Emily Nussbaum’s Essay Collection Calls “The Golden Age Of Television” Into Doubt
I grew up in the Eighties, when it seemed like there was a new show premiering every week about a robot masquerading as a young girl (and hilarity ensued). So even though I can appreciate shows that are sometimes far more creative than the usual fare, I’m just as likely to find myself killing an hour or two with some reality show where white guys buy old crap from even older white guys. Seriously, why is American Pickers so addictive?
Emily Nussbaum considers television from a critical point of view all the time; after all, it’s her job, as television critic for The New Yorker. Her new collection of essays and reviews, I Like to Watch: Arguing My Way Through the TV Revolution, is an informative and entertaining look at the landscape of television in the post-Sopranos era, when TV supposedly grew up. But, as Nussbaum shows in her collection, quality is in the eye of the beholder.
She begins with an autobiographical essay detailing her switch from being focused on literature to television, via an early episode of Buffy The Vampire Slayer. That show, now an acknowledged classic, was not on the radar of most “serious” critics at the time that it premiered. It didn’t help that a new networked aired it, and creator Joss Whedon based it off a goofy teen horror-comedy. The goings-on at Sunnydale High both entertained Nussbaum and engaged her on a cerebral level, giving birth to an obsession.
Throughout her career, as the collection shows, Nussbaum has not been afraid to take on the sacred television cows of the “era of quality” that began at the turn of the last century. She has a critical barometer for shows that are not only intelligent but also willing to take the viewer on a journey that can’t be found in any other medium. Her takes on shows like Sex & The City and The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel make the case that female representation isn’t easy, and that sometimes celebrated shows about “female empowerment” aren’t really that interested in characters so much as character types.
As good as the reviews are, the standalone essays are the most moving. Nussbaum deals with topics like #MeToo, the art of men who have been either convicted or accused of sexual misconduct, and Joan Rivers on the occasion of her passing. The Rivers profile, in particular, shows that the “mean comic” who trashed people on television through her Fashion Police program came from a background where she never felt good enough for those around her. Her insecurity fueled both her creativity but also her self-destructiveness, such as her falling-out with Johnny Carson, who was a misogynist when it came to female comedians, but who loved Rivers’ work.
Nussbaum shows a great ability to grasp the needy underside of most famous people, especially the ones who come into our living rooms (or smartphones) every time we want to see them. This is not so much a celebration of our celebrity culture but really a mere statement of the facts. We like to watch, as much as we hate ourselves for watching.
I Like to Watch is both serious and funny, a great tour through the last twenty years or so of both “quality television” and reality-TV crap. Nussbaum is a discerning critic, but she’s not a snob. She simply wants what we all want at the end of the day: to be engaged as well as entertained. Is that so much to ask?