I’m here because of the critics. The only reason I am even aware of the Cannonball Read is because I am a devotee of Pajiba’s cultural criticism. Roxana Hadadi, Kristy Puchko, and Kayleigh Donaldson have guided me to so many good films and books (at least two future Cannonball contributions) that they’ve become my Holy Trinity of artistic revelation. So, it’s probably appropriate that one of my first contributions to Cannonball is I Like to Watch: Arguing my Way Through the Television Revolution by Pulitzer Prize winning New Yorker contributor Emily Nussbaum.
Never in my life will I have the opportunity to make as boss a move as Nussbaum did when she abandoned a doctoral program at NYU (“foggily planning on becoming a professor, maybe a Victorianist”) after falling in love with Joss Whedon’s Buffy the Vampire Slayer. When she broke from the elitist track, television (considered a vile, hollow contraption by the dusty tome set) had yet to mature into the fount of unrelenting (even oppressive) creativity we recognize now. But within a few years of Nussbaum’s exodus, shows like The Sopranos, Sex and the City, and The Shield would completely change the types of stories it dared to tell.
Getting in at the ground floor of an artistic revolution is nice, and through selected reviews I Like to Watch tracks many of the most significant shows of the past two decades. The Sopranos, Lost, The Americans – all game-changers in their own way – are all spotlighted in the book, but some surprising and no less nourishing entries include Vanderpump Rules, The Middle, and the absolutely fascinating tale of The Comeback. Some of my favorites included a show I loathed (Sex and the City) which Nussbaum managed to make me reconsider, and the show I consider the G.O.A.T (The Leftovers).
Modern criticism is a weird beast. In this day of Metacritics and Tomatoes au Rotten (the bastard children of Siskel and Ebert’s reductive thumbs), I don’t know how the general public views the role of The Critic these days. Even as Nussbaum presided over this golden era of television, an abomination known as The Discourse was gestating in the dark corners of the Internet. Now even the best critics – the thoughtful, eloquent, unique ones – have to share bandwidth with a faceless, angry mass looking not for an open exchange of ideas, but a validation of their specific (usually white and male) sensibilities. That I found salvation in the critics I’ve mentioned above (via the hellmouth we call Twitter, no less) is miraculous considering the tide of insecure assholes drowning out voices that threaten their sense of self-importance.
That’s a long way of saying if you need validation for your particular tastes, I Like to Watch is not for you. In fact, you should probably avoid criticism altogether. It will have ramifications on your health, and it will diminish those of us trying to elevate the conversation beyond a binary that reduces critics of incredible insight and experience to fruit in various stages of decomposition. If anything is rotten, it’s our ability to appreciate good criticism on its own merit.
Since modern criticism can feel like screaming into the abyss, I Like to Watch also includes essays looking at culture more broadly, and it’s in these passages that the book feels most vital. The value of reviews for an individual person is always going to vary based on exposure. I had no idea what High Maintenance was when I read Nussbaum’s review of it, and no matter how well-written, my lack of familiarity with the show is going to limit what I get from that chapter. However, when Nussbaum ruminates on her love for the output of individuals who turned out to be reprehensible human beings, it makes a universal impact. Heroes fail us. Some can cause us great pain. How do we reconcile that with the art they have contributed, art that retains the same power despite its creator’s transgressions? I may not ever revisit many of the reviews in this book, but I will frequently return to Confessions of a Human Shield, where Nussbaum addresses Louis CK, Bill Cosby, and a former hero, Woody Allen.
If there is a place the book lost me, it’s when it goes deep into specific individuals in the modern TV landscape. Ryan Murphy, the most prolific creator working in television, understandably gets a robust profile, as does blackish creator Kenya Barris. While the profiles themselves are fine, I will never find people as interesting as the art they make. Instead of understanding Murphy’s manic creative output, I’d be more interested to hear Nussbaum’s opinion on why American Horror Story’s quality falls off a cliff sometime in every single season.
That’s always going to be an inherent weakness in a collection like this. Nobody can see everything, or know everybody, so the mileage you get will fluctuate based on personal experience. Still, if you love TV, and are evolved enough to handle somebody who may disagree with you, I Like to Watch provides a wonderful revisit to some of the most significant art the “Idiot Box” has ever produced.