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We All Watch In Our Own Way: A Critic Tracks The 'TV Revolution'

When TV critic Emily Nussbaum was growing up in the '70s, she says television wasn't something to be analyzed, criticized and picked apart.

"Even people who loved to watch TV would put it down," she recalls. "It was considered, at best, a kind of delicious-but-bad-for-you treat, and, at worst, more like chain-smoking, like something you did by yourself that messed up your brain."




This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross. My guest, Emily Nussbaum, is the TV critic for The New Yorker. She's known for reviews in which she hashes out questions about how gender, race and sexuality figure into TV shows and our perceptions of them. She's also known for her sharp writing, her wit and her tweets.

She has a new collection of essays and reviews titled "I Like To Watch: Arguing My Way Through The TV Revolution." She writes that growing up in the '70s, she loved TV, but also regarded it in the way that Americans had been taught to since the 1950s - television was junk.

The show that changed her mind, the show that made her want to write about TV, was a show that wasn't considered prestige TV - "Buffy The Vampire Slayer." Nussbaum had been working toward her doctorate in literature, expecting to have an academic career, but television won. Her contribution to TV criticism was acknowledged with a Pulitzer Prize for Criticism in 2016.

Emily Nussbaum, welcome to FRESH AIR.

EMILY NUSSBAUM: Thank you for having me.

GROSS: So you've written one of the most interesting essays I've read that is about, quote, "what should we do with the art of terrible men?" And it's become an inescapable question in this era when we're learning about so many men who've behaved inappropriately, including sexual assault. So what is the question you're asking yourself when we say, what should we do with the art of terrible men?

NUSSBAUM: Well, first of all, I'd like to say that I wrote this piece because when I was working on the book, it was the fall of 2017. And one of the first things that happened as I prepared to write new essays was that the Harvey Weinstein piece came out. And the doors opened, and there - the modern #MeToo movement began.

And this piece is my attempt to wrestle what was going on because it was really the only thing in my head. And I don't think I'm alone in this. But a friend of mine called it the audit, which is essentially people thinking back on their whole life and their relationship with these issues. And for me as an arts critic, part of this was about me wrestling with the nature of my relationship with a lot of these guys.

And so this piece is partially a memoir, and it's partially an analysis that is me struggling with the question of separating the artist from the art, which is obviously a huge issue for an arts critic. But it's also with me just wrestling with these issues personally, like how I was shaped by this art, what my values are - all of those kinds of things.

GROSS: So you make the point, like, decent people sometimes create bad art, and amoral people can and have created transcendent works. Was there a period where you just thought the answer was simple - judge the work, not the person?

NUSSBAUM: Yes. I think that in a lot of ways - and I've been thinking a lot about this because I think when I was in college, I specifically had a strong sense of resentment at the idea of any kind of censorship. This was in the '80s. It was during the rise of the feminist anti-pornography movement. And I felt this incredible resentment. This is a specific political context that is hard to recall and kind of even to bring back. But I think that the feeling that I had about it was, you can't tell me what I can look at. You can't tell me what I can say.

And I had this general sense that I really wanted to expose myself to the broadest range of art - anything - even if it would shake me up or upset me or traumatize me. So in a certain way, like, I feel like that shaped my attitudes as a modern person. And part of that was the feeling of wanting to be able to explore the art of people who wrote about, certainly, like, shameful or upsetting things.

But part of the reason I wrote this was because I began to question the notion that I had that the job of the arts critic was actually to compartmentalize and to essentially take the biography a little bit outside of the art. I don't think that's really possible. I don't come up with a lot of solutions here, but I essentially try to walk through my thinking and explore the contradictions, sometimes in some fairly emotional ways that are - remain confusing for me.

GROSS: Who are some of the artists with whom you had the closest relationship as a viewer who you were most disturbed about when you found out about their behavior - behavior that forced you to think - to reconsider what you thought about their work?

NUSSBAUM: Well, the piece starts with my relationship with Woody Allen. And I have to say I've read a variety of essays - often by arts critics - about this subject, and each of them has a kind of primal person who is the one who troubles them. And I have a few in this essay.

But the thing is, straightforwardly, I describe myself as being, you know, a creature of Woody Allen. Like, when I was a kid and a teenager, he was one of my favorite artists. I saw all his movies. I read his books. I listened to his comedy albums. I probably mimicked him. I mean, a lot of my ideas about the world were shaped through his work. So there's a level where I think I call him my - the base coat for my sensibility.

