Emily Nussbaum and the Art of Analyzing Television

Talking about writing about watching with 'The New Yorker' TV critic before she visits town for Seattle Arts and Lectures 'Women You Need to Know' series.

By Seth Sommerfeld May 1, 2017

Emily nussbaum mt6rrs

Between HBO's continual onslaught of hit shows, Netflix turning everyone into TV binge watchers, and the sheer amount of original programming across channels and digital platforms, it’s nearly impossible to argue that we aren’t living in a golden age of television. And while most conversations about TV’s artistic ascendance focus on award-winning hour-long prestige dramas, The New Yorker’s Pulitzer Prize–winning critic Emily Nussbaum likes to think outside of those narrow confines. She's built her career offering insightful analysis of modern television, often extolling the virtues of less critically heralded programs like Sex and the City and Buffy the Vampire Slayer (though she also adores critical favorites like The Sopranos). Her engaging takes champion detaching conversations from other entertainment mediums (books, film, etc.) to focus on the television as its own sometimes glorious, sometimes awful entity. (If you're a Nussbaum newbie, Seattle Met's editorial staff—which is largely comprised of Nussbaum fanatics—recommends her pieces on Westworld, Search Party, Rectify, The Good Place, an "all her Nashville tweets.") This Thursday, May 4, Nussbaum heads to Town Hall to share her thoughts on modern TV (and the history that made it) as part of Seattle Arts and Lectures’ Women You Need to Know series.

In anticipation of her Seattle visit, we chatted with Nussbaum about pushing against the status quo adult dramas, fan theories, and how Twitter has changed her TV intake.

Since television is such a broad topic, what tends to be the focus when you speak at events like Seattle Arts and Lectures?

I talk about themes that are important to me: the history of television, the way people think about television, the relationship between technology and television, and how genres have developed. One thing that I’m specifically interested in is detaching the conversation about television from comparisons to other art forms and celebrating TV as TV. I think there’s a modern problem where people are always talking about the relationship between TV and novels and TV and movies. What I’m interested in—critically—is talking about television as television, especially because there are so many varied, multiple ways of talking about it.

The other theme that I often talk about is what I regard as this sort of hovering problem of status anxiety with television. Historically, TV was seen as a tainted art form because it was commercial, because it was mass, because it was lower, and all of those things. So I feel like when people talk about TV there’s this sort of anxiety about how valuable a particular show has to be in order to qualify as adult television. And I think that unfortunately that gets in the way of actually seeing the multiple types of ambition that are really blossoming right now on TV.

Speaking to that high art/low art dynamic, while the hour-long “prestige” dramas often rule TV conversation, I know a lot of intelligent people who watch intentionally simple or trashy shows—often reality TV—as “turn off your brain” escapist television. Are there any “turn off your brain” shows that interest you?

Yes, there are. While I’m not denying that there is dumb and entertaining television, I don’t think those categories are useful categories. I wrote a piece I really like about Vanderpump Rules last year, and I think most people would think that Vanderpump Rules is kind of a dopey show and watch it for those reasons. But at the same time, reality TV is incredibly interesting. In one piece I called it the “TV of TV,” because sort of within TV it’s the genre that people talk about in a condescending way that is very satisfying to them. But even reality TV is a lot of different things. It’s interesting because it’s a combination of documentary and soap opera and game shows and it has it’s own thing going on.

But the one thing you were saying about the hour-long prestige drama… this is just a huge headache for me, because I’m not interested in the idea that there has to be one serious, violent drama that is the adult show that all adults should be watching. I mean, some of my favorite shows are shows like that. I love The Sopranos and I wrote about Breaking Bad and Deadwood, but I really think that there’s so much more interesting television that doesn’t fit those categories. And frankly, in the last few years many of the shows that fit that definition are either vastly overrated or beautiful and made with a lot of money, but kind of empty. Whereas there are a million comedies of various types that are, to me, actually much more ambitious and original and challenging to the audience.

