Emily Nussbaum’s “I Like to Watch: Arguing My Way Through the TV Revolution”

Emily Nussbaum’s  witty new book, I Like to Watch: Arguing My Way Through the TV Revolution, is great fun even if you don’t watch much TV.  Nussbaum, the Pulitzer Prize-winning TV critic for The New Yorker, turns her analysis of TV into a quirky, irreverent romp through pop culture.  

I always read The New Yorker back to front, so TV criticism comes well before the long, serious articles and profiles for which The New Yorker is famous.  Nussbaum has introduced me to many TV shows over the years.  I do not always agree with her opinion, of course. “How could she not like The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel?”I wondered.  She even hated Gilmore Girls.  Shocking. Does this make me think less of her essays?  No.

Nussbaum always enjoyed TV but never intended to write about it.  In 1997 she was a doctoral student in English at New York University, poring every day over a new 900-page Victorian novel.  One night she saw her first episode of Buffy the Vampire Slayer, and it made her want to be a TV critic.  I do remember Buffy was the subject of academic and theological seminars. And Nussbaum found depths in this paranormal teen action show.

In the Buffy essay, Nussbaum brilliantly describes the experience of watching  TV-watching  in the 20th century.

Across the room was an old-fashioned console TV, a dinosaur even for the era, with a broken remote control, so in order to watch my first episode of Buffy the Vampire Slayer, I had to physically walk across the room, then click the circular dial over to Channel 11, The WB, a brand-new “netlet,” and then walk all the way back to the sofa. Walking across the room to change the channel was still a normal thing to do, in 1997. It had been nearly sixty years since the first television (spookily nicknamed the Phantom Teleceiver) launched at the 1939 World’s Fair, and yet the medium was—with a few advances, like the addition of color and the still-tentative expansion of cable—not that different from what it had been in the 1950s…

Perhaps the most compelling essay in this collection is “The Great Divide:  Norman Lear, Archie Bunker, and the Rise of the Bad Fan.”  Norman Lear, the creator of the hit comedy, All in the Family,  was one of TV’s icons in the ’70s. Nussbaum points out that All in the Family was “designed to explode the medium’s taboos, using an incendiary device named Archie Bunker.”  But apparently some liberals believed the show promoted racism, because the majority of fans identified with the character Archie Bunker, a right-wing, working-class  bigot. Nussbaum points out there are always bad fans, among them fans who watched Breaking Bad for the violenceIt would never have occurred to me as a fan of All in the Family that anyone could have identified with the verbally abusive Archie Bunker.

 Nussbaum regards Sex and the City as one of the most important HBO shows, right up there with The Sopranos.  She thinks the show is underrated because it’s about women. I, too, was a fan of Carrie Bradshaw and her friends, though you would think the high heels and $1,000-handbags would have put me off.  It was one of the most charming, intelligent shows of the early 21st century.

Her  essay on the #MeToo movement reflects her ambivalence and anxiety about her complex relationship to the brilliant comedy of Woody Allen and Louis C. K..  Apparently Louis C. K. has been a huge influence on women’s comedy, but since I neither know his work nor that of the female comedians he influenced, this was lost on me.

I once would have thought TV criticism frivolous, but the medium does seem to have caught up with, or perhaps even surpassed, most movies.  It’s a fascinating book:  I’m saving some of the essays until I’ve seen the TV shows she’s criticized.