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Jonny Auping | Longreads | June 2019 | 20 minutes (5,447 words)
Until very recently in its relatively young life, television was considered to have the same creative merit as any other household appliance — perhaps less, since the device itself was referred to as the “Idiot Box” and “chewing gum for the eyes.” Having a passionate debate about television would have been like having a passionate debate about the microwave.
But in her new book, I Like to Watch, Emily Nussbaum, the New Yorker’s Pulitzer Prize-winning television critic, makes the same argument she’s been making, consciously and unconsciously, for 20 years: Television is worth thinking and talking about.
I Like to Watch is a collection of essays that Nussbaum has written, most of them originally for New York magazine and the New Yorker, about television shows that served as cultural touchstones in their time as well as short-lived programs that had more to say than anybody but their loyal fan bases ever realized.
Taken as one, Nussbaum’s essays represent her perspectives and experiences traveling through decades of TV shows that were intentionally and unintentionally commenting on the moments they were being created in. Her writing doesn’t necessarily demand that you take her point of view as much as it brings to focus how clearly you could form your own point of view through a deeper examination of the characters, plots, and themes of the shows you love. I Like to Watch is, fundamentally, an argument for television as art.
Nussbaum took some time to talk to Longreads about how technology has changed television, who she imagines her readers to be, and whether ‘anti-hero’ TV shows helped elect Donald Trump.
Jonny Auping: How did this book come about? Did someone approach you with the idea or had you been thinking about compiling your essays over the years?
Emily Nussbaum: It was actually my idea to produce an anthology. I’ve been writing about television for a while. Television has been changing rapidly — especially in the last couple of years — and the idea of collecting [some of my essays] together to make a broader argument seemed timely.
Basically in an odd way, I think the book marks my entrance into a new stage of TV. Even the last three years have been incredibly startling in terms of the sheer expansion of TV, the change in what people are paying attention to, and definitely the technology. I talk about some of this in the book. I’ve definitely been thrown in some ways by some of the alterations in the definitions of what TV is.
This is a collection of my work that is about the last 20 years of television. I put these particular essays together because they’re apart of a bunch of themes and arguments that I’ve been making pretty much since I started getting interested in TV and started to write about it and talk about it. The main thing I think of the book as doing is just celebrating television as television and detaching it from comparisons to other art forms. I was trying to talk about the nature of the medium and what makes it specific and rich and strange and ambitious and messed up and basically defining it and taking it seriously on its own.
You mention in the author’s note that you selected these essays because you felt they “most effectively made your argument about TV.” Do you feel like you consciously had an overarching argument about TV when you were writing these essays or is it only in revisiting your work that you can see the thread of that argument?
I think this is true of a lot of critics, but I think there are certain themes that you find yourself approaching again and again, and I do think that’s true of my work. Let’s face it, these are things that I’m obsessed with, and I see them through different lenses, but when I put the essays together they’re in conversation with one another, but they also show me changing my mind over time because television itself has changed it’s mind over time. It’s changed its nature over time.
One of the things that I do think has been really consistent for me is that I’ve been very interested in the way that TV kind of loops with the audience. It’s not like books and movies where you make them and you put them out and then people respond to them. It’s something that kind of gets made in front of people for years at a time, and it has this really fraught relationship with the audience. Part of what I do think unites these pieces is that a lot of them are about that quality in TV. That’s something that I’ve written about in a bunch of different essays in different contexts.
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A sentence that I wrote down from the book was “Criticism is a conversation and a form of theater.” I’ve found that I sometimes enjoy your essays about TV shows more than I enjoy the shows themselves. Do you imagine a certain type of reader? Would it be a fan of the show? Or someone who’s on the fence? Someone who hasn’t even seen it?
I do, and I think it’s changed depending on the publication I’m at. I used to write and edit for New York magazine and now I’m at the New Yorker. Some people read both publications, but in a way publications have personalities and you imagine your reader a little bit. The feeling that I had about the reader who was reading me at New York magazine was something like a 30-something TV-obsessed person, and at the New Yorker I feel very strongly that half my audience is not into TV. I embrace the fact that I am trying my best to write in a way that speaks both to people who are not watching the show and people who are. It’s tricky because sometimes I want to say some kind of deep-cut thing that only someone who is a pathological fan would understand, but I want my voice to work for both places.
Because I’m a slight masochist, I often imagine my reader at the New Yorker as someone who I’m trying to convince to read the piece. So, basically in my mind they are a 60-year-old, recently retired kind of businessman who looks down on the type of TV that I like, who is recently divorced in a very isolated apartment and he has this one TV, and he really has to be convinced that a show is interesting to be worth thinking about. So for some reason I think of someone who would be resistant to my work instead of someone who shares my opinions.
