I Like to Watch: Arguing My Way Through the TV Revolution

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Release Date: 
June 25, 2019
Random House
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Emily Nussbaum is insightful and engaging in this collection of essays, mostly from the New Yorker, for which she is the longtime television critic. Clearly, readers are in the hands of an expert with a deep understanding and appreciation of what she considers an American art form.

I Like to Watch: Arguing My Way Through the TV Revolution seems designed for those of us who know we should be reading the venerable magazine regularly. Also for others, who depend on The New Yorker Radio Hour, its weekly podcast, but don’t listen enough; or those who find individual articles from the magazine with the help of a heads-ups from aggregators like Longreads and Politico’s “Great Weekend Reads.”

Although she deals with commercial network television, Nussbaum’s intended audience appears to be the growing cohort of viewers that has migrated to cable and, increasingly, streaming services like Netflix and Amazon Prime.

From its earliest days, Nussbaum writes, television has been about politics and frequently about "the one-step-forward-two-steps-back struggle for sexual and racial inclusivity."

Prime time television hasn't always been on the progressive side of this struggle. In the 1960s, the evening network news shows were full of scenes of snarling, brutal, grammar-challenged Southern sheriffs beating up civil rights activists.

Then, later in the evening, viewers got The Andy Griffith Show featuring the polar opposite: a sweet, wise, avuncular single dad as sheriff of a small, North Carolina town with no black people. Ironically, this palliative show was created and produced by a Northern, Jewish, former character actor named Sheldon Leonard, who must have known better.

Nussbaum argues, counter-intuitively but persuasively, that the 1970s hit All in the Family tried to have it both ways with bigotry. It actually had the unintended consequence of legitimizing and even enabling racism and reaction, the opposite result of that envisioned by Norman Lear, its outspokenly liberal creator.

In this, Nussbaum is at odds with another new book, L. Benjamin Rolsky’s forthcoming The Rise and Fall of the Religious Left: Politics, Television, and Popular Culture in the 1970s and Beyond. In a recent interview with Religion News Service, Rolsky maintains that “You watch a bigot . . . so you’re not as bigoted yourself. It’s an educational, didactic vision of using satire to help people realize that they can maybe change their behavior for the better.”

In her profile of Kenya Barris, creator of ABC’s critically acclaimed sitcom Black-ish, Nussbaum went to the Barris home in Encino, CA, to screen the controversial episode “Hope” with the writer’s family. The episode, the series’ first overt foray into politics, deals with the serious topic of police violence and showed the fictional family discussing the acquittal of a police officer for repeatedly tasering an unarmed black man.

Like the family on the screen, Barris’ younger children were upset by the story. In the episode, Barris, who had his own experiences with police, featured and quoted Ta-Nehisi Coates’ book-length letter to his son, Between the World and Me, dealing with the same subject.

In another Black-ish episode, which includes a parody of the 1970s Lear sitcom Good Times, Nussbaum notes that Barris “found dark laughs in the dialectic of striver psychology,” especially relevant to the upwardly mobile of all races.

The chapter “Confessions of the Human Shield” on the #MeToo movement and its impact on popular culture, grapples with the vexing question many have: “What should we do with the art of terrible men?” With searching self-examination, Nussbaum writes about Woody Allen, Bill Cosby, Roman Polanski, and Louis C.K. She makes the telling point that it is much easier to dismiss, if not delete, art and craft to which she feels no connection.

Later in the same essay, Nussbaum reminds the reader that the New Yorker is largely written by and for A students. Her discussion of the Tasmanian stand-up Hannah Gadsby becomes a bewildering maze of brutally frank introspection in which Nussbaum discusses her deepest professional fear of becoming a nag and a scold.

Nussbaum devotes no space to news, cable or network, reality TV, or to tabloid true crime shows. She does consider another trend on the rise, docu-series and docu-dramas on cable and streaming services. An example is Ryan Murphy's American Crime Story: The People v. O.J. Simpson on FX.

Another, The Jinx: The Life and Deaths of Robert Durst, a six-part, 2015 HBO series by Andrew Jarecki and Marc Smerling, that drew large audiences, examined the eerie case of the heir to a New York real estate empire. A number of people close to him have died violently or disappeared, although he has thus far escaped justice.

Nussbaum finds the series “wickedly entertaining, funny, morbid and sad, at once exploitative and high-minded, a moral lasagna of questionable aesthetic choices.” Since the essay was published, questions have been raised about some of the methods used by the producers to edit Durst’s interviews, especially one in which he appears to confess his guilt.

The greater significance of this series and others, Nussbaum writes, is that they act “as an extension of the legal process and as a type of investigative journalism . . . In the past several decades, true-crime documentaries have emerged as a kind of secondary appeals system.”

Less compelling is Nussbaum’s chapter on the gory, NBC crime drama Hannibal, which she finds “gloriously strange and profound in the realm of opera and poetry,” but is almost as unreadable as the show is unwatchable. Some readers will skip or skim without consequence essays about shows in which they have no interest.

Yet even when writing about shows which viewers may never have watched or liked, Nussbaum is thought-provoking. And she is especially acute in identifying the failings of hit series like House of Cards and The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel.

Take the critically acclaimed True Detective, which she pans. For all its witty dialogue and noir atmospherics, she sees the show as a standard-issue macho wet dream. Much of the nudity is gratuitous, although in an apparent reference to the collection’s title, she notes, “Don’t get me wrong. I love a nice bouncy rack.”