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Speaking with: The New Yorker TV critic Emily Nussbaum

Speaking with: Emily Nussbaum. CC BY-ND26.3 MB (download)

Over the past decade we have witnessed the rise and rise of long form television – from The Sopranos to The Wire, Game of Thrones to Orange Is the New Black – and no one has been watching this transformation more keenly than the television critic for The New Yorker, Emily Nussbaum.

Here, media researcher Lisa French talks with Nussbaum about bingeing on DVD sets, live-tweeting and delighting in reruns of Sex and The City.

Nussbaum appeared at the 2014 Melbourne Writers’ Festival on Friday August 22 for Seminar: Writing About TV and Castaway with Emily Nussbaum, Talking Points: How TV Got Great on Saturday August 23 and then at the Sydney Opera House Festival of Dangerous Ideas for Television Has Replaced the Novel on Sunday August 31.

Read more coverage of the Melbourne Writers’ Festival.

Listen to other podcast episodes here.

Full transcript:

Lisa French (LF): My name is Lisa French and welcome to The Conversation podcast. I am speaking with Emily Nussbaum, TV critic for The New Yorker, who is in Australia this month for the Melbourne Writers’ Festival. Emily, welcome. Let me start by asking how you became a television critic?

Emily Nussbaum (EM): Well, honestly the reason I got into television in the first place, I always chalk up straightforwardly to Buffy the Vampire Slayer, because around 1999 I was watching Buffy, and this was a time that TV was exploding a bit. The Sopranos was out and Sex and The City and a lot of other shows, and I’ve always been interested in TV, but Buffy was the first show where I was just transformed by becoming a super-fan in a slightly insane way.

One of the things that was going on was a lot of people were talking about The Sopranos, and I loved The Sopranos, but I also loved Buffy. I would go to parties and I would want to talk to people about Buffy and what a brilliant show it was, how operatic it was, how it had this fantastic mixture of genres and these incredible performances – and it was a very easily put-down show.

It was a show about a teenage girl who was a vampire slayer, it was on this tiny cable network that nobody had really heard of (that was for teenagers) and honestly it kind of lit this flame in me and put a chip on my shoulder. I’m an argumentative person and it made me interested in the larger debate about what TV was capable of. Also, it just felt like an exciting period.

So, I feel very lucky to be writing about TV during a time of great transformation. That was also a period when people were starting to talk about TV online, and the other origins of me ending up writing about TV were honestly things like television without pity, and anonymous websites where people would passionately discuss television.

I read a lot of critics, but my inspirations as far as a critic [goes] were often online digital conversation about TV, which I found wildly stimulating and also global; in a way to talk with an audience of television viewers that otherwise I wouldn’t have had access to.

Since TV was always considered a very isolated experience, I think it really changed the way that people thought about it. You could actually treat it as a text, and it was as though the world was a graduate school in which everyone was just constantly persevering about particular shows that they loved or hated.

As for becoming a television writer, that’s a different situation. I feel like I have a dream job. I’m very, very lucky to be writing for The New Yorker, which is a place where I can write seriously about television and I can write at a pace where I can write longer essays.

It’s thrilling and I feel like I’m constantly trying to push myself forward with this. As anyone knows journalism is collapsing [laughs] and it’s very difficult to write arts criticism, so I never know what advice to give people who want to write about TV.

I have to hope that there will be models for doing it, but there’s no way that I could give any kind of meaningful advice given that I feel like I came of age during a period of transformation not only for TV but for journalism. And, a lot of people I know are writing at very fast paces online and writing recaps and things like that.

I think that can be very brutal, I mean, ideally I hope we’re working toward a stage where people actually will get compensated for writing thoughtfully about TV, and essentially every year I’m just hoping that the bottom doesn’t drop out on the possibility of doing that.

LF: You just touched on something that I wanted to ask you about, which is: how technology has changed your work, how it’s changed whether a television critic might have a social media strategy, how to keep up with your field and [if] technology has changed everything that you do?

EN: Well, for one thing, I feel like the changes in technology are indistinguishable from the changes in TV itself. You wouldn’t have a show like The Wire unless you had two things that supported it. One of them is DVDs and DVRs that enabled people to pause, rewind, save, revisit and basically treat television shows as texts that they could analyse. And, the other thing is the internet, which allows people to decode more dense kinds of art.

