Emily Nussbaum grew up Jewish in the well-to-do New York suburb of Scarsdale, the daughter of Bernard Nussbaum, who was White House counsel during the presidency of Bill Clinton. Today she is the TV critic for The New Yorker who won the Pulitzer Prize for her work in 2016. Her new book “I Like to Watch” is a collection of her writings over the last dozen years.
She came to her job as a critic in a round about way. She was more interested after college in writing poetry and in political activism than in following the latest sitcom.
One of her first stops after graduation from college in Ohio was Atlanta, where she and a friend started an organization that attempted to bridge the cultural divide between gay and straight people in the city. To pay the bills, she worked as a temp in a commercial real estate firm and first got hooked on watching television with the passion that is such a strong feature of her critical work.
AJT: How did you and television meet while you were living here?
Nussbaum: I remember it very vividly. The first season of “The Real World: New York” was on, and since I was a little bit nostalgic for New York, I remember watching that in a state of hypnosis. I was living over near Little Five Points at the time. I just remember watching a “The Real World: New York” and really adoring it.
I had no plans to become a television critic. It seemed to me to be a somewhat cruel or parasitic role. I was completely focused on doing political activism and to a certain extent, creative writing. But later on, and you know I talk about this in the book, I had this whole transformation moment in the late 90s when I was in New York, at that point watching “Buffy the Vampire Slayer,” having this incredible desire to argue about it all the time. And at that point it was less that I wanted to be a critic than that I wanted to talk about TV. I was really engaged by TV as an art form.
AJT: You have one section in your book about the Amazon hit show, “The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel.” One of your criticisms is of the “Disneyfication” of Midge Maisel’s family. You are obviously not a fan.
Nussbaum: I hate Mrs. Maisel. I really dislike that show. I don’t think it’s very good. It’s a very cartoon-like show about Jewishness in a lot of ways. I don’t actually think I would call it anti-Semitic, but it borders on that. There are a lot of better shows that have more interesting Jewish characters.
I’m interested in the way sometimes that Jewish creators like Jenji Kohan, for instance, expresses certain values that seem to me to be Jewish values in a positive way. Jenji created “Orange is the New Black,” which I think is a very good and interesting show. There are great creators like Abbi Jacobson and Ilana Glazer, who created “Broad City” on Comedy Central, that I find very powerful. And I feel represented by. It is one of those highly specific Jewish shows whose Jewishness speaks to me more than something like Mrs. Maisel.
AJT: Your writing is full of passion and emotion and in fact, you subtitled your book, “Arguing My Way Through the TV Revolution.” Why are you so worked up about the medium?
Nussbaum: Criticism is a form of theater, a kind of a performance. So for me, personally, what comes both naturally and what seems most appealing to me is something that is directly speaking to the reader. The main thing is that it has to hold your attention. You know it has to challenge you. It has to crack you up; it has to do a lot of different kinds of things.
The main thesis of the book is that television as a medium has a prestige anxiety. It’s a hangover from its origins and the way that people condescend to it. What’s happened is that TV for a long time was compared to other mediums, that they were fancier like books and like movies. And the argument of the book is that we need to talk about TV as TV, and we need to talk about the specific qualities of TV and criticize it as itself. It also means expanding the kinds of TV that we take seriously and not only talking about, for instance, anti-hero dramas, but also talking in meaningful ways about sitcoms, about soap operas and about reality shows, and in really broadening the scope of what we talk about in thoughtful ways.
“I Like to Watch: Arguing My Way Through the TV Revolution,” by Emily Nussbaum was published in June by Random House.