From 'Buffy' Superfan To Pulitzer Prize, A Critic Celebrates TV On Her Own Terms

Jun 25, 2019
Originally published on June 25, 2019 10:15 pm

Back in the mid-'90s, Emily Nussbaum was working on a Ph.D. in literature at NYU. But the TV on the other side of the room just kept catching her eye.

"I was sitting on my sofa," Nussbaum says in an interview. "I had a small, junky television. I had broken the extremely rudimentary remote control. I had to get up from the sofa, walk over to the television, turn the big plastic dial ... it made a nice clunky sound."

TV technology has come a long way since then. And so has Emily Nussbaum, who made a career out of writing about television. She's now the Pulitzer Prize-winning TV critic for The New Yorker. And her new book is a collection of new essays and previously-published writing called I Like to Watch: Arguing My Way Through the TV Revolution.

In her grad-school days, the first show that truly caught Nussbaum's attention was Buffy the Vampire Slayer. She says she became a "superfan," and became motivated to argue for it.

"In a lot of ways, I trace it back to the contrast between Buffy the Vampire Slayer and The Sopranos, two shows that I adored at the turn of the century which got completely different critical receptions," she says. "So for some reason, I perceived it as my job to evangelize for Buffy the Vampire Slayer, and that really is what led me down this path in the end."


Interview Highlights

On the argument behind the collected essays

In a lot of ways, it's a book about celebrating television as television — detaching it from neurotic comparisons with books and movies. And more specifically, it's about trying to explode and expand the types of television that get taken seriously. So it's about, basically, stopping the endless focus on antihero dramas — talking about sitcoms, talking about reality shows, talking about network shows, talking about the kinds of shows that people think of as corny, talking about different kinds of creativity — and essentially celebrating the nature of the way TV has changed in a way that's not so burdened by the past of TV, and the way it used to be regarded as junk, as the boob tube.

On how The Sopranos ushered in the current age of prestige television

Well, it's complicated. HBO itself had the slogan: "It's not TV. It's HBO." And The Sopranos was genuinely a radical show for television on a bunch of different levels. It visually resembled a movie. It was related to art that people thought of as high art, and as gritty, masculine art like The Godfather. Also, it had an antihero that caused audiences to both be fascinated by him and recoil from him. It was a given on television, before The Sopranos, that you couldn't have an alienating main character. ... I think anybody who watches TV now knows that that's changed. So I also feel like because The Sopranos had this aura around it — that it was not television, that it was more like adult art, and it should be compared to other art — it kind of magnetized all the attention toward it. And honestly, I think the status hangover from television has continued to haunt the way that people talk about it.

On so-called "guilty pleasure" television, which tends to be female-centered

Emily Nussbaum is the TV critic for The New Yorker.
Clive Thompson / Courtesy of Random House

The origins of the book were actually a conversation that I had with a younger colleague in the office. And I said to her, "What kind of TV do you like?" And she said, in this very embarrassed way, "Well, you know, just guilty pleasures like Jane the Virgin." And I basically went bananas, and delivered this long, crazy speech about how great Jane the Virgin was, how sophisticated it was, how the fact that it was warm and the fact that it was humane didn't make it dumb. ... That's the rant that I've delivered forever. And I basically wrote this book because I wanted to extend that argument outward, and talk about TV in more complicated, but also more embracing ways.

On if people still criticize her for writing about TV as art

You know, it's surprising. I do occasionally run into somebody who's very much of the "I don't even own a TV" kind of mindset. But truthfully ... the last five years have radically altered TV. I think anybody who watches TV on their phone, who streams it, who sees the enormous range of shows, from anthology shows — the book covers a bunch of different kinds of shows. It covers everything from The Leftovers and Vanderpump Rules to Law & Order: SVU to Hannibal to Adventure Time. And in order to talk about TV, it's necessary to knock down the ladder of status that caused people to only talk about antihero shows. But at this point, I feel like there's a passionate audience for many, many kinds of TV. So it's actually a good moment to be writing about this.

On television's changing relationship to its fans

Part of what fascinates me about TV is the fact that it's an episodic art form that takes place over time and is in kind of a loop with the audience. And people who create TV are under enormous pressure from fans. I think anybody who's been a fan of a show for years and sees it head toward the finale understands the kind of fraught relationship that TV creators have with their audience. But this is part of what I think makes TV distinctive, is the fact that it's kind of made in front of our eyes. ...

