From The New Yorker’s fiercely original, Pulitzer Prize-winning culture critic, a provocative collection of new and previously published essays arguing that we are what we watch.
“Emily Nussbaum is the perfect critic—smart, engaging, funny, generous, and insightful.”—David Grann, author of Killers of the Flower Moon
NAMED ONE OF THE BEST BOOKS OF THE YEAR BY NPR • Chicago Tribune • Esquire • Library Journal • Kirkus Reviews
From her creation of the “Approval Matrix” in
New York magazine in 2004 to her Pulitzer Prize–winning columns for
The New Yorker, Emily Nussbaum has argued for a new way of looking at TV. In this collection, including two never-before-published essays, Nussbaum writes about her passion for television, beginning with
Buffy the Vampire Slayer, the show that set her on a fresh intellectual path. She explores the rise of the female screw-up, how fans warp the shows they love, the messy power of sexual violence on TV, and the year that jokes helped elect a reality-television president. There are three big profiles of television showrunners—Kenya Barris, Jenji Kohan, and Ryan Murphy—as well as examinations of the legacies of Norman Lear and Joan Rivers. The book also includes a major new essay written during the year of #MeToo, wrestling with the question of what to do when the artist you love is a monster.
More than a collection of reviews, the book makes a case for toppling the status anxiety that has long haunted the “idiot box,” even as it transformed. Through it all, Nussbaum recounts her fervent search, over fifteen years, for a new kind of criticism, one that resists the false hierarchy that elevates one kind of culture (violent, dramatic, gritty) over another (joyful, funny, stylized).
I Like to Watch traces her own struggle to punch through stifling notions of “prestige television,” searching for a more expansive, more embracing vision of artistic ambition—one that acknowledges many types of beauty and complexity and opens to more varied voices. It’s a book that celebrates television
as television, even as each year warps the definition of just what that might mean.
FINALIST FOR THE PEN/DIAMONSTEIN-SPIELVOGEL AWARD FOR THE ART OF THE ESSAY
“This collection, including some powerful new work, proves once and for all that there’s no better American critic of anything than Emily Nussbaum. But
I Like to Watch turns out to be even greater than the sum of its brilliant parts—it’s the most incisive, intimate, entertaining, authoritative guide to the shows of this golden television age.”
—Kurt Andersen, author of Fantasyland
“Reading Emily Nussbaum makes us smarter not just about what we watch, but about how we live, what we love, and who we are.
I Like to Watch is a joy.”
“You’ll be delighted. . . . Nussbaum’s essay about men, art, and the #MeToo movement is alone worth the price of the book.”—
The Washington Post
“Sometimes I’ll just be sitting around, reading something this woman’s written, and I’ll actually think,
Why doesn’t somebody just put all of Emily Nussbaum’s writing into a book? And now somebody has! Except
I Like to Watch is more than I knew I wanted. It’s got some of the Nussbaum hits (on
The Sopranos, on
Girls, on Joan Rivers, on
Vanderpump Rules, for starters). But it’s also more: a work of sustained philosophical argument (What
is television?) and resonant personal reflection (What does fandom cost?). It’s a book by a critic who loves an art form ardently and remains committed to both questioning the people who make the art and interrogating the ardor itself.”
—Wesley Morris, critic at large, The New York Times
“Emily Nussbaum is the perfect critic—smart, engaging, funny, generous, and insightful. All of these talents are on display in this marvelous anthology of her essays on television. They illuminate the shows shaping our culture and the power of this flourishing art form.”
—David Grann, author of Killers of the Flower Moon
“Taken together, the pieces in
I Like to Watch form a searching, brilliant history of American attraction, repulsion, and fascination in the era of peak TV. The book assembles a picture, alive with rigor and pleasure, that only Nussbaum could paint of a medium that has risen and transformed into a high-culture institution that’s also an ever-shifting experiment about scorn and anxiety and desire. We’re lucky to have this record of it, as well as this casual reminder that criticism, at its very best, is an irreplaceable thrill.”
