Emily Nussbaum has a Pulitzer Prize for writing about television — and why shouldn’t she? As the New Yorker critic asserts in her new book of essays and reviews, I Like to Watch: Arguing My Way Through the TV Revolution, it’s a medium that is just as worthy of analysis and critical thinking as any of the more “elevated” art forms. (Nussbaum credits Buffy the Vampire Slayer for inspiring her to become a TV critic.)
During a recent conversation, Nussbaum and I chatted about a wide range of TV topics that she covers in I Like to Watch — including the importance of series finales, the value of reality TV, and the legacy of The Cosby Show — while also veering off into tangents about Nashville, The Bachelor, and Renée Zellweger. (I Like to Watch is available now.)
ENTERTAINMENT WEEKLY: How did you decide which reviews and features to include in this book?
EMILY NUSSBAUM: It was a combination of factors. I had to choose the pieces that I liked the best, the pieces that still hold up to me as writing, but they weren’t about the shows I like the best. The main thing is they had to serve the argument the book is making. It’s an anthology, but it’s also structured around this particular argument and idea that I’m making about television.
How would you summarize the argument you’re making in this book?
The argument that I’m making is, it’s about celebrating television as television. It’s about detaching television from the status anxiety that haunted it in its early decades, when people thought of it as garbage and junk and something shameful — which to my mind has been a hangover even as television has gotten closer to the center of the culture, has gotten increasingly aesthetically ambitious. There’s a level at which it was still somewhat burdened by this sense that in order to praise TV, you had to compare it to other more elevated art forms. “It’s novelistic!” Some TV shows are novelistic, but being novelistic doesn’t make it a better TV show.
I want to talk to you a little bit about series finales. You write about two very polarizing finales in your book — Lost and The Sopranos. In 2010, you wrote that you considered Lost a failure, but then in your introduction to this piece in the book, you admit to feeling a twinge of guilt about being so hard on it. How come?
Even a takedown is a way of saying, “I expect more from TV.” It’s a pretty harsh review. I still think it holds up, I think the analysis is pretty good, and I received a lot of response from viewers who felt similar ways. But it’s a fraught, emotional show and I have complicated feelings about it, but part of that is because while I never met Damon Lindelof, I know that more than a lot of TV creators he seemed to be really affected by how people responded to things. This is not true of everybody who makes to TV… There’s a kind of skinlessness about his response to stuff that I can’t help but be sympathetic with. I also can’t think it’s a little unusual. And I felt very satisfied in watching him make this other show that I really loved, The Leftovers, which is not a direct response to Lost, but if you were a fan of Lost and you had all sorts of complicated feelings about Lost, watching The Leftovers felt like this fascinating kind of do-over for this very interesting artist.
Yes. And contrasting the Lost review with your piece on The Sopranos, you end that review of the finale talking about how fans, like Tony and his family, can look back and think about the good times. I struggle with the idea that a single episode, even a series finale, can destroy a show’s legacy as much as it can cement it. What do you think?
I struggle with that too, and I will say that in my original conception of this book, I planned to have an entire chapter devoted to essays I’d written about finales… I agree with you, I think it’s kind of absurd to say that literally the last episode somehow determines the value of the show. There are plenty of shows that I loved that had not only bad last episodes, but actually several bad last seasons. Like, I really loved the first four seasons of Dexter; I really did not like the last three seasons of Dexter… I think the tricky thing about TV as a critic in general is, what are you judging? Are you judging an episode, are you judging a story, are you judging a season, are you judging an entire show? I don’t think I’m saying in that Lost piece that literally the finale is what renders the show a failure in retrospect. I think it’s an unusual show in that it was designed as a puzzle show and there’s a level at which the whole last season, and the way the last season rewrites what came before, is a little more difficult to ignore than, say, the last season of Dexter. The last season of Dexter does not alter the first four seasons of Dexter. I just think a puzzle box show, in which Lost was very pioneering, I do think when a puzzle resolves in such an unsatisfying way, it really bothered me. But I’m not still mad about Lost. In the fullness of time, I have a lot of affection for Lost.
In your review of True Detective season 1, you used a phrase I just loved, talking about the TV trope of male cops or detectives standing over “interchangeable female corpses.” Why do you think TV loves to kill women?
[Laughs] What a crazy question to answer! I don’t think it’s just TV. I think this culture and certain kinds of art love to kill women. There is something that I continually wrestle with about the difference between what it means to do that, say, on the page versus as a visual thing in a movie or TV show. And I write about this a little bit in the [book’s] SVU piece. I am really interested in SVU, I’ve watched a lot of that show, and in contrast to something like True Detective, which was presented as prestigious, deep, HBO-funded art about guilt and evil, SVU is a network show that is being presented as deliberately junky in certain ways. And yet I think there’s something to the junkiness that is actually what makes it interesting. I’m not against violent television. I am against what I see as empty, cheap, or nihilistic television, and I’m also against what seems to me to be pretentious television.