Previously, television was just something that poured into people’s living rooms. They saw it once and then they just had to react to it as it happened – they couldn’t treat it the way that you would a song, a movie, a book or a variety of other art forms. I think that changed it a lot.

But, as for my own experience with it, as I said I was a very online kind of television viewer and I still am, and you know every year the whole thing changes in terms of how people talk about TV.

Twitter was invented a few years ago and I’m very active on Twitter, and for me, everybody uses these things different ways. I don’t think of it as a strategy, I think of it more as writing is isolating, and there’s something wonderful about the social world of being able to trade ideas back and forth with other people.

With TV specifically, I feel like it’s such an audience-driven art form, not to say that the shows don’t exist separate from the audience, but unlike a lot of other art forms, and this is sort of [an] ongoing thing with me is the question of: how do you distinguish the critical conversation about television from these anxious historical comparisons where they say “it’s become as good as movies! It’s as good as books!”

To me, I feel like people need to drop those comparisons and celebrate TV on its own terms. One of the things that happens with TV is it takes place over time, episodically, and in a kind of loop with the audience, and because of the way TV is made, often it reacts to the audience’s reactions to it.

So, this is a long way of saying I feel like for me, when I’m talking about a television show, I’m often writing about it part way through the series. It hasn’t necessarily ended, and being able to hear other people’s responses to the show is very valuable to me – because it does make me feel like I’m part of a live audience reacting to things, and being able to talk to people globally who have different reactions. It often makes me question my own responses and think about different perspectives on TV.

For me it’s great, but on the other hand, everybody has a different personality about this kind of thing, and I know a lot of people find online TV conversation overwhelming and it kind of drowns out their own responses. So, I think you can see it [in] all sorts of different ways.

LF: One of the things I’ve noticed is, the television’s gained this whole new life that seems to be connected to, so I’m thinking True Detective, you know the kind of actors that are going and the kind of directors. Do you have any view on what might be causing that?

EN: For one thing, I’m not going to make major judgements on what’s going on in Hollywood, but universally, people seem to find that it is more difficult to make idiosyncratic, independent films in Hollywood. I mean there’s opportunity that’s clearly available, especially on cable television, that there isn’t necessarily in Hollywood as far as funding something [goes]. So, there’s been this inflow that’s very exciting to me and challenging to me also, especially movie directors.

As far as the big name stars that are going on TV [go], I think that’s been happening for a while, because it used to be an area where it was a condescended kind of acting and that had to do with the kinds of shows that were on television. It was something that potentially could destroy somebody’s career because they had stepped down and they had gone from, you know, Hollywood and movies to TV. I just think that distinction doesn’t hold anymore.

But, as exciting as it is to me to see big name directors and big name actors go to television shows, to me it’s important to distinguish between the excitement of status names and the excitement of great, breakthrough and actually original work.

I’m not a huge fan of True Detective, I wrote a critical piece about it – I mean, I think it was a visually exciting and chaotic show, and it does stick with you, but I thought the praise for it was overblown. And, I think part of the reason it happened was because it fit in to all of these categories that people just tend to throw praise at, which are the kind of antihero dramas, big name actors and things like that.

However, I do think that when Jane Campion made Top of The Lake that was a lot more exciting to me. Because, I felt like what she was doing with the format of the experimental procedural by making [it] into something far more visually ambitious, strange, quiet, eerie and poetic than a lot of TV murder mysteries are – to me that was a much more exciting thing that was happening.

So, essentially, I’m just cautious about having a hierarchy in which things that come from Hollywood are better than things that are native to TV. And, similarly, you know this goes with sort of a larger feeling that I have where I really get excited when the conversation expands so that its not all about dark and gritty dramas, but it’s about sitcoms, it’s about all different kinds of TV and how TV is changing. I mean in a lot of ways I’m more interested in comedy than drama. But, it’s harder to talk about why a comedy is great.

LF: If you think about Top of The Lake and Buffy, one of the things I’m wondering about is there seems to be, certainly in Australia, a lot more shows about women with women-centred characters, way more than there actually [are] I think in Hollywood, and what we’ve noticed in Australia is there are a lot more women creators and they’re creating a lot more interesting roles for women. Do you think there’s more going on in relation to good roles for women?