And I think that a lot of us have this artists who are so formative that to reject their work and who they are would be, basically, dishonest. You can't pretend that you aren't who you are, that you haven't read and seen what you've read and that your ideas aren't what they are.

And so I talk about Woody Allen. I also talk about a variety of people. I talk about Roman Polanski. I talk about Bill Cosby. I talk about Louis C.K. quite a bit. I talk about Philip Roth, John Updike. I mean, I sort of take it through my upbringing, and I also talk about people who I'm not so personally connected with.

And one of the things I discuss in the piece is, it's a lot easier to come to conclusions about people who don't raise enormous emotional kind of conflicts in you. And for me, Bill Cosby is one of those people because I basically do a whole discussion of the meaning of "The Cosby Show." But I was not a fan of Bill Cosby. I was a fan of Woody Allen, and I talk about the - my - the change in my mindset about him during the various revelations about him in different periods in my own history.

GROSS: So just the two people who you've referred to - Woody Allen and Roman Polanski - where are you in their work now? Do you still love "Rosemary's Baby"? And can you still watch Woody Allen movies?

NUSSBAUM: I do love "Rosemary's Baby." "Rosemary's Baby" is a very relevant movie. "Rosemary's Baby" is a brilliant dark comedy and horror film about gaslighting and about rape culture. I mean, that's true despite Roman Polanski's behavior. And there's stuff that I tried to think about in this particular essay. I think I said something like, it's a feminist masterpiece created by a sex criminal. You don't have to solve that contradiction to engage with it.

And that's what I think people kind of have to do. I mean, that's the one part of it that is somewhat prescriptive, at least for me - is I'm like, I have to find a way to wrestle with this art that doesn't involve just shutting off my knowledge of the person who created it. That's one of the works that I have a relatively uncomplicated feeling about. I realize other people may feel differently about it.

Woody Allen is different for me. One of the things that I attempted to do is to think a little bit about his movies in the piece because part of the project of that was to think, well, what would it mean to be a critic who actually did not have a disconnected separate-the-artist-from-the-art attitude?

I have trouble watching Woody Allen movies. I think it's because I have such an emotional relationship with his history. That has nothing to do with some moral sense of people should or shouldn't. I mean, some things are just gut responses. His work makes me uncomfortable, but I did - I re-watched "Husbands And Wives" while I was working on the book. And I think that's a very powerful movie. The thing is, it came out at the point that the Soon-Yi Previn situation was going on in the press. And so, actually, it's ironic because that movie really was washed over by the news at the time. People received the movie as nothing but a confession of bad personal behavior. And maybe part of that is true, but I do think it's a good movie.

I don't know. I have - I clearly have a lot of difficulty not simply being blunt when I'm like, no, this is good anyway. But it doesn't mean that I'm advising other people that they should watch it because I do think, I will say, that there's an economic argument for rejecting work by people who have gotten away with crimes. And that's simply different than the critical argument about it, which is the one that I'm thinking about here.

GROSS: So I want to ask you about Louis C.K. You write about him, and, you know, you've been reviewing his TV shows. Let's start with - what did you think about his work before the allegations of sexual misconduct?

NUSSBAUM: Well, it's funny because my first review of his show - actually, it almost loops back to my later feelings. My first review of his show was a mixed review that basically suggested that although the show was formerly great and experimental, there was something wrong with the main character because it was this slightly manipulative sad sack. And I think I called him like a resentful Charlie Brown. And I had some problems with that.

But I changed my mind. I actually wrote a profile of him at one point, and I also wrote a rave review of the third season of the show, where I still have very strong feelings about how great some of those episodes are. I'm sorry. I'm trying to answer what you're saying. So how did that change over time? That's how I felt - that's how I felt earlier is that I felt that - I felt that the show altered TV because he was doing it by himself, which was not the way that comedies are generally made. He was using independent film models. He was doing a certain kind of mixture of comedy and drama that was new and a certain kind of confessional stuff that was new. And this is still true. That show was extremely influential.

And one of the interesting things to me is that a lot of the women who have later criticized Louis and a lot of the men involved in the #MeToo movement made shows that use the tools that Louis created in order to put the lens on something very different. So I'm talking about, like, Lena Dunham and "Girls." I'm talking about Tig Notaro and "One Mississippi." There were a variety of female creators who basically used this sort of quasi-confessional model that he helped to spearhead, but that doesn't mean he owns it. (Laughter) It just means it ended up ironically being a useful tool to condemn him, which I find kind of a powerful thing about art in general.

