Nussbaum’s reviews are close readings of media texts in which she demonstrates a gift for finding the details that display the essence of a television series.
As a television critic, Emily Nussbaum shares her standpoint with other media savvy Gen Xers: from having to get up off the couch to change the channel to the introduction of cable television and on to the era of so-called “quality television,” she has not only been thinking about but also writing about television through these transformations. Nussbaum has selected essays she wrote for New York magazine, The New Yorker and elsewhere in I Like to Watch: Arguing My Way Through the TV Revolution.
Nussbaum’s reviews are close readings of media texts in which she demonstrates a gift for finding the details that display the essence of a television series. In “The Big Pump: Vanderpump Rules,” originally published in The New Yorker in 2016, she lists the cast members, who she describes as “somehow both memorable and interchangeable”: “There’s Stassi, who is basically a grown-up version of the nasty little girl in the Free to Be…You and Me fable ‘Ladies First,’ the one who gets eaten by tigers…There’s a selection of sulky brunettes, including Katie, ‘the Shakespeare of rage-texting.’” The mention of the early 1970s book, album and television special spearheaded by Marlo Thomas marks Nussbaum as a member of Generation X. Her easy familiarity with television history should not deter readers who don’t find those references easily accessible because they are not presented in a way that requires the reader to be a cultural insider to appreciate her reviews. Admitting her onetime deep devotion to the reality genre, Nussmann offhandedly offers an insight into the power of reality television with a comment on Vanderpump Rules: “These betrayals are both real and imaginary: It’s hard for a viewer to be disturbed when it’s unclear which emotions are genuine and which have been scripted, an ambiguity that protects you from destabilizing empathy.”
The pieces in this collection do more than review television: they place TV in a cultural context. Critical theorist Douglas Kellner writes: “Media stories provide the symbols, myths, and resources through which we constitute a common culture and through the appropriation of which we insert ourselves into this culture.” Media’s fundamental influence in shaping culture is always present in Nussbaum’s writing. Three days after Donald Trump’s inauguration, The New Yorker published her essay, “How Jokes Won the Election: How Do You Fight an Enemy Who’s Just Kidding?” Even as Trump was first setting foot in the White House, Nussbaum offered a pointed analysis of Trump as the candidate made by television, comparing his rallies to the standup style of comedians Rodney Dangerfield and Don Rickles: “Trump was that hostile jaunty guy in the big flappy suit, with the vaudeville hair, the pursed lips, and the glare. There’s always been an audience for that guy.” The essay has broad scope: Nussbaum pulls in “South Park,” “Mad Men,” Tila Tequila, “Black Mirror” and the female-cast version of Ghostbusters. Television provides the evidence that “Trump’s call to Make America Great Again was a plea to go back in time, to when people knew how to take a joke. It was an election about who owned the mike.”
Here Nussbaum is critiquing culture and media in its moment, yet I Like to Watch features strong historical analyses as well. Her 2015 New Yorker essay about Joan Rivers shows how the brusque comedienne’s humor was a complex response to being a woman in the entertainment industry in the 1960s and beyond. Like many other women who had a difficult, ambivalent relationship to Rivers as a public figure (Was she a feminist? Was she feminine? Was she mean? Was there a latent message for younger women, and if so, did we want to hear it?), Nussbaum writes that when she first encountered Rivers, she didn’t understand the circumstances and experiences that shaped her. As many of the essays included in the book are about female comedy and the recent changing roles for women in television, Joan Rivers stands out as a figure whose life and career helps readers make sense of the trajectory of funny women on television.
Similarly, Nussbaum writes in the brief note accompanying her essay on Norman Lear and “All in the Family” that the piece was inspired by writing recaps about “Breaking Bad” and how Walter White and Archie Bunker were both characters whose behaviors could be seen as evil or celebrated as outlaws. She goes further into questioning how negativity and violence affected viewers when there were only three networks and therefore a mass audience of viewers for whatever aired, a phenomenon that no longer exists.
Those who doubt the persistence of television in a shifting media landscape can see through Nussbaum’s writing that television not only plays a fundamental role in media culture, it continues to be a significant cultural space in which we learn about self and other, and determine who and how we want to be as people in the wider world.