I did not expect you to give me such a specific answer.
[Laughing] That’s the guy.
Obviously I have multiple readers. And I’m writing for myself, also. I’m just trying to satisfy my own standards. I have an idea of the voice that I want.
The thing that I said about criticism being theater I really do feel strongly about. Because criticism isn’t math. It’s my opinions. You try to make a voice that is ideally elegant or seductive or funny or serious and thoughtful. I feel like this is not just true of criticism but of all writing: I think your lifelong task is just to get your voice to be the ideal form of itself. That’s the part that’s not easy and almost has nothing to do with the subject matter. With criticism I think it’s particularly true because there’s this quality of why read the thing if you don’t actually want to engage with the person speaking to you?
I do think that criticism is different than just stating an opinion on the thing or just weighing the good qualities and the bad qualities and laying them out in an objective manner. It’s its own kind of show.
And it might be making a point about something much larger than the quote unquote ‘subject.’
And actually that’s a big emphasis for me, especially at the New Yorker, which I feel is a very powerful platform. It has its own language. I think about the way my work looks on the page. I try to choose shows that either I have a strong response to — positive or negative or anything — but often I’m trying to choose shows in which I have something to say about beyond the show itself. I think it’s a better use of space if there’s a theme beyond the show is good or the show is bad. It just makes it more varied. It makes it more fun for me, and that’s part of it.
I want to return to something you mentioned earlier about how TV shows are different than books or films because those things are completed by the time they reach their audience. Something you alluded to a lot in this book is how a successful show can be influenced by an audience’s response as it’s ongoing. Do you think modern audiences are especially drawn to television because they feel like they are interacting with these shows?
I do, actually. TV has changed a lot in terms of how people absorb it, but it’s still a very intimate experience. TV used to be this big piece of furniture in the living room that didn’t move, and the whole family just walked through and watched it and it was kind of this permanent thing. Now people watch it on their phones while walking around, and they get to pick a show whenever they want to watch it. The actual nature of the relationship with a show feels a bit different, and I feel like that’s affected the aesthetics a lot. But the intimacy and the weird warmth of people’s relationships with the shows that they care about I do think has something to do with the fact that it’s episodic and it takes place over time and we don’t know what’s coming. And that we can find this type of excitement or frustration or disappointment with the turn of the show.
I do think streaming has changed this. One of my essential theories about TV is that it has so much to do with its relationship with time. The fact that at this point it can be saved and rewound and paused made me think that maybe this will change with streaming. But actually I see this other thing happening with streaming where the first season comes out and people respond to it and then the second season comes out and it seems to contain all the responses that people had to it. The writers are just affected by it, both by the audience response and by how they’ve changed and how the world has changed.
I still think a version exists of what I was always fascinated by, which is this looping effect. You see it in a different way with older shows. The book opens with an essay that I love that I wrote about how one of the significant things about The Sopranos was that the later parts of the show seemed, in my eyes at least, to change because of the fandom of the audience and how much that annoyed the creator of the show. The show started to push back against the audience. And then I have quite a mean piece about the end of Lost about the opposite effect. The creators were sort of pandering to the audience and kind of vamping in a way that poisoned the show and simplified it. I think this happens to a lot of shows. I think that range of how creators respond to audience still exists even though the technology has changed.
That essay about Lost especially made me think about how we’re only a few weeks removed from the finale of Game of Thrones, which a lot of critics and fans were generally disappointed with. Plot aside, did you have much expectation that they would be able to please the expectations for a final season given the popularity and nature of that show?
It’s not surprising they weren’t able to please everybody’s expectations. That show was incredibly burdened by public response.
I happened to like but not love Game of Thrones, and I wasn’t particularly attached to it. Actually I was a little annoyed that it was kind of an attention hog [laughing]. To me it was an interesting but not necessarily great show. I wrote about it twice, and I tried to keep up with it, but there were other shows that I thought were more interesting to talk about. But at a certain point I came to terms with it. This was a big, cultural phenomenon.