GROSS: So where are you now? You wrote this essay in 2017. And have your thoughts changed at all since then about separating the artist from the art?

NUSSBAUM: They have, but one of the things that I think that anybody who reads this will see is that it's not that my ideas have changed. I mean, my ideas have changed, but my ideas about art itself and the specific way of writing about artists are in flux. And some of them are contradictory because one of the things that I do believe is that although it's tempting to try to erase and push off the work of people who have all sorts of shady or sketchy kinds of personas in real life, either because they've committed crimes or they're just creepy for some reason, that doesn't work for me. Like, I actually have a real desire to wrestle with people's art regardless of who they are in real life.

But the only part that I do come down on is that I think it's valuable to actually think about art in the context of the culture. And that includes the art of people like Bill Cosby. One of the things that I tried to do here is to take "The Cosby Show" and say I understand the economic arguments for acting like it doesn't exist. If you act like "The Cosby Show" doesn't exist, TV makes less sense. If you write about television, you have to wrestle with the nature of that show.

And the show is interesting. I mean, the show's not interesting because it's popular. The show is interesting because it had a big effect as a mirror reflecting people. And it carried on the model of "Father Knows Best" and sort of shows about fathers on TV and expanded it to black people. It's the precursor to amazing shows like "Atlanta" and "Black-ish." And if you just pluck it out and act like it's not there, it's - I think you lose something major.

I also think it's an interesting show because Bill Cosby, at the time that he made that, used the show to access his victims, but he was also a prominent male feminist. That show is a lot about gender. It's about respecting women. And I think it's worthwhile to actually let that contradiction be part of what people say about the show, like, and to not just put blinkers on, but to actually interrogate it. It's meaningful.

And that's just one example. But part of this is me trying to find a way. Like, how do you write about this stuff in a way that is engaged, intelligent, searching, curious and not simply diagnosing it for problematic qualities but actually engaging in the meaning of it within the larger culture? That's the goal. That's not something, you know, everybody always achieves.

GROSS: Well, let's take another break here. If you're just joining us, my guest is Emily Nussbaum. She's The New Yorker's TV critic. And now she's the author of the new book "I Like To Watch: Arguing My Way Through The TV Revolution." It's a collection of essays about television. We'll be right back after we take a short break. This is FRESH AIR.


GROSS: This is FRESH AIR. And if you're just joining us, my guest is Emily Nussbaum. She's the TV critic for The New Yorker. She won a Pulitzer Prize for criticism in 2016. Now she's the author of a collection of essays about television called "I Like To Watch: Arguing My Way Through The TV Revolution."

You know, I really like art that gets to the darkest parts of human nature...


GROSS: ...The kinds of things that no one will admit to or talk about but that are there. At the same time, I'm not comfortable with the people who act out the darkest parts of human nature. And I think - you know, I'm trying to understand that attraction to art that shows that darkness. But - you know, but rejection - my rejection of the people who actually act it out - I mean, obviously we should reject that behavior for reasons. I mean, the reasons to reject that behavior is really obvious. But anyways, it's - this is not a carefully formulated thought yet, but is there anything you want to say about that?

NUSSBAUM: Well, I - first of all, I sympathize with this feeling of, I am attracted to a lot of art that expresses taboo and shameful things. Honestly - and again, leaving aside people's behavior because sometimes, people create art that addresses those things who are not at all messed up or criminal people. It's the nature of art to be able to talk about things that people are afraid to talk about. It's valuable. It makes people feel less ashamed. I mean, it's part of the - it shakes people up, and that's part of what art is supposed to do.

But, yeah, I don't have a solution for this. And I also think it's pretty complicated because it's different with different artists. Artists who create confessional work that, in the aftermath of some revelation, start to seem like them showing off and just saying, I did this in front of people, is going to make people more uncomfortable than someone like Miles Davis, who created art that is not directly autobiographical but was, while he was making it, an incredibly violent and abusive person to his wife, something he, you know, bragged about in a memoir.

I mean, I personally, like - feel like one of the weird things about this period is you end up holding people more responsible for narrative stuff that seems directly relatable to their lives, whereas people who committed horrible crimes but just beautiful music that seems abstract, it's sort of easier to act like there's a separate thing with them. I don't know. I don't have a solution to it.

