‘The New Yorker’s’ Emily Nussbaum on How to Be a Critic in 2017
We talk ‘Girls,’ ‘Sex and the City,’ ‘True Detective’ and ‘Buffy’ (as in, the vampire slayer)
In the age of the internet, where anyone with decent wifi has a platform to voice his or her opinion, what it’s like to be a professional critic? We sat down with Emily Nussbaum, Pulitzer Prize-winning television critic for The New Yorker, to talk about what her job looks like in 2017. How does the critic adapt? Do critics need to adapt? And perhaps more now than ever, what does it take to be a critic? Strong opinions? Encyclopedic knowledge? Years spent “in the field?” All that and more below.
Amelia Diamond: I was just assigned an opinion piece on Girls for the end of the season. It will be our first or second story on Monday, which means I have between the closing credits Sunday night and like, 12 a.m. to write it. I’ve been thinking about how I’m going to approach that: will I wait and see what happens, or should I start forming an opinion now, regardless of what happens, so that I’m ready to go? Let’s say I decide to “see what happens.” Do you think that you need time to form a really well-thought-out opinion?
Emily Nussbaum, Television Critic for The New Yorker: There are some things in TV that you do want to respond to right away. TV criticism, even more than other kinds of criticism — at least I feel this way — is a conversational medium where different voices talk to one another.
One of the hardest things about writing about television is that question, When do I write it? Am I trying to write something at the beginning of a show; am I trying to write something at the finale of the season; do I want to wait a few seasons and then write something that’s an essay about the whole show? I did a bunch of pieces about Breaking Bad during its final season; those were all written the way I used to write recaps at New York Magazine, so I would write them in a few hours the night before, which I understand is how a lot of people write, but I find it very stressful.
There are times where I actually want to get into the conversation. When The Newsroom came out and I published the first piece about it, it was a vicious pan. I hated that show. But I thought it was a meaningful show to talk about. Criticism is a form of theater; there is a theatricality to it, and with that show, which I felt was bad in a way that was interesting, I wanted to write a piece that got in there quick.
With dramas, I often try to write a piece about three-quarters of the way through a season so I have enough to talk about. But, something like a finale always demands a web response, which is a different thing.
Leandra Medine: I love that concept that being a critic is theatric. Can you elaborate on that?
Emily: If I were writing an academic piece about a television show, I would write it in a different way. When I’m writing, I’m writing for an audience and I don’t want to bore them. If every piece was a sort of almost mathematical presentation of my varied feelings for a show, it wouldn’t be very useful and it wouldn’t be a lot of fun to read. There’s a level in which criticism is a kind of performance, often for multiple audiences. Sometimes I don’t mention another critic but I’m privately arguing with another critic and that’s what is fueling the emotion of my piece. I wrote about Big Little Lies recently; I was bothered by some of the criticism of it. To a certain extent, this is true of all journalism, but I think it’s particularly true of criticism because why would somebody otherwise read a piece of criticism? They’re reading it because they want the person’s voice and opinions. My ideal piece has that kind of aliveness.
Leandra: Do you spend a lot of time thinking about what you think it takes to be a critic in 2017?
Leandra: It’s just such a different trade now, it seems.
Emily: I am lucky and have a great job. I don’t think that young people should listen to old people talking about journalism because we don’t know what the hell we’re talking about. The industry has collapsed and a lot of the routes that we all took to get in are simply not available. It’s not that there won’t be jobs for TV critics, [but] it’s hard to give advice on that as a path right now.
The changes in TV can’t be decoupled from the changes in technology: everything has deepened and expanded and gotten better and more complicated and messier. When I was growing up, you couldn’t pause TV and rewind it. You’d sit and watch something junky and then it would go away and you’d never see it again. Even recording something on a VCR was relatively hard. None of this is true anymore. People collect television, they treat it as a text, they take little bits of it to analyze. And the ways in which television is produced have changed really radically, not just in the last 20 years, but in the last five years — people stream and binge. Talking about television online enables people to watch shows in a completely different way. With something like The Wire, and [the show’s creator] David Simon is aware of this, when The Wire came out it was a very dense show that couldn’t exist without an Internet fan base because people had to talk about it and actually untangle a little bit. That’s true of a lot of different kinds of shows.
Leandra: It’s certainly true of Girls also.
Emily: It’s just impossible to imagine a show like Girls earlier. Not because it’s dense, because it’s not. It’s more because—
Leandra: It leaves a lot to the audiences. It leaves a lot unsettled.