—Jia Tolentino, author of Trick Mirror
“Some critics, even great ones, you read to agree or disagree with them, but Emily Nussbaum writing about television is something else again. As you read her, you can feel her enlarging your mind: not just what you think about the show at hand or television itself, but pop culture and our place inside it. Her fantastically smart work has always been a pleasure to read a week at a time; this book proves she''s equally great to binge, and ‘Confessions of the Human Shield,’ a new essay on how to think about art in the time of #MeToo, is essential twenty-first-century reading.”
—Elizabeth McCracken, author of Bowlaway
“Nussbaum has proven to be a shrewd, highly reliable source for evaluating this rapidly progressing medium. . . . Sharp, insightful writing that firmly positions Nussbaum as one of the leading TV critics of our time.”
—Kirkus Reviews (starred review)
Emily Nussbaum has written for
The New Yorker since 2011. She is the winner of the 2016 Pulitzer Prize for criticism and the 2014 National Magazine Award for Columns and Commentary. Previously, she was the TV critic and editor of the Culture Pages for
New York magazine, where she created the Approval Matrix, the playful culture charticle that closes each issue. Nussbaum has written for
The New York Times, Slate, and
Lingua Franca. She lives in Brooklyn with her husband, Clive Thompson, and their two children.
The Big Picture
Buffy the Vampire Slayer Turned Me Into a TV Critic
What happens when your side wins the fight, the drunken cultural brawl that you’ve been caught up in for nearly two decades? And then the rules change, midway through? That’s the crisis that I’m currently facing, when it comes to the beauty and power—and lately, even the definition—of television as an art form.
When I first began watching television, there didn’t seem to be much to argue about. Like many children of the seventies, I grew up sitting cross-legged in front of a big console in the living room, singing along to
The Electric Company while my mom made Kraft Macaroni & Cheese. I dug
Taxi, I loved
M*A*S*H. In my teens, I memorized
Monty Python sketches with my friend Maria. But I also regarded TV the way that Americans had been taught to, since the 1950s. Television was junk. It wasn’t worthy of deep thought, the way that books or movies might be. It was something that you enjoyed, then forgot about. It wasn’t until my thirties that I had what amounted to a soul-shaking conversion, on the night that I watched Sunnydale High School principal Bob Flutie die, torn to bits by hyenas.
At the time, in the spring of 1997, I was a literature doctoral student at NYU, foggily planning on becoming a professor, maybe a Victorianist, but anyway, somebody who read for a living. Every morning, I woke up, flopped onto the sofa, and opened up yet another 900-pager. 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, when families gathered to watch Milton Berle. Shows aired once a week. They were broken up by ads. When the ads were on, you peed. When they ended, someone in the other room would yell, “You’re missing it!” and you’d run back in. If you loved a particular show, you had to consult the elaborate grids in the print newspaper or in
TV Guide to know when to watch: “
ALF (CC)—Comedy. ALF is upstaged by a loveable dog that followed Brian home, so he gives the pooch away to a crotchety woman (Anne Ramsey).”
The main thing, though, was that television went away. It was a disposable product, like a Dixie Cup. Although scripted television hadn’t aired live for many decades, it still
felt live. You could watch rental movies on your VCR (and for a few years, they were everywhere) but most people I was friendly with didn’t regularly pre-program theirs to record much TV, because doing so was such a pain: spinning three plastic dials, for the day, the hour, and the minute. Each videotape held only a few hours of programming; rewinding and fast-forwarding were clumsy processes (and pausing might break the tape). There were no DVDs yet, let alone DVRs. Even if you were an early Internet adopter, which I was, dialing in was a grindingly slow, unreliable process—and when you
did connect, with the hostile shriek of static that we optimistically called a “handshake,” no videos showed up, just a wall of blinking neon fonts. Nothing, ever, arrived “on demand.”
