Written by Books

I Like to Watch by Emily Nussbaum

Emily Nussbaum is The New Yorker‘s TV critic, and this is a collection of her writing about TV from that magazine and others that she had worked for previously. There are often short introductions to these pieces, and a couple of brand new pieces – one of which takes up a significant proportion of the book.

Nussbaum is a TV fan. She explains how television became so important to her and how early on, she had taken the same, slightly supercilious view of the populist medium that many in the arts always had.

That began to change with shows like The Sopranos and Buffy the Vampire Slayer, shows that each of which in its own way were trying to do something new with the medium.

At this point, it’s worth noting that the book comes from very much an American tradition of television. Some British shows get references throughout these pieces, but this is very much television history from the perspective of the emergence of prestige cable TV shows at the end of the last century and the changes we’ve seen since then. I’d certainly argue that British TV, without the ability to make 22 episodes in a “season” had been doing different kinds of things for much longer. Producers might not have talked about story arcs, but they were writing them nevertheless.

Nussbaum devotes chapters to both things she likes and things she wasn’t such a fan of. It’s rare that we get a piece that she truly doesn’t like at all. She isn’t a fan of The Marvellous Mrs Maisel which seems to mirror the life of Joan Rivers, although shifting the setting a decade or so earlier. Nussbaum suggests Nora Ephron’s film This is My Life as a better depiction of a divorced Jewish comedian seeking fame. She also really doesn’t like the first season of True Detective, and it’s grotesque serial killer who does appalling things to women (on the other hand, she loves Hannibal, which goes arguably further but has a different tone).

Like many, she loves The Sopranos – a series I confess I never saw through to the bitter end – and Jane the Virgin. She writes compellingly about High Maintenance and Girls, both shows I had problems with. But it’s not all high brow, she talks a lot about Law & Order: SVU while acknowledging some problematic episodes. And she also writes about Vanderpump Rules part of a whole genre of reality/scripted-reality that I’ve never really understood (or frankly, wanted to understand).

I came away definitely wanting to revisit some shows, or watch them for the first time. The Sopranos is the obvious series deserving of a re-watch, and I know that I need to spend time with Mad Men. And I mostly skipped the chapter on The Americans because it’s a series that I love, but am way behind on, so didn’t want spoilers.

There are great profiles of Kenya Barris, creator of black-ish and Ryan Murphy, creator of, well, everything (Glee, American Horror Story, Feud, Pose, The People vs OJ, The Assassination of Gianni Versace etc.). Intereastingly, the Ryan Murphy chapter, first published in May 2018, mentioned in passing the second thoughts Murphy was having on doing a season of American Crime Story based on the Monica Lewinsky story. But he’d seen Lewinsky speaking and had been unsure whether to proceed. In the last week, FX has announced that they will be proceeding, the new season airing in September 2020, with Lewinsky herself as one of the producers.

These profiles are chunky pieces – perhaps slightly too chunky – following the usual New Yorker approach of grabbing you with something current, then going back to earlier in their career, moving forward again, and then, just when you think the piece is wrapping up, suddenly going back to their childhood – and you realise that there are another 5,000 words still to come!

OK – that’s probably slightly unfair, and in truth, when it’s Ryan Murphy, it turns out that just about everything he’s ever done is of some kind of interest.

The biggest section of the book though, is a new piece about the impact of #MeToo. It takes in a lot, and is an exceptionally strong part of the book. We move from Woody Allen (Nussbaum had been a fan) through Andrea Dworkin, and Roman Polanski (Nussbaum had seen early galleys of Polanksi’s autobiography when working at a publisher as a seventeen year old).

The chapter, which runs to fifty pages, gets into the casual misogyny and sexism that was prevalent in the works of writers widely admired at the time – and largely still admired.

