At a Television Critics Association panel earlier this year, no less a luminary than Meryl Streep referred to HBO’s “Big Little Lies,” unironically, as “a piece.” As in: a piece of art, not a piece of . . . you know.
Who would have ever dreamed that television would one day be spoken of with such unadulterated reverence by Meryl freaking Streep?
This is a world that Emily Nussbaum willed — and, to some extent, wrote — into being. From her graduate school days vouching for the underrated excellence of “Buffy the Vampire Slayer” to sweater-vest-wearing culture snobs; to New York magazine, where she immortalized her appreciation for the full range of high-to-lowbrow pop culture by creating the Approval Matrix; to the New Yorker where, in 2016, her vibrant, incisive analyses of an ascendant medium won her a Pulitzer Prize for Criticism.
“I Like to Watch” is a collection of Nussbaum’s criticism from New York and the New Yorker, from 2007 to the present. Save for one piece, all of this is previously published work, tracking a stretch of astonishing growth, ingenuity and change in a format that was, not too long ago, known for exactly none of those qualities.
At the same time, her stories reflect an evolving sensibility among her readers. Most critics and audiences were once resistant to Nussbaum’s case: That television could be great, and not because it was “novelistic” or “cinematic” but because it was, simply, television, “episodic, collaborative, writer-driven, and formulaic” by design. According to Nussbaum, a TV show achieved greatness not despite these facts (which assumes they are limitations) but because of them (which sees them as an infrastructure that provokes creativity and beauty — “the sort that govern sonnets,” as she writes in her review of “The Good Wife.”)
But Nussbaum’s once-iconoclastic views have become mainstream. That obnoxious guy who used to brag that he didn’t own a TV can now be seen holding court over cocktails about how you must watch “Fleabag.” (Really though: You must!) It is increasingly common to find yourself apologizing not for watching too much TV but for having failed to spend 70 hours of your precious, finite life binge-watching one of the Golden Age of Television’s finest offerings. Meryl Streep is totally going to be at the Emmys. The Emmys.
Emily Nussbaum won the argument. Now what?
In the “I Like to Watch” introduction, Nussbaum writes of her male classmates at NYU, where she was a literature doctoral student in the late 1990s. These men worshiped literature and film; they thought TV was trash. These men “were also, not coincidentally, the ones whose opinions tended to dominate mainstream media conversation.”
In a way, Nussbaum has been battling these bros ever since. Because even though television, broadly speaking, has earned the approval of most culture snobs, the same forces that marginalize the already-marginalized still work to keep TV shows by and about women, people of color, and LGBTQ+ individuals on a lower tier than those about cis, straight, white men: Your Tony Sopranos, your Walter Whites, your Don Drapers.
Over and over, Nussbaum pushes back against a hierarchy that rewards dramas centered on men and hyperbolically masculine pursuits (dealing drugs, being a cop, committing murders, having sex with beautiful women) and shoves comedies and whatever scans as “female” to the side. Nussbaum both punctures the often-inflated praise around male narratives peppered with “interchangeable female corpses” and elevates the stories of women that are frequently neglected.
In her review of “Jane the Virgin,” Nussbaum sticks up for soaps, rom-coms, romance novels and reality television, “the genres that get dismissed as fluff, which is how our culture regards art that makes women’s lives look like fun.” Her essay picks up on a thread from her biggest hit to date: A 2013 piece defending the legacy of “Sex and the City,” in which she makes the case for Carrie Bradshaw as the “first female anti-hero on television” and challenges “the assumption that anything stylized (or formulaic, or pleasurable, or funny, or feminine, or explicit about sex rather than about violence, or made collaboratively) must be inferior.”
Nussbaum’s writing consistently comes back to the question of “whose stories carried weight . . . what kind of creativity counted as ambitious, and who . . . deserved attention . . . Whose story counted as universal?” To that end, Nussbaum writes not just about the shows themselves but the people with the power to determine whose shows get made and seen at all.
The new piece in the book, “Confessions of the Human Shield,” was written as the Harvey Weinstein story unfolded and the still-roiling #MeToo movement erupted in its wake. In it, Nussbaum admits that “the #MeToo moment had raised up uncomfortable feelings from the past: the ugly awareness, for instance, that the praise of young women wasn’t quite as meaningful to me, because I took it for granted, while the praise of older men felt harder to get, and, thus, was more valuable.”
She also writes a confession of a kind: In 2017, she interviewed Louis C.K. during a panel at the New Yorker Festival. Before the event, Nussbaum dug into long-percolating rumors about C.K.’s alleged sexual misconduct — including the story that he’d masturbated in a hotel room in front of two female comedians. Nussbaum eventually got in touch with the women in question, Dana Min Goodman and Julia Wolov, who spoke with Nussbaum off the record but weren’t ready to go public. (They later came forward to the New York Times, as did three other women; C.K. admitted his guilt.)
Canceling the panel, Nussbaum writes, would have been “the moral call, the braver one. It was also the one I didn’t make. . . . So if you’re wondering who colluded with at least one man who did bad things: That would be me.”
Nussbaum writes that her book was “inspired by an exchange I had with a young female staffer at the New Yorker who told me — with an embarrassed shrug — that all she watched were ‘guilty pleasures, like ‘Jane the Virgin.’ ” Nussbaum, of course, rejects the notion that one should feel guilty about devouring one of the brightest, most delicious shows on TV. But these essays had me thinking about the whole notion of “guilty pleasures,” and if our understanding of that term is shifting, as it should.
Are we reaching a point where “guilty pleasure,” a term once used to explain a “Vanderpump Rules” obsession, would be better applied to, say, loving “Louie”? What does it mean to think morally about the art we consume — and, by extension, financially support, and center in our emotional and imaginative lives? The art that informs, on some near-cellular level, who we want to know and love and be?
As Nussbaum argues that we should take seriously what we’ve long dismissed as frivolous, maybe the next frontier of cultural thought is in thinking more cohesively about what we’ve long compartmentalized — of not stashing conflicting feelings about good art by bad men in some dark corner of our minds, but in holding our discomfort and contradictions up to the light, for a clearer view.
Jessica M. Goldstein is the culture editor of ThinkProgress.
By Emily Nussbaum
Random House. 384 pp. $28