I feel like there are these false hierarchies of what matters. I’ve written about this a little bit. Like there’s this not useful idea that drama is intrinsically more important or more valuable or more culturally adult than comedy. Or that things that are violent are more serious than things that are warm and humane or funny. That things that are gritty are more important than things that are arch and stylized. There are a bunch of different versions of this. And I think that part of my mission, or one of the things I’m interested in critically, is trying to knock down what I regard as those unuseful distinctions.

It’s especially weird now because right now there are a million half hour comedic shows that are actually very dramatic and strange and kind of independent-minded. And actually, most hour-long dramas that are really good are also funny. A lot of shows are just in categories where you can’t really mark them, like Orange is the New Black or Transparent. Like are those comedies or a dramas? It doesn’t really make sense as a category.

Yeah, I totally get that. I pretty much only watch comedies. I know you’re more into the Search Party than the Westworlds of the world.

Search Party was so good! Was it not so good? Search Party, Fleabag, and Atlanta were my big surprises of last year. They were just great, and all three of those shows are comedy-like shows that merge it with other kinds of things. Search Party was such a pleasant surprise.

It seems like TV talk has become the go-to conversation topic for many people these days. Everyone offers up suggestions for new favorite show or something they just discovered on Netflix that they insist you just have to watch. Why do you think those enthusiastic connections with TV shows have become so strong?

I think there’s a very basic reason: there’s too much TV. There’s so much that people need to do triage. That includes me, and I’m a TV critic. I can’t watch everything. I actually like those conversations, because I like to try to find the show that the person I’m talking to will want to watch but is a little bit off from what they’ve seen. Because not everybody likes the same thing, and that’s fine.

I do think that people take a lot of joy in trying to turn people on to shows they haven’t seen—shows that are low rated or off the radar. I’m always telling people about Happy Valley if they haven’t seen it on Netflix, because it’s so good. Or like Crazy Ex-Girlfriend… sometimes shows become causes for people because they’re low rated, and they don’t want them to go off the air. [Laughs] I think it’s a perfectly legitimate reason to talk about a TV show. I want them to stay on the air if they’re good.

Being so entrenched in the TV world, do you still get suggestions and recommendations that are actually useful?

Oh, that’s all I ever do. [Laughs] I go on Twitter and ask people what I’m missing. Because otherwise I don’t know. Part of the reason I ask like that is that I do feel like there’s this community of people who are passionate about television. For instance, when Fleabag came out, a friend of mine said, “You have to make it a priority to see this.” Because she just knew that it was a small show and might get ignored, but was head and shoulders above a lot of other things that were coming out simultaneously.

And then I get global suggestions, which is especially helpful, because people are in kind of bubble worlds of TV where they don’t necessarily know [what’s going on around the globe]. I have a whole list of things on an app on my phone. People keep telling me about slightly obscure shows that I haven’t heard of to try to catch up on, and I haven’t been able to get to everything. Somebody had suggested that I watch 3% on Netflix, which is a Brazilian show. It was really interesting. Kind of dystopian science-fictiony show with political elements that was really well done.

But I also try to write about the big shows that are cultural phenomena, because I just want to be part of that conversation, whether I love the show or not. I think it’s good and a relief that there isn’t just one show that is considered the must-see show. I know sometimes people have nostalgia for when there were only three channels and everybody watched the same set of shows, but I really think that the problem with that is to make a show a mass hit, sometimes you have to bland-ify it. Sometimes it was great, but it couldn’t take that many risks and it just reduced the variety that you get. And that includes variety of in terms of representation: who makes shows and who gets to be on TV. I feel like it’s much better now, although things are always shifting cause the economics of television guide it so much. It’s not something that I fully understand. Either way, it’s a good period, because there are so many different kind of things.

There’s just so much TV. Sometimes it feels like too much.

Well the real problem is not how much TV is being made, and me trying desperately to get people to watch The Americans rather than Westworld. The real problem is actually that everybody has streaming now and all of these archives of TV, so they can watch old shows. So people are also catching up with The Sopranos—or if they’re wise, Enlightened—and now it’s like an iceberg where the modern TV is on top and then there’s this huge amount below the surface that you could be watching from the past. I think that just makes it even more watery and disparate when you try to figure out what to watch. But then I can’t really complain about that, because Freaks and Geeks is on Netflix, so people can watch it. Fine with me! [Laughs]

Do you feel like your opinion is shaped at all by being based in New York as opposed to another locale? Do you ever try and seek out things that are less popular on the coasts?

