Television critics can be a close fraternity, bound together by Twitter and the Television Critics Association press tour, a twice-annual conference in Los Angeles where critics and TV reporters get to grill the networks about their forthcoming offerings — I count Nussbaum as a friend. So it makes sense that this fraternity, which has devoted itself to a medium that only recently has begun to garner the kind of respect paid to movies, books and the fine arts, would celebrate when one of its number gets named best in the business.
Nussbaum is also the second female television critic to win a Pulitzer Prize for criticism in as many years; in 2015, Mary McNamara of the Los Angeles Times took home the medal and $10,000 award. As Variety’s Maureen Ryan put it on Twitter:
It’s notable that great writing about television by women is getting recognized at a moment when female characters and artists are ascendant in a medium that seemed to break through when creators started telling a very specific kind of story about men.
The idea of a “Golden Age of Television” is inherently tricky, implying as it does that it was all down hill after the screen went black on Tony Soprano (James Gandolfini) and his unhappy family in that New Jersey diner in June of 2007. But the phrase is at least useful for defining the sorts of main characters and serialized stories that broke television out of the minor leagues and got it taken seriously as art. Anti-heroes like advertising executive Don Draper (Jon Hamm), chemistry-teacher-turned-meth-cook Walter White (Bryan Cranston), good-hearted-but-messed-up cop Jimmy McNulty (Dominic West) and Deadwood founder Al Swearengen (Ian McShane) all paired ugly personal behavior with a mesmerizing competence that made us invested in them, even if we wouldn’t want to be in the same room with any of these Difficult Men.
But even as the canon of television’s Golden Age was falling into place, television critics were absent from the roster of Pulitzer Prize winners during the crucial years when “The Sopranos,” “Mad Men,” “Breaking Bad,” “The Wire” and “Deadwood” were on the air. There was a 27-year gap between McNamara’s 2015 Pulitzer victory and the last time the prize had been awarded to a TV critic: The Post’s Tom Shales won in 1988.
Both McNamara and Nussbaum are critics who, to a certain extent, push back against the orthodoxies of the Golden Age of Television. Among the columns that won McNamara the Pulitzer were chronicles of the diversity movement in television, criticism of dated-looking sexism and a look at “Downton Abbey,” a show that had some of the same social and political interests as other Golden Age shows but that tended to get written off as a soap opera.
Nussbaum aims an even sharper pin at the Golden Age canard, most famously with an essay arguing that “Sex and the City” was just as important as “The Sopranos” in expanding the idea of what was possible on television. She’s championed comediennes like Amy Schumer and the way “Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt” refused to drag viewers through the misery and degradation that storytellers sometimes reflexively assume must define survivors of sexual assault.
None of this is to say that there weren’t great television critics working during the Golden Age of Television. But McNamara and now Nussbaum’s wins are a reminder that it’s one thing to fight for a medium to get recognized as art, and another to win that fight and start pushing the medium to get bigger, more expansive, more eccentric and more specific. Television won the right to be taken seriously in the past decade. In this one, critics like McNamara and Nussbaum are pushing TV to live up to that promise.