Emily: Louie transformed the model of how you make a cable comedy. Comedies had traditionally been done with writers’ rooms and Louie was making the whole thing himself for a small amount of money. It was filmed more like an indie film. When Lena [Dunham] created Girls, she had her own set of influences, but she also came from independent film. I’ve always been fascinated by the totally different response that people had to Louie and to Lena [Dunham’s character, Hannah Horvath]. He’s creating comedy and she’s trying to sort of be a memoirist; both have this kind of pugnacious adventurism.
The emergence of their shows triggered a lot of other people. Jill Soloway basically created Transparent because she saw Girls and was like, She’s doing what she wants to do, why can’t I do what I want to do? There’s a lot more of this — the single-minded television creator who wants to make a show that is perhaps narrowly cast and doesn’t appeal to a large audience and is, in fact, capable of alienating part of the audience. Very few people watch Girls, very few people watch Louie, I don’t know how many people watch Transparent because I don’t think they release their ratings. Historically, television had to appeal to the largest possible audience and sedate advertisers so there were limits on what you could do.
Leandra: That’s true for everyone. You think of a niche media site like Man Repeller that barely even tracks traffic—
Emily: That is the part of the online thing: that people’s voices get heard that were never heard before.
Leandra: Do you feel like you can be a critic if you’re afraid of being attacked?
Emily: Well, no. I’m criticizing people, so people have the right to attack me. Obviously I don’t like being attacked, but I personally think it’s much better that people can attack me and I can hear it. Not because they’re always right, but at least it makes me think about my own language. On the other hand, if you’re a critic, you have to be able to stand by your own writing. There are things that I’ve written that I probably regret, not because they were offensive but because your mind changes about things.
Amelia: How much experience in the field you’re critiquing do you need to be a critic?
Emily: Well, I didn’t go to journalism school or anything; I was just very personally interested in television. I studied literature in graduate school. There wasn’t any real reason to study television at that point. I’m more self-educated on TV history now. It’s definitely been good for my criticism. When I started at The New Yorker, I kept assigning myself essays that would allow me to do research that I hadn’t done before — a piece about the history of cliffhangers for instance, so I learned a lot about soap operas. History gives you more context and then, when you make various arrogant assertions, you have some sense of where they actually fit and whether they actually make sense.
Leandra: What do you think it takes to be a critic in 2017? Because we’re quite a sensitive generation. We’re super-sensitive to the people who are reading what we’re writing, we’re sensitive to what we’re reading.
Emily: One of the things I value about Twitter — as ugly as it can get at times — is that I can access global television audiences and various perspectives that often illuminate my own ideas. The only time I’ve really been attacked — I’m probably protected by both my age and my monocle, just by working at The New Yorker — but the only time I’ve really gotten attacked is when I wrote a really harsh review of True Detective called “Cool Story, Bro.” It was right at the height of the show’s hype and I wrote it in a tone that definitely bid for that kind of response. It was many, many days of attacks. I got trolled, letters from prisons. The only times I’ve gotten real push back is when I criticize something that’s popular.
Amelia: It’s really interesting that you welcome it.
Emily: It’s not that I welcome it, it’s that I deserve it. I’m obviously on a very high platform criticizing people’s creative work, and I’m established. If people say critical things back to me, I should be able to take them. I’ll just absorb the criticism and it will make me stronger. It’s different if you’re a 23-year-old publishing your first piece.
Amelia: What do you think the role of the critic is? In fashion, it used to be that the critic could change the next collection or the next season of trends or the way the store bought. What about when it comes to TV?
Emily: When I started my career writing book reviews and some poetry reviews for The New York Times, I decided that ethically and emotionally I could not review poetry because I felt like poetry — while a very respected art form — was made by one person for no money for a tiny audience, and that even a mixed review of a poetry book in The New York Times was an act of psychic cruelty that made me feel really weird. You cannot talk about any art form unless you can say negative things and positive things. Otherwise, it’s just PR. In the case of reviewing poetry, I just couldn’t take it emotionally.
Then I fell in love with television. Because TV was something that people condescended to, criticizing a television show was a way of praising television. It was a way of saying that I expected television to be good. There are two kinds of old-school TV critics. Because TV is so mixed up with commerce, a lot of people are just industry reporters. Ratings and the quality of a show were confused together for most of TV history. You know when people talk about what show was a hit and what show was not a hit? That was somehow linked to whether a show was meaningful. Then there were the highbrow critics that were using pop culture as a kind of fun game to score points off of. Now there’s this huge generation of TV critics who regard television as an art form and want to celebrate it specifically for what television can do as a medium and to stop comparing it to novels and movies out of status anxiety.