Part of it was that show had been such a force for people talking about politics. I always wish that I had written a piece comparing Game of Thrones to Survivor. I kept thinking as the show ended that there was a level at which it was sort of about who won. It reminded me of one of the things that I always felt about the show Survivor when it started. Survivor is obviously a different kind of show. It’s a reality show. It’s kind of a weird, sports torture show. When Survivor debuted around the turn of the century it was universally denounced as an apocalyptic phenomenon that was going to destroy the culture and all human beings. A bunch of other things [since then] have stepped in to hog the social problem question. The one thing about Survivor that always struck me was that the conversation about the show was always a lot more interesting than the show itself. The show looked junky and it had these kind of fake speeches. But it was pretty fascinating to discuss the element of the show that was about office politics. What kind of personality actually triumphs in an incredibly brutal situation? Is it the person who just stays quiet and stays to the side? Is it somebody who seems leader-like? What kinds of alliances do people form?
Game of Thrones is a scripted show and it’s based on what sounds like a very interesting book series. But the conversation around the show was often about those same kinds of subjects. I’m not rejecting the storytelling or the epic nature around it, but the actual function of the show in the world was as a great conversational piece for people to talk about which stories they were more interested in.
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You mentioned how a show can be burdened or just affected by audience reaction. Given how much that might be on your mind, do you spend much time thinking about how your writing could affect a show?
I try not to. I have to think about it sometimes because it would just be dishonest to deny it. I once heard of a show picking up a second season because I wrote a positive review of it. It was a small show that was sort of on the bubble, and my review helped. In a way, I felt happy about that because I liked that show, but in another way it made me feel nervous because I didn’t really want to get involved in that way.
Sometimes there are shows that I have mixed feels about but decide it’s not really worth me writing about. Who needs my voice and my mixed reaction about this show right now?
I’ve written some negative reviews and I’ve written some really heavy pans. There’s just a form of cognitive dissonance that you have to have as a critic. Part of the reason that I’m writing about television is because writing negative reviews is something I feel capable of doing with TV. I feel like sometimes it’s valuable to write a negative review because it shows that you have high expectations for the medium. That didn’t used to be true. People used to see TV as garbage, so part of the reason I enjoyed writing about it was I thought even a negative review is a form of praise. It’s a way of saying that TV can and should be great.
I respect people who make television. Especially having written profiles of people [who make TV shows] has made me even more aware of the fact that it’s really hard to produce something. Even bad shows take a tremendous amount of effort. It may not always feel so to creators who I know don’t always love the work of critics, but I try in my head to have some sense that you are talking about somebody’s creative work.
But that’s not about whether a show gets picked up or not. There are limits to what I can do, and honestly, I’m practically a curse. Half the time I write something [positive] and it gets canceled. I wrote my piece about Hanibal, a show that I adore, and literally the next day it was canceled.
I try to know enough about the industry to know how it affects the aesthetics. But at the same time, “That’s not my department,” said Wernher Von Braun. That’s the job of the people funding this thing to deal with whether something survives or gets ratings. I literally care only enough about the industry to want things that I love to not go away. I think that’s how most people who view TV feel about it.
I don’t care about ratings. I care about whether the show is good. Some of the best shows have the lowest ratings. Crazy Ex-Girlfriend was like the lowest. I can’t believe that it got picked up for three seasons. Thank you to TV for allowing me to watch that much of it.
One of the original essays in the book is probably the most thought-out essays that I’ve read wrestling with the concept of separating good art from its problematic creators with relation to the #MeToo movement. I think people should read that in the book, but a problem that TV has long faced that isn’t completely unrelated to that is the representation of female show creators and female-driven shows. Maybe this is too broad of a question, but do you feel better the portrayal of women on television than you did when you started writing about TV?
I think the past few years have marked the rise of more women making television in more varied ways. There’s been an explosion of female creativity on shows that have varied wildly. That’s key to any of these discussions of marginalized people making any kind of art, but specifically TV, is [that it has to be] more than one. Because if you have just one person then they are burdened and brutalized by people’s expectations for representation. For women, it was particularly frustrating because people wanted inspiring representations. Now that there are a million female voices, it’s thrilling because they can each be taken as an individual and a person.
That said, when I occasionally talk to a woman who works inside of TV they do not have as rosy an attitude. They still feel like there are a lot of bizarre responses and strange notes and sexist structures. I can’t speak to that. I can only speak to what I’m watching.
Some of these are shows that not that many people watched. I have a column on The Comeback in the book, and both seasons of The Comeback were important cultural projects to me. They were brilliant, funny, dark responses to TV itself, but they weren’t broadly watched. Neither was Lady Dynamite, the Maria Bamford show.