This glitchy, ephemeral quality, and the ads that broke up the episodes, were a major part of TV’s crappy reputation. This part may be hard to remember, even if you lived through it. But just before the turn of the century—nearly universally, by default, and with an intensity that’s tough to summon up now—television was viewed as a shameful activity, as “chewing gum for the eyes,” to quote drama critic John Mason Brown. This was true not only of snobs who boasted that they “didn’t even own a TV”; it was true of people who
liked TV. It was true of the people who made it, too. TV was entertainment, not art. It was furniture (literally—it sat in your living room) that helped you kill time (it was how to numb lonely hours while eating a “TV dinner,” shorthand for a pathetic existence). TV might be a gold mine, economically speaking, but that only made it more corrupt. If you were an artist, writing TV was selling out; if you were an intellectual, watching it was a sordid pleasure, like chain-smoking. People still referred to television, with no irony, as “the boob tube” and “the idiot box.” (Some people still do.)
This is not to say there were no good shows. Critics praised (and, often, overpraised) the grit of
Hill Street Blues, the nihilistic wit of
Seinfeld, yadda yadda yadda. In the mid-’90s, there were several major breakthroughs in the medium, among them the teen drama
My So-Called Life and the sci-fi series
The X-Files. But among serious people, even the best television wasn’t considered worthy of real analysis. This was particularly true among my grad-school peers, the thinky guys whom I had privately nicknamed “the sweater-vests”—the men who were also, not coincidentally, the ones whose opinions tended to dominate mainstream media conversation. For them, books were sacrosanct. Movies were respected. Television was a sketchy additive that corporations had tipped into the cultural tap water, a sort of spiritual backbone-weakener.
The scripture for this set of thinkers was an essay by the writer George W. S. Trow, “Within the Context of No-Context,” which people recommended to me so frequently that it started to feel like a prank. A masterwork of contempt, “Within the Context” was a trippy string of koans that was initially published in 1980 in
The New Yorker. It came out in book form in 1981, then got rereleased in paperback in 1997, the same year that
Buffy the Vampire Slayer debuted. As Trow saw it, television was a purely sinister force. It was a mass medium whose mass-ness was its danger, because it conflated ratings with quality, “big” with “good.” The vaster television got, the more it ate away at the decent values of mid-century America—back when viewers were people, not demographics; adults, not children; capable of intimacy and proportion. “Television does not vary,” he wrote. “The trivial is raised up to power. The powerful is lowered toward the trivial.” Also: “What is loved is a hit. What is a hit is loved.” It was an elitist screed, nostalgic for an America that had never really existed, but it had a penetrating, pungent force.
Charlie Rose in 1996, novelists David Foster Wallace, Mark Leyner, and Jonathan Franzen struck an only slightly less apocalyptic note, spending nearly half of what was advertised as a panel on “The Future of American Fiction” denouncing television as “a commercial art that’s a lot of fun that requires very little of the recipient.” Their worries about television’s “kinetic bursts” were a precursor to the pseudoscientific rhetoric (“dopamine squirts”) that would later greet the Internet, once that stepped in as a cultural bogeyman. But then, they were part of a long tradition. In 1958, newscaster Edward R. Murrow had warned about the propagandistic dangers of the medium in his brilliant “box of lights and wires” speech. In the 1970s, popular jeremiads like Jerry Mander’s
Four Arguments for the Elimination of Television and Marie Winn’s
The Plug-In Drug diagnosed TV as an addiction. In the 1980s, the slogan “Kill Your Television” was a hip bumper sticker. At the turn of the century, watching TV was still widely seen, in the much-quoted (although possibly apocryphal) words of nineties comic Bill Hicks, as a spiritually harmful act, like “taking black spray paint to your third eye.”
There were occasional exceptions to this mood, among them Chip McGrath’s 1995 cover story in
The New York Times Magazine, “The Triumph of the Prime-Time Novel,” in which he praised
Homicide: Life on the Street for their “classic American realism, the realism of Dreiser and Hopper.” But as his title indicated, McGrath’s argument was just the flip side of the one made by the Charlie Rose panel. TV might, in fact, be worth watching—but only when it stopped being TV.