As a proud reality TV fan myself, I’ve always admired that you don’t turn your nose up at reality. In the book you write about Vanderpump Rules, and how watching it felt like “becoming a sports fan” — and I totally get that. I’ve long told people that Big Brother is my sports. You’re also a Big Brother fan, right?
I was watching the first season of Big Brother as a web watcher. So I have a very OG relationship with Big Brother. Big Brother was very popular in Europe, because Europeans intelligently voted out the boring, good people and kept in the troublemakers. The Americans, who have a different moralistic sense of things, I guess, literally began immediately voting out the troublemakers and iconoclasts in the house… As I recall, everyone in the house was so scared by that, that they all become more boring than they would normally be, because they realized that viewers were kicking out the mouthy people and they were keeping the quiet ones. After that [season], they sensibly changed it so that people would vote one another out.
On the flip side of that, you also point out in the book how “art that makes women’s lives look like fun” — soap operas, reality tv, rom coms — usually get dismissed as fluff. And certainly when you look at the Emmys, the reality TV that gets nominated is always the “classier” shows, like The Amazing Race, Antiques Roadshow, Project Runway. Do you ever think we’ll see the day when something like the Real Housewives or The Bachelor gets nominated for an Emmy?
I’m not a big fan of the Housewives or The Bachelor. I think The Bachelor is pretty messed-up, misogynist show. I loved UnREAL, which is a show about the making of a show like The Bachelor, because it gave me the opportunity to examine how fascinatingly poisonous the machine is that produces that [show]. It’s not that I find it unwatchable, but I do see what you mean. I actually didn’t really realize that in terms of the Emmy selection, that there actually is kind of a prestige ladder in terms of reality TV. And I guess that there is.
I personally love The Bachelor, I’ve watched every season and every spin-off. And I believe since it’s incredibly popular, it’s imitated, it’s part of the zeitgeist, etc., it deserves to be recognized as an Emmy contender.
It’s definitely important. And by the way, I’m not a person who’s never watched The Bachelor. Jesus, I watched Joe Millionaire when it was on. I like a lot of the parodies of those shows. Somehow I felt like I understood stuff about the Real Housewives [franchise] from watching the Queen of Jordan part of 30 Rock. [laughs] I can’t really explain my response to The Bachelor… The one thing I will say, I would love to watch more of The Bachelor, it obviously has an enormous fan base and sometimes I follow people talking about it on Twitter, which I find interesting. This actually makes me want to re-engage with it. When something is really beloved by people, and you’re a conscientious objector standing to the side, it really seems better to immerse yourself and struggle with your own contradictory impressions of it.
In one of the book’s new essays, “Confessions of the Human Shield,” you talk about, for lack of a better term, the art of difficult men. You write that with something like The Cosby Show, for instance, it doesn’t make sense to “ban or to erase, to delete, to cancel” it in part because it was not made by Bill Cosby alone, and also because it’s crucial to television history. Are there some shows or artists where it’s harder to compartmentalize than others?
The great thing about writing about The Cosby Show specifically is that I didn’t care that much about Bill Cosby. I do care about a lot of the other artists I write about in this [essay], but there’s something very freeing actually about thinking about the art of somebody… where you don’t feel super-connected to it. As I write in the book, it’s partially that I don’t think you can erase it, and it’s partially that if you pull it out [of the culture], a lot of other shows don’t make sense. In a certain sense, black-ish and Atlanta don’t make sense without The Cosby Show preceding them. Cosby at the time it was out was a mirror for the Roseanne show, and those shows exist in relationship to one another. And then there was the entire explosion of black sitcoms in the ’90s, which was a really big deal and then got gentrified off the air. That was created by Cosby.
It’s a real example of a hit show that understandably people feel disgusted and distressed by. I’m not telling anybody that they should be watching The Cosby Show; I’m saying I still think there’s a meaningful way to approach it where you don’t detach yourself from the knowledge that the guy is a serial rapist. And honestly, he used the show in order to commit his crimes, so it makes it a lot darker, but I still come out on the side of talking about it, and I know that people will sometimes disagree with me.