EN: Yeah, I think it’s incredibly exciting and it’s not just exciting for, you know, identity politics numbers reasons. It’s exciting because I feel like on TV especially, first of all, there’s such a wide range of creators and good roles that I feel like we’ve finally moved past the point where people are excited about one of them, and then that show or that person has to represent all women. That to me is a terrible situation, where you have one person that are like “look, it’s so-and-so, they’re representing how women can be funny!” I mean it’s just ridiculous because there’s a million different stories to tell.

But, I have to say, the last couple of years have been really explosive in terms of great female characters and great female creators, and in terms of female comedy especially – there’s a wide range of interesting voices on TV.

I think the main thing that’s been really exciting, and this is true for men as well, has been [that] historically there was this problem where all television characters had to be likeable. You had to invite them into your living room every week and, because TV was a mass medium that was very driven by advertising on network television, there was a demand that characters not have off-putting qualities.

That’s changed a lot for both men and women, and for men a little bit earlier, because the change with the great antihero characters like Tony Soprano really broke open that rule. And so, suddenly, you could have characters who acted badly, or made the audience uncomfortable. I feel like there was a second wave of characters that did that for women, and the main thing about it is that it’s completely expanded the rhetoric of what an exciting central female character can be.

Not every character has to be inspiring and somebody who represents women and somebody everyone can identify with. A lot of the shows that did that earlier were really terrific, like Mary Tyler Moore, but it’s a neutralising kind of thing for a woman to always have to be basically a credit to her gender on television.

And also, the other thing that’s exciting to me are shows that have ensembles of women where it’s not just one or two women on the show, but you have a whole range, and you get shows like: Orange is the New Black, Call the Midwife and, I was going to say Orphan Black, but that’s actually one woman, eight times [laughs] so it’s slightly different.

Again, I just think it’s a great moment, because you don’t get that Smurfette problem where you have one woman in a larger ensemble and she’s like “the girl” character. That is a problem in big, mass Hollywood movies and it doesn’t seem to me to be a problem on TV at all. That’s not to say I love every show, but there’s so many different shows on TV that sometimes it’s hard to point out larger trends.

But, I do think there is an exciting improvement in terms of having characters who range from Alicia Florrick on The Good Wife to Amy Jellicoe on Enlightened that are just indelible, memorable, complex characters and great performances.

LF: I wanted to ask you about bingeing, I know you’re going to talk a bit about it and you just mentioned the idea of television coming into your room, you know, into your house once a week or whatever, and I read one of your columns where you talk about trying to resist the urge to binge The Returned, which I wasn’t able to resist that urge and had to binge the whole lot and I’ve actually found that my entire relationship to television has changed since I became a binger and I just – it’s like I come rushing home and I have to get my fix.

So, I wonder what you think about that kind of phenomena that you know you can buy the whole series, or you know, like you don’t actually have to resist, like is it changing how you know because instead of thinking about it all week you actually have to you get onto the next you don’t know how you can stop it not where the cliffhanger is you can just go in for as much time as you have and so I wonder whether that changes the sort of passionate engagement in how you might like something and then you might after a while change your mind?

EN: Yeah I think that it’s true, it’s a particularly wonderful thing for shows like, I was talking about Orange is the New Black and a friend of mine pointed out to me that she thought that if Orange is the New Black was something that people watched episodically it might not have caught on the way that it did because it was different enough in terms of its environment and its tone that it’s the kind of thing that if it was weekly people might’ve watched two episodes and been like “yeah, you know I’m not sure it’s for me” whereas when you were able to watch the whole thing in my review I said something about scarfing down the episodes like they were Thin Mints, like they were girl scout cookies, where you just eat the whole thing.

There really is a delicious quality to certain shows and especially, you know, melodrama plots or things that are just very immersive, it’s thrilling to be able to watch them at once. I have mixed feeling about it because, you know, it does take away from the historical thing of people watching shows over long periods of time when everybody’s watching a show at a different point it’s actually hard to critically respond to it.

It’s been a tricky thing for me to figure out, you know, should I talk about the whole season of a show? Should I talk about three quarters of the way through? I got onto Breaking Bad really late in the game, so I actually watched the first three seasons of that show all in one week by myself, which was a wonderful week, it was really great to be able to watch the show that way. And, you know, it was odd because I felt like I was suddenly watching it in a very different way than many people that I knew had watched it, like they’d watched it over years debating the characters, and I was watching it very independently in this kind of giddy wave-state of just ignoring everybody and watching all day long.

