemy Who’s Just Kidding?” (from The New Yorker, 2017) with a lament: “The one section that I wish I could expand is about the relationship between TV news and TV comedy. Some days, watching Fox [News], it feels like the key to everything that has gone wrong.” Nussbaum recounts being “a Jewish kid in the 1970s, in a house full of Holocaust books, giggling at Mel Brook’s The Producers,” and getting “the impression that jokes, like Woody Guthrie’s guitar, were a machine that killed fascists.” In light of this observation about the power of comedy, Nussbaum pinpoints the stronghold of the current President’s appeal: “Like that of any stadium comic, Trump’s brand was control. He was superficially loose, the wild man who might say anything, yet his off-the-cuff monologues were always being tweaked, perfected as he tested catchphrases (‘Lock her up!’; ‘Build the wall!’) for maximum crowd response.”

While Nussbaum loathes comparisons to Pauline Kael, The New Yorker’s longtime film critic known for her sharp, outspoken, streetwise reviews, Kael’s collections of criticism (with their equally provocative titles, such as I Lost It at the Movies and When the Lights Go Down) function in similar way to Nussbaum’s, ultimately bringing to light not just the history of a medium, but the history of America. Kael’s status as a critic is legendary. With this book, Nussbaum’s is made.



Michael Quinn

Michael Quinn reviews books for trade publications (Publishers Weekly, IndieReader), literary journals (Gertrude Press, Green Mountains Review), and newspapers (The Red Hook Star-Revue), as well as for his own website, mastermichaelquinn.com, under the heading “Book Report.” His reading list for the reviews he’s not assigned is determined by interest, whim, and chance—and by what’s available at the Brooklyn Public Library.

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