But on the other hand, I don't think that the idea is that people should only make clean, illuminating, aspirational art. The whole point of a good artist is to be able to wrestle with mucky things...

GROSS: Yeah.

NUSSBAUM: ...Like, messy things not mucky things.

GROSS: I want to get to something light after the heavier part of our conversation. One of the things you write about is the, quote, "bad fan." This is, like, a coinage of yours. What does bad fan mean?

NUSSBAUM: Basically, the definition of the bad fan is the kind of person who also - who watched "The Sopranos" and watched it solely for the whackings and was completely uninterested in anything about domesticity or morality. And this was a growing frustration for me as a critic because I had this sense that there was this group of alternate viewers of the show that showrunners could never object to but that critics could. And so I was basically saying, you're watching the show wrong.

But I have to say my ideas on this have changed over time somewhat. And I wrote an essay that was about Archie Bunker as the first creator of the bad fan. It was about "All In The Family," the show during the '70s, and the fact that he was a character who was in a lot of ways set up to trigger an audience to be split in half so that half of the audience was seeing the show as making fun of Archie Bunker and half of the audience was cheering on Archie Bunker.

I think this is actually baked into TV a little bit. And it was an irritation to me, but it's something that I've come to find to be a very fascinating part of television, which is a mass medium and has multiple types of viewers. And the way to make a show a success is to have multiple groups of people watch it in different ways.

GROSS: But don't you think the character was written for that kind of mixed response because he's a racist? He's sexist. But at the same time, he's supposed to be kind of lovable.

NUSSBAUM: Well, I think Norman Lear actually intended the character to be a lovable racist but somebody that viewers would understand was being mocked, made fun of. I don't think he actually necessarily deliberately wanted to create a set of people who saw Archie Bunker as their hero, but that's nonetheless what he did. I mean, I don't think the author's intent is necessarily going to play into this. But it's definitely the response people have, specifically to kind of charming, charismatic antiheroes. And charming, charismatic antiheroes have been the secret sauce of a lot of modern television, so this is a big dynamic on TV.

But, you know, Norman Lear is an enormous hero to me. But I do think that he's - there's a level at which he was never quite able to acknowledge this. There were studies that were done while "All In The Family" was on the air that showed that plenty of bigoted people just straightforwardly saw Archie as representing their POV. And there were debates about the show at the time. I mean, a lot of this is lost to history, but it's very fascinating. There was a big piece in The Times that was essentially attacking the show as making bigotry look lovable. And then Norman Lear wrote a piece in response to that saying, of course bigots are lovable. They're in people's families. That's what I'm trying to represent. So I think this debate goes on. But it definitely plays a role in the way that modern television has been perceived as well.

GROSS: My guest is Emily Nussbaum, TV critic for The New Yorker and author of a new collection of essays and reviews titled "I Like To Watch: Arguing My Way Through The TV Revolution." What's the argument about? We'll discuss after a break. I'm Terry Gross, and this is FRESH AIR.


GROSS: This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross. Let's get back to my interview with Emily Nussbaum, the TV critic for The New Yorker. She has a new collection of essays and reviews called "I Like To Watch: Arguing My Way Through The TV Revolution." She won a Pulitzer Prize for Criticism in 2016. She often writes about how gender, race and sexuality figure into TV shows.

So you panned "The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel," which is, in a lot of ways, a female empowerment story. It's a show about a woman in the late 1950s who becomes a comic, and this is at a time when there were very few women in comedy. You called it treacly. And I'm wondering what it was like for you to give a negative review to a show that wants to be seen as feminist. And you're a feminist, so I know you probably want to be supportive of feminist works and feminist creators, but you didn't like the show.

NUSSBAUM: Well, the most feminist thing is to actually be honest about your responses to art. And the blessing of modern television, especially in the last five years or so, has been the explosion of shows by female creators about female-centered topics in genres that are sometimes coded as female - soap operas and sitcoms and all sorts of much more colorful female ensemble shows.

And the real blessing for a critic is, if there are enough of those shows, you actually can criticize a show without knocking down the one representation on TV. And this goes for every marginalized group. Like, when you have multiple shows by black creators, none of those shows has to be the black show.

And "Mrs. Maisel" had very good timing. And believe me - I understand why people love the show. It came out after Trump was elected, and I think people were seeking it out as a kind of Holodeck affirmative counterprogramming to an apocalyptic reality. It had a kind of candied, delightful quality.