I have nothing but sympathy for the creators of television. Because people live-tweet directly at them. It's not easy! But I'm all for being part of a large mass audience talking back to TV. To me, that is the power of television, is this loop with the audience, this relationship between the show and the fan or the critic — and the way that people bond with shows. I mean, there's something very specific about that.

Hanna Bolanos and Jolie Myers produced and edited this interview for broadcast. Patrick Jarenwattananon adapted it for the Web.

Copyright 2019 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

AUDIE CORNISH, HOST:

Back in the mid-'90s, Emily Nussbaum was working on a doctorate in literature at NYU. But the TV on the other side of the room just kept catching her eye.

EMILY NUSSBAUM: I was sitting on my sofa. I had a small, junky television. I had broken the extremely rudimentary remote control. I had to get up from the sofa, walk over to the television, turn the big plastic dial. It made a nice clunky sound.

CORNISH: Well, TV technology has come a long way since then, and so has Emily Nussbaum. She never got that doctorate. Instead, she made a career out of writing about television. Nussbaum is now the Pulitzer Prize-winning TV critic for The New Yorker, and she's got a new book out - a collection of essays and previously published writing called "I Like To Watch."

NUSSBAUM: In a lot of ways, it's a book about celebrating television as television, detaching it from neurotic comparisons to books and movies. And more specifically, it's about trying to explode and expand the types of television that get taken seriously, so it's about, basically, stopping the endless focus on antihero dramas...

(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "TRUE DETECTIVE")

MATTHEW MCCONAUGHEY: (As Rustin) This is a world where nothing is solved. And someone once told me time is a flat circle.

NUSSBAUM: ...Talking about sitcoms, talking about reality shows...

(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "THE REAL HOUSEWIVES OF BEVERLY HILLS")

KIM RICHARDS: I've been rich, and I've been famous. But happiness beats them both.

NUSSBAUM: ...Talking about network shows, talking about the kinds of shows that people think of as corny, talking about different kinds of creativity and, essentially, celebrating the nature of the way that TV has changed in a way that's not so burdened by the past of TV and the way that it used to be regarded as junk, as the boob tube.

CORNISH: It's interesting hearing you talk about this because you started out wanting to become a literature professor, so I feel like you must have been surrounded by people who thought it was the boob tube.

NUSSBAUM: Yes, that's definitely true. And, you know, honestly, there's a part of me that went into writing about TV with a chip on my shoulder because a lot of criticism and a lot of talking about art comes out of an argument you want to make to other people. This was the argument I wanted to make early on. In a lot of ways, I trace it back to the contrast between "Buffy The Vampire Slayer" and "The Sopranos" - two shows that I adored at the turn of the century, which got completely different critical receptions. So for some reason, I perceived it as my job to evangelize for "Buffy The Vampire Slayer." And that really is what led me down this path in the end.

CORNISH: I think you won the argument on the Buffy front.

NUSSBAUM: Yes.

CORNISH: (Laughter) People talk about that show now like it's biblical.

NUSSBAUM: I know. I'm never sick of it, actually (laughter).

(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "BUFFY THE VAMPIRE SLAYER")

SARAH MICHELLE GELLAR: (As Buffy) First of all, I'm a vampire slayer. And secondly, I'm retired. Hey, I know. Why don't you kill him?

UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR: (As character) I'm a watcher. I haven't the skills.

GELLAR: (As Buffy) Oh, come on. Stake through the heart, a little sunlight - it's like falling off a log.

CORNISH: You talk about "The Sopranos" on HBO as kind of a launch of prestige television as we know it. And you talk about this idea that this category doubled as a social class distinction. Talk about how that played out, how it was talked about.

NUSSBAUM: Well, it's complicated. HBO itself had the slogan, it's not TV. It's HBO. And "The Sopranos" was genuinely a radical show for television on a bunch of different levels. It visually resembled a movie. It was related to art that people thought of as high art and as gritty, masculine, serious stuff like "The Godfather."

(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "THE SOPRANOS")

JAMES GANDOLFINI: (As Tony) So you never seen Doc Cusamano go out at 3 in the morning on a call.

JAMIE-LYNN SIGLER: (As Meadow) Do the Cusamano kids ever find $50,000 in Krugerrands and a .45 automatic when they were hunting for Easter eggs?

