I’ve never been a huge TV watcher, but I definitely have always a roster of shows that I’ve dedicated myself to at any given time. I’m also in the NO SPOILERS EVER camp, so I tend to avoid television and movie reviews and stay off social media if a popular show — say, Game of Thrones and its wretched final season — airs before I can watch.
That said, I’ve been a fan of Emily Nussbaum’s Pulitzer Prize-winning culture critiques for as long as I can remember. I loved reading her Approval Matrix in New York magazine, back when I read it religiously in college. And even though I’ve become more of a lurker than an active tweeter, her Twitter feed remains one of my favorites. I was thrilled to learn that this book, a collection of both new and previously published essays, was coming out.
In her opening, Nussbaum writes about how she fell in love with television — Buffy the Vampire Slayer, to be exact — back before the concept of “prestige TV,” when people could still sniff their nose at television and get away with calling it lowbrow, inferior entertainment. It was before The Sopranos and Breaking Bad, before the concept of showrunners. Nussbaum took it all seriously, interacting with it intellectually, miffed that shows like Buffy and Sex and the City — women’s TV — never got their due credit as Important Television Shows™ began earning critical acclaim.
The essays cover an array of shows and also feature a few showrunner profiles. I read them all, including the ones on shows I haven’t watch and eventually intend to (because hey, even I realize that NO SPOILERS EVER isn’t really feasible for pop culture game changers like The Sopranos, which ended 12 years ago). I enjoyed the essays, even the ones on shows I wasn’t familiar with, because like I said: Nussbaum elevates the conversation; the essays are never only about the TV show in question.
My favorite essay, “Confessions of the Human Shield,” was one of the handful of new pieces she wrote for the book. Coming in at about 50 pages, it’s also the longest in the collection. It interrogates our pop culture consumption in the wake of #MeToo and Harvey Weinstein, and Nussbaum makes it personal by examining her own history of Woody Allen and Louis C.K. fandom (in the case of Louis, reluctant complicity in the form of a live New Yorker interview she conducted after his actions had been made public):
So if you’re wondering who colluded with at least one man who did bad things: That would be me. I was five when I first became a fan of Woody Allen. I was in my mid-forties when I became a fan of Louis C.K., inflamed by my desire to see things in an ambiguous light, to dwell in gray areas, to jump past “we can’t” to “can we?”
The whole essay is pretty gutting, bringing up a lot of my own issues in the wake of Junot Diaz and Sherman Alexie, in my enjoyment of Jonathan Franzen’s works (yes, really). Weaving in a Pearl Cleage essay about Miles Davis’ abuse of Cicely Tyson and Hannah Gadsby’s Nanette, “Confessions of the Human Shield” masterfully takes a long hard look at our complicity where pop culture and abusers are concerned.
It’s essays like this, which bring together several different aspects of pop culture, that truly shine in the book. The essays that focus on a single television show — even shows that have long been over — have aged well, even if the shows themselves have not (Sex and the City, I’m looking at you). Not all of the essays are emotionally heavy, but they’re all incisive and elevate the conversation.
I Like to Watch: Arguing My Way Through the TV Revolution was published today by Random House.