What can I say? It did not work for me. It's not my taste. So I mean, you know, shows have - I try to take shows at their intention. But for me, I did not find the show stirring and affirmative. I found the show really off-putting, and I tried to explain why in a way that was direct. Like, I tried to make it clear.

But I will say something. I waited until the second season 'cause I actually didn't like the first season. But at the time it came out, I did feel that there was something a little buzzkill-y about writing a negative piece right then. I was also busy. I had a bunch of other things that I was responding to. And I thought, I'll wait for the second season. Maybe it'll improve. Then I can write an interesting review about how much I hated the first season, but the second season was better.

And then I watched the first three episodes of the next season. I was like, no, now is the time. So I wrote a piece about it. But there's a level at which that piece is about all the things that are the most interesting to me, which, you know, include comedy, Joan Rivers, who I have another essay on - Joan Rivers and the thing. So it was actually a pleasure to write, in a lot of ways. I'm not somebody who loves writing negative reviews, but it was a satisfying, somewhat cathartic experience.

GROSS: The first chapter in your book is literally about arguing about television (laughter). And, like - because when you started watching television, growing up in the '70s, television was very different than it is now. And people's perceptions of what television is and its place in American culture was very different than it is now. So just tell us a little bit about what is this argument you're having with television.

NUSSBAUM: Well, part of it does have to do with that hangover from the history of TV. It's kind of hard to remember this now because TV has changed so much, but when I was growing up, I mean, you know, people called it the boob tube, the idiot box. And that was genuinely representative of how people thought of TV, which was not as art that had good stuff and bad stuff, but as a kind of junk.

And also, TV was different. I mean, there was good TV, but there was - TV seemed to be - I mean, it wasn't literally live, but it felt live. You couldn't stop it or rewind it. You couldn't save it easily.

Eventually, VCRs came out, and the whole thing changed. And a lot of the changes in TV can't really be separated from the changes in technology. But the main thing is that even once TV began to alter and expand and there were so many more types of TV, there was still this status anxiety hangover.

And when TV started getting better - I mean, not that there weren't good early shows in a different way - but when TV started increasing in certain kinds of ambition, the way of praising TV was always by saying it's more like a book; it's more like a movie.

And part of what I'm writing in this essay is basically making this argument that that's the wrong way to approach television; that we need to have the language to celebrate television as television and to be able to talk about a broader kind of ranges - a broader range of TV shows, including reality shows, sitcoms, soap operas; and to be able to engage with them critically without these anxious, constant comparisons to other art forms. And that's something that was really formative to me in writing about TV.

And you know, I don't think I'm the only critic who's an argumentative person. So this is about an ongoing argument that I'm having with the world and a little bit with myself.

GROSS: When I was growing up, and probably when you were growing up, a lot of parents were worried that their kids were watching too much TV and that TV was a kind of passive experience, and it wasn't good for children to watch too much. You mention in an aside in one of your essays that your child doesn't really watch TV. They sit in front of their screen all day and watch people on YouTube playing Minecraft (laughter).

NUSSBAUM: Well, they don't sit in front of it all day, I will say.

GROSS: Not all day - OK. But...

NUSSBAUM: But yeah - no, it's true.

GROSS: But they're not interested in television.

NUSSBAUM: Well, they are interested in television, but they're interested in it because I'm interested in it, and we have shared shows that we watch together. But I will say they don't watch it separately. They don't actually have a desire to watch various TV shows.

We have - we always have a show that we watch together. We went through "The Office," "30 Rock," "Parks And Rec." We're currently watching "Kim's Convenience," which is this great Canadian show. So a lot of - "The Good Place" - like, we watched a lot of warmhearted, often created by Mike Schur sitcoms, which were great and very satisfying. But our big show is "Jane The Virgin" that's ending this year. And it's been this wonderful group watching experience where we all love the show. We share an interest in it, and we talk about it all the time.

So in that sense, yeah, they watch TV just because they have the poor luck to have a mother who's a television critic.

GROSS: If you're just joining us, my guest is Emily Nussbaum. She's the author of the new book "I Like To Watch: Arguing My Way Through The TV Revolution," and it's a collection of essays about television. She's the TV critic for The New Yorker and won a Pulitzer Prize for Criticism in 2016. We'll be right back after we take a short break. This is FRESH AIR.