Well, my opinions are shaped by everything about who I am and how I live my life, including the fact that I’m in New York. I will say though­—and I specifically chalk it up to Twitter—I really do have a global community of people watching TV not only in all parts of the country, but also in other parts of the world. People watch American TV in other countries in all different ways. And maybe that sounds like I’m ignoring the cocoon element of being a New York journalist, but the conversations I have with people about TV are not conversations that I have with people in New York. I mean my actual day-to-day community at The New Yorker is not really my community of people recommending TV to me. My community recommending TV to me is almost all virtual people—and some other TV critics—G-chatting and tweeting and online stuff like that.

For instance, I’m really interested in the show Switched at Birth, which is on [Freeform]. I’m often interested in things that look like teen/family dramas or soap operas, but are very smart. And there’s a bunch of these shows that are out there that are kind of off the radar and are considered soft shows, but explore subjects that other shows don’t. That show’s set in Kansas City and a lot of it is about the Kansas City arts scene. So, at one point, I got online and I was like I don’t know anything about the Kansas City arts scene, like how accurate is this show? Is there a big thing going on with contemporary art? And all of these people immediately responded. Obviously, that’s not like living in Kansas City, but it was actually pretty helpful and informative, because they were like, “Yeah, there’s this university, there’s this art school, there’s this museum” or whatever. And they were sort of describing the relationship between the culinary community and the arts community in Kansas City. It was pretty helpful, because that’s something that I was never gonna get just from reading a few articles, and I can’t move to Kansas City in order to review a TV show.

There’s a level at which—I have to say—I don’t feel like my tastes are actually that shaped by the in-person community of where I live and where I work. In fact, if anything, I’m probably a little resistant sometimes to New Yorker-y suggestions because I’m aware of the cliché of it and I happen not to have that taste. Like when I first started working there were people being like, “Are you gonna review Downton Abbey?” Like that’s something that people would just associate somehow with the magazine, so I tend to be a little cautious of that. But some of those shows are good, so…

Do you feel like the community of people that like to throw out fan theories is impacting how some shows are being made these days? While the dump a whole season on Netflix model works for binging, it seems like shows like Westworld really benefited from the weekly release schedule allowing for that sort of wild speculation.

Westworld is clearly designed to take advantage of that. It’s hurting Westworld. That’s what Westworld is. Westworld is designed as a puzzle show that will create obsessive fan bases. I’m not saying that in an entirely positive way. There are good things about Westworld, but I don’t think that’s one of them.

I’m originally a member of online fan communities. I used to be on Television Without Pity, and the reason I’m a TV critic is because of Buffy. I would never put down fan theorizing. I also think that it’s just one of those things where there is clearly a terrible side to it, but it is just completely not detachable from the positive side. Historically, people watched TV solo. They couldn’t freeze it or rewind it. They couldn’t save it. They couldn’t talk about it in groups over time and distance with Talmudic detail. And now they can. That’s the positive side.

That’s what enables a certain kind investment in complicated show that actually does have to be decoded and chewed over, and to a larger extent that improves TV. I always give as an example The Wire, because The Wire is not a puzzle show but it is a dense show and it was absolutely rewarded by the fact that there was a community of people who wanted to talk about it together and to kind of take it apart. So I think people taking things apart is fine.

I do think there’s this sort of slightly toxic emotional derangement that takes place over shows as they spike and then people are like, “It’s getting good! It’s getting terrible!” And you end up riding this wave of anxiety. The truth is that’s just what happens when people are passionate about an art form. It must be a little annoying for TV creators, but I don’t think that it’s something you can actually pluck away from the good part of it. I don’t think the changes in TV can be detached from the changes in all sorts of technology. And I don’t think TV would be what it is today without the internet.

Emily Nussbaum
May 4, Town Hall, $20–$80

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