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

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

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

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.

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Over two decades of journalism, Audie Cornish has become a recognized and trusted voice on the airwaves as co-host of NPR's flagship news program, All Things Considered.