Right now I’m writing about Fleabag. Fleabag and Succession were I thought the two most interesting shows of last year. Fleabag is amazing. It’s one of those shows that are very good and very funny. It feels fresh and is doing new things. It’s by a really brilliant creator who you want to see make more stuff. The fact that she’s a woman is definitely part of what she’s doing. There are all sorts of feminist aspects in her work. It’s just good to be able to see Phoebe Waller-Bridge make TV. That wasn’t possible a few years ago because the kind of shows she made grew out of a real expansion of what was considered possible in terms of TV genre.
I could name a bunch of shows. PEN15 is amazing this year. I feel good about the state of women making TV. This stuff waxes and wanes. Sometimes there are these expansions of voices or representation and then the wave goes back in. That happened with a lot of black TV making in the nineties. It basically expanded and then disappeared. I don’t feel that is happening right now with a bunch of different kinds of TV. Part of the reason is there is just an endless desire for content. It makes it worse in some ways because it makes it harder to get noticed, and I feel guilty when I watch a show and I don’t get to it and it drops out of the conversation. The biggest difficulty with any TV critic is just triage. It’s just figuring out what to watch.
As for the #MeToo essay, I wrote that because I was on leave October to December of 2017 and I couldn’t really think about anything else. I’m proud of that essay. It was a really ambitious attempt to respond to all sorts of complicated feelings that I had during that time as a critic and a person.
Along with essays, you also included three extended profiles that you wrote of show creators and show runners. Do you approach a profile like that with a different mindset or strategy or do you just add reporting to your critical analysis of a show?
I think writing a profile is totally different than writing a review. I’ve written a lot of different kinds of journalism. I wrote profiles at New York Magazine, and I always felt a little stressed about simultaneously writing reviews and profiles. When I got my job at the New Yorker I was very excited about the purity of my task because I basically thought, “I’m just a critic. I’m not doing reporting.” After a few years there, the truth is, I’m a busybody and I’m nosy and an extrovert and voyeuristic. So I missed it.
Also, I’m genuinely interested in TV-making. The three people I wrote about are people whose art I’m very into. In that book I included the three profiles I wrote for the New Yorker. It was Jenji Kohan, Ryan Murphy, and Kenya Barris. I think those profiles also express a lot of themes that are in the book. Those are people that are making shows that match a lot of the stuff that I’m trying to celebrate and interrogate about TV.
The truth is that it wouldn’t make sense to me to write about somebody who I didn’t respect as a creator. Even if I don’t universally like everything they’ve made. Writing a profile is a very intense project. You have to spend time with the person. I loved doing that. I just think it’s incredibly different than writing criticism. I’m amazed and have enormous respect for the best profile writers. I feel like the responsibility of writing a profile of somebody that ideally is not a puff piece but captures their humanity is the ambition you want to fulfill. I go at those pieces trying to talk about what makes this person make this kind of TV. What is their role in TV? That’s my focus in those pieces. And to talk about the behind-the-scenes stuff, which is really great. I love being on set. I love being in the Black-ish writers room. It’s enjoyable to be there and get to be a fly on the wall.
I love to hear people talk about writing profiles because I want to hear all the tools and tips to how people do it and how they approach it. It is kind of a mystery to me.
I tend to think that doing justice to that ambition you have for a profile is just the legwork of your reporting. And you can get the sense of how much reporting you did for these when you causally sort of segue to, “…and then seven months later I was on set again…”
That’s purely the New Yorker. Journalism is in a crisis. The New Yorker is a place that enables me to write a profile where months apart I got to see Ryan Murphy go through working on the Versace show to him cutting a huge deal with Netflix. He changed a lot during that year. I easily could have written a profile of just five days on set of a show. I really think it enriched the profile to have that time. And it’s totally due to the institution of the New Yorker and their ability to support that kind of work, obviously not just with me but with so many of the reporters. It’s what makes for meaningful, in-depth, portraits of something. Time is part of what’s happening to people and being able to trace it is a huge privilege.
This question might be a reach, but I’m going to ask it anyway: Do you see any parallels between you releasing a collection of your essays in a single book and the Netflix binge-model of dropping an entire season at once?
[Laughing] Yes, I think of myself as a binge-reading experience. No, I don’t. It’s weird for me. I’ve just never published a book before. I think there’s something really strange about the idea of things being in this form. My whole life in journalism I’ve been writing for magazines by and large. I’m simply used to that style. This is different.
Only the reader can speak for himself or herself, but I hope the essays in combination with one another have some different kind of feelings in them. There’s just a sense of trying to capture my own thinking as it changed over time. There’s a level of which, for better or worse, criticism is a self-portrait. That’s something you get when you put a lot of pieces together. You notice ideas change. I’m trying to do a simultaneous portrait of television and myself. That’s way too ambitious and people will have to figure out if it worked.