GANDOLFINI: (As Tony) I'm in the waste management business. Everybody immediately assumes you're mobbed up. It's a stereotype, and it's offensive.

NUSSBAUM: Also it had an antihero in it that caused audiences to both be fascinated by him and to recoil from him. It was a given on television before "The Sopranos" that you couldn't have an alienating main character.

CORNISH: Right, they have to be likeable.

NUSSBAUM: Right. I think anybody who watches TV now knows that that's changed, so I also feel like because "The Sopranos" had this aura around it - that it was not television, that it was more like adult art, and it should be compared to other art - it kind of magnetized all the attention toward it. And, honestly, I think the status hangover from television has continued to haunt the way that people talk about it.

CORNISH: Right. When I was reading the book, I think it was pretty clear to me that in a way you were arguing that, like, fights about art kind of double as fights about what we take seriously and how that plays out in the idea of, like, the guilty pleasure show, which, frankly, is often female-centered (laughter), oriented versus the gritty, punishing, brutal, masculine antihero show, which is just, like, by its definition better somehow.

NUSSBAUM: The origins of the book were actually a conversation that I had with a younger colleague in the office. And I said to her, what kind of TV do you like? And she said in this very embarrassed way, well, you know, just guilty pleasures, like "Jane The Virgin." And I basically went bananas and delivered this long, crazy speech about how great "Jane The Virgin" was, how sophisticated it was, how smart it was, how the fact that it was warm and the fact that it was humane didn't make it dumb.

(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "JANE THE VIRGIN")

ANTHONY MENDEZ: (As narrator) Our story begins 13 1/2 years ago when Jane Gloriana Villanueva was a mere 10 years old.

NUSSBAUM: That's the rant that I've delivered forever. And I, basically, wrote this book because I wanted to extend that argument outwards and talk about TV in more complicated but also more embracing ways.

CORNISH: Have people stopped giving you a hard time for calling TV art?

NUSSBAUM: You know, it's surprising. I do occasionally run into somebody who is very much of the I don't even own a TV kind of mindset. But truthfully, the last five years have radically altered TV. I think anybody who sees the enormous range of shows from anthology shows, everything from "The Leftovers" and "Vanderpump Rules"...

(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "VANDERPUMP RULES")

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON: OK, you're going to have something sweet. And you're going to sit here. And you're going to pull yourself together.

NUSSBAUM: ...To "Law & Order: SVU" to "Hannibal" to "Adventure Time."

(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "ADVENTURE TIME")

JEREMY SHADA: (As Finn) Hiya.

JOHN DIMAGGIO: (As Jake, yelling) Copy.

NUSSBAUM: And in order to talk about TV, it's necessary to knock down the ladder of status that cause people to only talk about antihero shows. But at this point, I feel like there's a passionate audience for many, many kinds of TV, so it's actually a good moment to be writing about this.

CORNISH: That leads me to the final thing you kind of discuss in the book, which is us (laughter), the fans, and how that relationship has changed between those of us who are watching it and the people who are making it.

NUSSBAUM: Part of what fascinates me about TV is the fact that it's an episodic art form that takes place over time and is in kind of a loop with the audience. And people who create TV are under enormous pressure from fans. I think anybody who's been a fan of a show for years and sees it head toward the finale understands the kind of fraught relationship that TV creators have with their audience. But this is part of what, I think, makes TV distinctive is the fact that it's kind of made in front of our eyes.

CORNISH: And for our part, we didn't always used to have a way to talk back in a way that the creators and networks could hear us, right? I mean, yes, you could write a letter or something like that. But that's very different from in the moment, right?

NUSSBAUM: Yeah.

CORNISH: Like almost participating via social media or if you're a show like "Game Of Thrones," to be part of an ongoing meta narrative about what your writing is doing to the program that - you know, in the opinion of fans.

NUSSBAUM: Yeah. I have nothing but sympathy for the creators of television...

CORNISH: (Laughter).

NUSSBAUM: ...Because people live tweet directly at them. It's not easy. But, you know, I'm all for being part of a big mass audience talking back to TV. To me, that is the power of television is this loop with the audience, this relationship between the show and the fan or the critic and the way that people bond with shows. I mean, there's something very specific about that.

CORNISH: Emily Nussbaum - her new book is called "I Like To Watch." Thank you so much for talking with us.

NUSSBAUM: Thank you very much. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.