But perhaps mostly she concentrates of Louis CK – sometimes detailing sketches or pieces that in the cold light of what we’d later learn, unpublished rumours having previously floated around, now seem awful. He had become a darling of TV – with his groundbreaking series like Louie, Horrace & Pete and Better Things (which subsequently continued without his participation). The chapter ends with Nussbaum considering reports and audio that had surfaced of Louis CK trying to get back on the comedy circuit. The fact that he seems to have learnt nothing and taken a somewhat attacking persona does him no favours.

For the most part, the book considers series that have aired in the last fifteen years or so – although there is a chapter on Norman Lear who’d begun his career decades earlier, and even now in his nineties, still has involvement in the recent reboot of One Day at a Time (itself having recently survived Netflix cancellation).

I think the only thing I’d have perhaps liked that was missing were some postscripts on some of these series from the perspective of 2019. While more recent pieces really wouldn’t have needed this, sometimes it would have been useful.

One thing that is clear from I Like to Watch is that Nussbaum is a diligent viewer, and by that I mean that at the point that she critiques a series, she has probably watched all of it.

I mention this because as the format of television has changed, with ongoing storylines (the aforementioned “arcs”) becoming the norm, and on-demand SVOD services like Netflix having full series availability, reviewing a series is becoming harder if it’s not a brand new series.

Let me give you an example. In a recent episode of the Pilot TV podcast (one of my favourite TV podcasts), they reviewed the new season three of Netflix series GLOW. None of the reviewers had really been watching the series the whole way through, and yet this was essentially chapter three of a story. Even with the attendant press and publicity of a new series, would any fresh viewer really start from season three?

Once upon a time, that might have been your only choice. You’d not watched Inspector Morse before, so you started with the most recent series. Certainly, you’d be missing nuances in relationships between the major characters, but shows were designed to be watched independently of other episodes. Storylines might gently unfold over time, but it wasn’t imperative.

If you did want to catch up, your options were buying the series on DVD (or VHS!), or waiting for a digital channel like ITV3 in Morse’s case, to repeat the series.

I’ve recently gotten around to finally watching Peaky Blinders (before my last Sky box died, I had all four previous series sitting recorded, yet unwatched, just waiting for that time when I’d get around to them). A fifth series is due to start on the BBC soon – moving across from BBC Two to BBC One. I’m not going to start watching the series at that point – not when the series is fully available on both iPlayer (temporarily) and Netflix (semi-permanently). I’ve dutifully started at the beginning and am currently halfway through series three of Tommy Shelby’s criminal rise to power.

I’m not really bemoaning the presenters of a weekly TV podcast not watching every episode of every series/season that has gone before it. For the most part reviewers get around this by only ever reviewing new things. But on the other hand, I would never expect a new viewer to start part-way through a story. You wouldn’t start Game of Thrones with the eighth and final season. And you wouldn’t make The Avengers: Endgame the only Marvel Universe film you’d watched.

Indeed you might argue that making things easy enough to “jump on” at a later date suggests that your storytelling isn’t quite as sophisticated as it might be. Now many series do make jumping on a possibility – the art of the “previously on…” sequence has improved immeasurably (Interestingly, the Netflix versions of Peaky Blinders cut those pieces out). But to me, it still feels like jumping into book two of a trilogy, not having read book one.

Yes – you can read Wikipedia summaries and catch up that way. But why would I want to do that? This is entertainment, so why would I foreshorten it?

There are probably exceptions. Those series that started off as story-of-the-week series, but which became something very different. Maybe a viewer could jump season one and get straight into the smarter stuff? Good examples of that might include Fringe from J. J. Abrams, Alex Kurtzman, and Roberto Orci, or Person of Interest from Jonathan Nolan. But even in both those cases, I’d still want to begin at the beginning even if they changed tempo quite a bit during their respective runs.

None of this should make you feel like an errant schoolchild who’s trying to cram all their homework in on Sunday evening.

The volume of good stuff out there means that nobody can watch everything. And Emily Nussbaum has given me plenty to be getting on with when I get a moment, beyond all the watching and re-watching I already had vague plans to do.