Emily Nussbaum is the Pulitzer Prize-winning TV critic for The New Yorker. Her new book is titled, I Like to Watch: Arguing My Way Through the TV Revolution. She’ll be discussing her book live at the Toronto Reference Library on Oct. 16.
In the first essay in your book, you talk about how you were on an academic path, but you decided to stop, in part, because of Buffy the Vampire Slayer.
I was a graduate student at New York University. I got my master’s in poetry. I was in the doctoral program, moving toward my dissertation in Victorian literature. And then I watched this episode of Buffy the Vampire Slayer in 1997 and it kind of neurologically changed me. I didn’t actually become a critic right away, but I was really fascinated by the show. I became a superfan. That got me very interested in the critical conversation about TV, the condescension that people had toward it as a medium and how much it was changing. I ended up leaving graduate school and getting into journalism.
I definitely wasn’t thinking of becoming a TV critic. I also had somewhat of a resistance to writing arts criticism in general. I had done some of it – I had written some reviews of poetry and ended up feeling like I needed to stop. It made me too emotionally uncomfortable. Poetry was a medium that people held in a high, elevated state – many people respected it, but very few people read it. One person created it for a small amount of money, and a review, even a mixed review, felt like an act of cruelty.
Then I discovered television, which is the opposite of poetry: TV is a collaborative medium made for a mass audience that people looked down on. Criticizing a TV show was actually a way of praising TV; it was a way of saying TV could be great.
As the pop culture critic here at The CJN, I find that when I write about a show I’m a fan of – like Man Seeking Woman, Crazy Ex-Girlfriend or Broad City, these great Jewish shows – I find it difficult to write an interesting article that’s not just, “You should watch this show.” I’m curious how you transitioned from fan to critic.
Yeah, I understand what you’re saying and I’m sympathetic. I actually enjoy writing about things that I love, but I do feel like any review has to be more than cheerleading, otherwise it’s not interesting.
Let’s talk about Jewish shows – it’s interesting that you focus on shows with a strong Jewish component to them. I’m glad you mentioned Man Seeking Woman; people don’t talk about that show a whole lot.
It was a strong original comedy with a very particular tone to it. It was also just fun to talk about – those are the shows that I love. I feel like that can be a different thing than simply writing something that is celebratory.
But there are definitely times I’m writing a column that I feel has a mild evangelical aspect to it, because sometimes there are small, beautiful shows that not enough people have seen, and I want people to see them. The truth is, a lot of the shows I like have incredibly low ratings. You mentioned Crazy Ex-Girlfriend – that was one of the most interesting shows of the last few years.
I was reading your review from a few years ago of Broad City, in which you compare it to Girls, saying these women are “secular Jews in a way that network sitcoms never allowed characters to be in the ’90s.” What do you think has changed?
There’s this idea baked into network television, the tradition of “write Yiddish, cast British.” It’s just explicitly true of this set of sitcoms in the ’90s. In Seinfeld, Elaine Benes was a character I remember being very excited about, because I was like, “Oh, you’re very recognizably a Jewish woman in New York!” She has all this curly hair, she’s in publishing. But then the show established her as a shiksa, and I was like, “This is very confusing.”
I’ve also had big arguments online about whether Rachel Green (from Friends) is canonically Jewish – I literally started collecting data like a maniacal Jew-or-not-a-Jew person. Finally, I found a shot of her wearing a Star of David necklace.
I’m trying to think who out there is making stuff that is specifically Jewish in subject matter today. Well, I’m about to review Our Boys – that is specifically Jewish.
Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu recently denounced that show. He called it anti-Semitic.
Yes, I’m aware. That is bananas – it’s a great show. But I understand why that is happening. It’s baked into the situation, but that’s a whole other subject.
Yeah, and Israeli television is also kind of having a moment, with shows like Fauda and Shtisel. Are you watching Shtisel?
I am not. Although, I did an event recently in which people asked me maybe seven or eight questions and three of them were about Shtisel. I don’t know what the ratings are for the show. I was actually just talking with another interviewer about this. He was like, “Well, you know Americans are really into Israeli TV.” And I was like, “Are they?” It seems to me there’s a real wonderful expansion of people being able to watch global TV, but I’m not sure if it’s a phenomenon beyond the Jewish-American and Jewish-Canadian TV-watching population.
This interview has been edited and condensed for style and clarity. For the full interview, listen to The CJN’s podcast, The Canadian Jewish Shmooze, at cjnews.com/podcasts. The episode is called “The Marvelous Mrs. Nussbaum.”