One of the things I tried in that piece was not to reduce it to any one person or one show. I write in that piece about [Louis C.K.’s series] Louie. I write a lot also with my relationship with Woody Allen’s work, where I’m like, I can’t detach my thinking about the world from the fact that I was such a huge Woody Allen fan when I was a kid and a teenager. It would be extremely dishonest for me to act like it wasn’t true. It’s a messy piece, because it’s a big, in-process piece in the middle of a period of enormous social change… The reason I wrote this essay is because I took my book leave during the fall of 2017 [when the Harvey Weinstein scandal first broke]. That’s why I wrote it. I would’ve written three to four other shorter essays had that not been the case.
The “Human Shield” essay also got me thinking about something you were tweeting about recently, about how in retrospect, a lot of the jokes on Friends were of the “gay panic” variety — and you had a long exchange online with some gay viewers who watched as kids in the ’90s and found the jokes upsetting and homophobic. When you’re looking at something like that, where it’s clearly from a different era, how much does the intent of the writers and creators matter when deciding whether to label a show retroactively as “problematic”? Those jokes, while not acceptable today, certainly don’t seem like they came from a place of malice.
First of all, the argument that I was making on Twitter about Friends — stupidly, because Twitter is not a good place to actually start exploring an idea that has popped into your head — was actually a response to two think pieces I had seen online. I didn’t link to [them] because I didn’t want to be a jerk and link to somebody’s blog post and then be like, “I hate this because blah blah blah…” I sort of had an emotional reaction to these two pieces that were essentially just lists of “Here are the homophobic jokes on Friends.” It happens to be my least favorite form of cultural criticism. I have no problem with people pointing out things that are offensive in art — I’ve done it myself. But there’s something about the reductive thing of “Here’s a list of things that are offensive and that you should disdain in this show” — I don’t like it being taken out of the context of the show. I don’t like the chiding quality, and it seems simplistic to me.
I learned a lot from that conversation on Twitter, which got a little fiery at times. The argument I was trying to make was that at the time that the show came out — and this isn’t about the intent of the creators, it’s about the cultural context of the viewers — the show already had pro-gay bona fides. It had lesbian characters on it, that was a rarity. It showed a lesbian wedding. It showed two women raising a kid together. And the jokes that they made about Chandler and Joey seemed to me, as an adult during the period that the show was out, [to be] mocking straight men for their insecure homophobia. I think that right now a lot of younger viewers who watch it on Netflix perceive those jokes as supporting their homophobic responses.
The thing that I didn’t understand is that if you were a 12-year-old [gay] boy who was watching Friends in the ’90s, you perceived those jokes as a message to you that straight men saw you as something terrifying to be. And that makes complete sense to me. Art is complicated that way, it’s not one thing or another, and it can’t be reduced to a math problem.
Finally, I would be remiss if I didn’t ask you about a bad show we both enjoyed far more than was necessary: Nashville. I miss that show, Emily. Has any good-bad show filled the Nashville-sized hole in your heart?
Awwww, Nashville! I used to talk about Nashville online specifically as an addiction, like, “I’m Nashville clean.” I do miss Nashville. I have to say, as a hardened old person who’s had so many shows canceled, at a certain point I’m like, “I feel no pain anymore.” I go on and on in the book about how much I don’t like the phrase “guilty pleasure,” but the things that I like in that category are good shows. The emotionally soothing and satisfying shows, like Good Trouble, Younger, Claws, and The Bold Type — I wouldn’t say that those are the equivalent of Nashville. Those are largely good shows. Nashville was like Smash, it was a great show that was often also so off-the-rails that it was like, “What is even happening?”
Nashville is not only a show to me that I loved that had numerous flaws, but it was also a show that came out of a brief and beautiful period when TV seemed to have nothing but shows with musical [moments]. Nashville, Bunheads, Treme, Glee, Smash — there were like seven shows that all had a musical basis to them. And I was like, “It’s happening! My favorite genres are all merging with one another! The glory time has arrived!”
Do you have a [good-bad] show that you would recommend?
Well, there is no music in it, but it’s wonderful and awful, and that’s What/If.
That’s on my list of things to watch! That’s the one with, um, what’s her name, Renée Zellweger?
Yes. I don’t know if you ever watched Revenge —
Oh, I watched Revenge! It was perpetually on my Revengenda! [laughs]
It’s from that creator. It’s crazy, but it’s also contained because it’s only 10 episodes, and then if he does another season it’ll be a new story. So it can just burn rubber through the absolutely crazy, fast-paced, high-concept soap stuff. It’s also really weirdly cheap-looking. There are just all these contradictions about it that are just fascinating.
Now I’m excited.
Renee Zellweger — she came to cash a check but she also came to work.
That’s a good slogan for the show! What/If: “She came to cash a check, but she also came to work. Help Renée Zellweger get a new porch.”