Judging TV on its own terms and criticizing TV because you expect that TV can be great is something I feel comfortable doing as a critic. For fashion, it seems like because there’s no distinction between the commerce and art part, when there are fashion critics who actually say things are bad, that seems so unbelievably refreshing. I remember reading women’s magazines when I was younger and I thought that if they selected stuff to highlight, then it must be because it’s good. That’s what I assumed.
Leandra: I always thought that, too.
Emily: I only have ever written one piece about fashion. I wrote a piece about the skinny model disputes a few years ago. I went to all these fashion shows and went backstage and talked to all the models. It was really fun. I’m actually quite proud of that piece, but it was a weird situation because fashion is such a foreign world to me so there was a slight sociologist quality to it. But I’ve heard that that problem has only gotten worse, so.
Leandra: Were you extremely underwhelmed after your first show? We’re you like, “That’s it!? It’s over!?”
Emily: I was a little surprised. I thought it would be more fun. I was a big fan of Sex and the City and I had [thought] it would be hugely theatrical.
Leandra: What did you love about Sex and the City?
Emily: My best piece is probably one about Sex and the City. I peaked with this one piece. It’s called “Difficult Women.” I was so frustrated about how Sex and the City was an amazing television show but it often — especially as the years went by — was disregarded and condescended, treated as a jokey pleasure or something that was junky and just for women. And because it was a comedy, it was considered less-substantive than a drama. Sex and the City came out with The Sopranos on HBO. Part of it was about the idea of Carrie Bradshaw as an early anti-hero and a character designed to make the audience uncomfortable, rather than make us feel like, “You go, girl!” It’s also about how the characters change over the course of the show, and the failure of the finale. It could not figure out a way to end itself without her getting put in a pit. It’s so interesting how finales change shows. Like the Breaking Bad finale.
Amelia: I’m sorry I’m bringing this up, but when The O.C. ended — I’m a diehard — the last season and the finale almost made me hate the show because I thought they did it so poorly.
Emily: I was not a big O.C. person, so that’s interesting to me.
Amelia: It felt apart after Marissa Cooper died. They sent everyone to college which always ruins a show and then they made everyone match up and find a partner.
Emily: That happens on so many shows and is really irritating. Hell, that even happened on Lost to a certain extent. I’ve written a lot of pieces about finales. The closure thing — about pleasing the audience — is an enormous danger for TV creators. It’s a little different with Sex and the City because they really only had two choices: she ends up with Big or she doesn’t end up with Big. I could talk about Sex and the City forever. There are a handful of shows that are like, “my shows” — Buffy, Sex and the City, 30 Rock…
Leandra: When you say Buffy, are you talking about “the vampire slayer”?
Emily: Yes, that’s the show that made me a TV critic. It’s what got me interested in talking about and arguing about television. There was this big, explosive moment around 1999 when there were a million ambitious shows on the air and I was obsessed with The Sopranos and Buffy. Everybody was talking about The Sopranos and insufficient amounts of people were talking about Buffy, this hugely ambitious, beautiful feminist show. Funny, deep, experimental, cool, bold TV. People were constantly talking about how The Sopranos was like a movie. Nobody would ever say that about Buffy. Buffy was doing these things with long arcs, and visuals, and mixing together degraded genres that people think of as unimportant, [such as] teen comedies and soap opera with horror and—
Leandra: It makes so much sense that you created NY Mag’s Approval Matrix.
Emily: The point of the Approval Matrix is, first of all, for people to argue with it. It’s also to say something can be brilliant wherever it is on the spectrum of high-low. Those are artificial constructs that change over time.
Movies were considered garbage when they were created, novels were considered garbage, anything that is highly successful, that a lot of people want to watch, is addictive, seems sort of sexual and that young people get into, is “junk.” This is pretty consistent.
I was constantly buttonholing people at cocktail parties in New York and trying to find the Buffy people and arguing with guys about Buffy. I was feverish for that show. That was a transformative experience for me and really did make me want to argue about television, which is probably the one thing that you actually do need if you want to be a critic — the impulse to argue and a know-it-all quality.
Leandra: I’ve been re-watching Friends.
Emily: I love Friends. Occasionally I go off on Twitter and just start begging Jennifer Aniston to come back to television because I’m like, “Why are you in movies? Movies are doing nothing for you! This is your native form, you’re a great comic genius, you’re like fucking Judy Holliday!”
Amelia: I have one last question: Can you watch TV for fun?
Emily: Everyone asks that. The thing I’m saddest about is I really love to read and I feel like I don’t have as much time to read as I would like, but I definitely watch TV for fun. I watch SVU as my relaxation show. All of the Law & Orders are very appealing brain-dead shows. When I was pregnant I watched SVU nonstop.
Follow Emily on Twitter @emilynussbaum. Photo by Edith Young.