It’s interesting to me that there are these new things like Netflix and Amazon, where whole seasons are being produced all at once. I mean, I think it depends on the show whether that’s going to be a good thing or a bad thing. It definitely frees the television creator from having to shift gears halfway through when they realise that the audience is reacting to something. That’s good probably in some cases and not in others. But, it does make me excited that there’s a show, Jill Soloway’s show, Transparent is going to be coming out in September. I really realised with this jolt that the entire season was coming out at once and so I was just looking forward to it in a very different way than realising the show was going to debut in late September because I sort of realised I’m just assigning a day to watch the whole thing.

LF: In Australia, we don’t get things when you get them and we have to wait a long time. So, often we, like when I watch Breaking Bad I can buy the whole lot in the shop and then I could go and get the next series so I could binge them, and that’s one of the reasons why Australians are actually the greatest pirates in the world because they can’t get what they want, when they want, and they can’t get their fix. And so, that’s something that’s playing out in the media right now.

I wonder whether this changes the kind of fan bases for television? You know, when I went to see the movie of Sex and The City I was a big fan of the show, mainly for the frocks actually and the first part, and I love New York, so I couldn’t get over the hundreds of women all drinking Cosmopolitans and, you know, there’d be a single shot of a shoe stepping out of the car – you know, the Manolo Blahnik shot – and the whole audience would go [gasps] like this, and you know that thing of you watch it then you kind of go into work and then you might or to school or wherever and you might talk to someone about it you know, you might go to your old book club and you might all be talking about it. So, do you think the kind of nature of fandom has changed because of this technology and online and in different ways?

EN: In some ways yes and in some ways no. I mean, one of the nice things that I think about online conversation is that they happen both immediately and over time so I if you’re in a discussion thread about a show you can write something and then somebody can come back a week later and write a response to you and you end up having ongoing conversations so its not a live audience all watching it at once, but the conversation itself still can be very, you know, immersive, I mean, people have been talking about this with the Netflix shows because the question becomes: “When can I start talking about it and spoiling things, like has everyone caught up?”

On the other hand, there are still some shows in the states that people do still watch live together, one of them is Scandal, which everybody tweets about simultaneously and I have really mixed feelings about live tweeting television shows, I mean TV is not only a dialogue experience, it’s a visual experience, and there’s part of me that feels like it’s disrespectful to be constantly looking down at your phone or tweeting and talking to people during the thing.

On the other hand, a show like Scandal really just begs for that response. It’s a very high octane crazy melodrama and a lot of the fun is responding simultaneously with people as it goes on so, you know, it’s a developing etiquette as far as these things go but my main thing is I just think there are so many ways of being an audience for TV solo or joined together or watching live and in a group together that there’s a level where I don’t think that the intense fanhood has gone away.

I can’t judge exactly how the viewing operates in Australia because I understand from what people are saying that there’s a lot of online pirating but I assume that people still watch it together sometimes for shows like Game of Thrones that have big fanhoods. I’m excited though that there’s more of an opportunity for shows that have small audiences because I think some of the most interesting and striking things happen on shows that will never be like huge fan-engaged, crazy sensations that are the must talk about things. A show like Enlightened, which was a small show and got cancelled after two seasons, but was, to me, one of the best things that’s been on TV in a long time.

The great thing to me is that people can still come to it years later. The Wire also had a relatively small audience until a few seasons in and I’m just grateful that people can become enthusiasts years after the show was actually on the air by watching it on DVD, and then it just becomes part of the cultural knowledge of television.

What I worry about actually is great shows being lost just because they’re not available to people, and honestly, one of them is Sex and The City because the horrible truncated re-runs are shown at least here, there’s these ones that were shown on mainstream TV and so they cut out almost all of the graphic sex and language and it just changes the show into a much blander romantic comedy and I feel like most people don’t have access to the original episodes.

And I have this very frustrated feeling like the younger generation is not growing up with the full knowledge of Sex and the City, the kind of thing that only I am upset about, but I am upset enough for everybody else about this. I feel that there should be public funding for the entire episodes of Sex and the City to be shown so that everybody can discuss them with me 20 years later.

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