I don’t think it’s like binge watching. I am interested in the fact that novels did come out of episodic publications and then turned into full things. Once they were like that they were more respected because people were like, “They are no longer these ephemeral, weird chapters published in magazines. Now I can carry around a novel.” There’s something to be said about when episodic art is perceived as a whole people look at it in a different light. But I reject that idea. I like TV as TV. My whole mission is to say that you don’t have to praise a fancy, highly visual cable show versus a smartly made but ugly-looking cheapy sitcom if the cheapy sitcom actually has an original thing to say. They both have value. I’m not someone who says that stuff is better if it all comes out at once.
Do you have any interest in writing for TV instead of about it?
No. That’s not my skillset. People always ask that, and it’s always a little confusing to me. That’s not my goal.
I imagine you get asked what your favorite TV show of all time is quite a bit, so I’m going to barely tweak that question and ask if you have an all-time favorite TV character?
I finally came up with a go-to answer for all-time favorite show because people ask it so much, and then I give them a lecture about how I hate top ten lists. Finally I was like, “Why don’t I just tell them a show?” It’s a little bit off the beaten path. I always loved Slings and Arrows, which was an incredible Canadian show that is a beautiful mixture of comedy and drama. So if I were to pick a favorite character I would be tempted to pick Geoffrey Tennant from Slings and Arrows. He’s this tortured, somewhat mentally ill, really charismatic, passionate director of plays played by Paul Gross. He’s a tormented person, who is trying to make great art and always feels like he falls short. But he has this passion to make something that really affects an audience.
You wrote in the essay that opened the book, “The brash anti-hero fell out of favor when he was elected president.” Do you think that surrounding morally bad male characters with excellent writing and beautiful cinematography slowly made them more tolerable to society?
Yes, I do. But I also loved some of those shows so I have a divided mind when it comes to the anti-hero show. I think anyone who reads this book will read a lot of criticism of the rise of those shows, which I think have been in certain ways this frustrating force because they magnetize so much tension because they fulfill people’s needs for high status, grim, gritty adult television that people could feel comfortable talking about when television itself had [previously] been treated like a junk form.
That said, some of those shows are incredible. Do I think that they actually contributed to glamorizing shitty behavior? Some of those shows definitely did.
One of my favorite shows over the past few years is Bojack Horseman—
That’s my favorite show on TV.
It’s an incredible show, and it actually got better over time. The first season is very good, but I actually think it’s one of those shows that really deepened and intensified and got very ambitious. Bojack Horseman was a part of a slate of weird, dark comedies that were intended to be antidotes to the anti-hero drama. A lot of them were animated. Some of them were not. It was interesting to me that comedies appeared as a kind of heckling circle to the self-seriousness of a certain kind of True Detective-like shows. I’m sure you watched the last season of Bojack, which was about Bojack making a show called “Philbert.” There’s a lot of TV about TV, but that happens to really be up in the Pantheon. It was making a very complicated argument. One of the things that happened is that he was making this kind of crappy sub-True Detective-type show that is really self-important. It’s made by this idiotic show runner who keeps calling his show a novel instead of a TV show. Completely up my alley in terms of the parody and what it was satirizing. Then one of the problems is that the Diane character ends up writing for the show and she has this realization that making the show better was making the show worse. She’s like, “I just made people feel better about liking the main character of the show because I added just enough complexity.” It ended up being a self-criticism of the show Bojack itself, which is obviously a much better show than “Philbert.” But it’s about this whole question of who gets to be the center of a story? Whose story is treated as tragic and transcendent and all those things?
You do have to take it on a case-by-case basis. The Sopranos helped create all of this and The Sopranos holds up. There are things that I could say that are critical of The Sopranos, but why? It’s an amazing show. There are elements of it, like the Bada Bing, that I think have a relationship to how HBO functions, but it’s an incredibly thoughtful, funny, dark, moral, cool, artistically ambitious show. You can’t blame everything that came afterwards in the genre on it.
There are probably all sorts of reasons that people voted for Trump. I can’t blame it on True Detective [laughing]. But you know, if you’re a TV critic, if you’re a hammer, then everything else is a nail. Trump is a television star. He’s also, as I talk about in the essays, kind of an insult comic. He is also definitely, to many people watching him, an exciting, rule breaking bad boy. I can’t ignore the way those things are reflected in the culture.
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Jonny Auping is a freelance writer based in Dallas, Texas. His work has been featured in Texas Monthly, The New Yorker, VICE, New York Magazine, Slate, and McSweeney’s.
Editor: Dana Snitzky