GROSS: This is FRESH AIR, and if you're just joining us, my guest is Emily Nussbaum, The New Yorker's TV critic. She won a Pulitzer Prize for Criticism in 2016. Now she has a new collection of essays about television called "I Like To Watch: Arguing My Way Through The TV Revolution."

You had been - when you were younger and you were in college and then grad school, you had been planning a life that revolved around books. You were working on your PhD in literature. I think your special - your area of studies was Victorian literature. So I'm sure now you do a lot more watching than you do reading. People think of reading as being more active, more stimulating for the brain, and TV as being more passive, more potentially mind-numbing. You believe any of that?

NUSSBAUM: You know, first of all, I wish I had more time to read. I do read. This is just a time management problem. There's enough TV that I need to watch that I feel, by nature, that it squeezes out the amount of time that I have to read. I don't have an informed idea about the passivity of reading versus viewing. I mean, that's a matter for scientists as far as I'm concerned. The only thing I can say just from experience is there are shows that I've watched that have had a cataclysmic emotional and intellectual effect on me. That's exactly what art should do, so - and there's stuff that's sophisticated, and there's stuff that's just funny and soothing and, you know, all the things that you go to in art. And there are books that I've read that were bad.

You know, it's like any art form has good versions of itself and bad versions of itself. I've actually refused to appear on any panels that are titled - I have in the past, but I won't anymore - that are titled, Is TV The New Novel? Or, Is TV The New Movies? Like, this was, like, a very consistent thing when I started my career - is every panel was framed around a kind of Rock 'Em Sock 'Em Robot match-up of either of these forms. As far as I'm concerned, they're in competition economically. Artistically, you know, let a hundred flowers bloom. Like, everything is valuable in its own way, and they don't need to be in tension with one another. You can love novels and love TV shows and not feel like they have to be placed in some sort of hierarchy. That's the way that I feel about it.

GROSS: When you started reviewing, you were reviewing poetry books, and you stopped doing it in part because nobody reads - very few people read poetry books. So if you gave a poetry book a bad review, work that somebody had spent years writing - for which there was, like, no money and virtually no audience - would then get a bad review in return, and that just seemed, like, too painful for you to deliver. But you give bad reviews when necessary to TV shows, and I'm wondering how you feel about that and - especially as a woman because I think women have been socialized - at least in the past, women were socialized to be nice, to be liked, to be approved of. And saying negative things in public about somebody or their work can be a very difficult transition to make. So what was that like for you to make the transition into, you know, giving bad reviews of television?

NUSSBAUM: I think what you say is true, but I can think of some fairly searing female critics.

GROSS: Well, Pauline Kael is, certainly.

NUSSBAUM: One of the things I like about writing about TV is that there are a lot of - I mean, I am hardly alone in being a woman critic of television. It's a very - it's a gender-mixed - it's less diverse in other ways, but there's - when I was writing about "True Detective," one of the things that was gratifying was the people I was arguing with about it were not men. It was women who disagreed. Some of them loved the show, and that was very satisfying. But as far as pans go, the rule that I came up in my head when I started - because it's true. For me - I mean, I think other people are different in this way, but to me, panning something, and specifically panning poetry at the time, felt cruel in a way that was uncomfortable for me. Apparently, panning television felt cruel in a way that was comfortable for me.

So the rule that I came up with was I felt like - and I still sort of feel this way - that writing a negative review of a television show was a way of praising television because it was a way of showing that you had high standards and expected that it could be good, whereas a lot of TV criticism had sort of patted things on the head for just being a little bit good - like, good job, TV show, like it couldn't do more. I will say - and I think this is true with a lot of critics - the older I get, the more I'm just natively aware of the fact that writing critical things is by nature a hurtful act. And that doesn't mean that I don't do it, but I'm just - I'm aware of it in the way that I'm like, when I write a critical review - and I don't always achieve this, but the goal is to do it in a way that, even if it's harsh, is respectful of the show, that it's not just cheap shots. But I think that's generally true of - I mean, honestly, it's true of positive reviews, too. Like, the ambition that you have is that the criticism itself should hold up as a response to the show, that it should be a meaningful response and not just an empty one. But, you know, you can't hit it every time. That's the goal.

GROSS: Well, let's take another break here. If you're just joining us, my guest is Emily Nussbaum. She's The New Yorker's TV critic, and now she's the author of the new book "I Like To Watch: Arguing My Way Through The TV Revolution." It's a collection of essays about television. We'll be right back after we take a short break. This is FRESH AIR.


GROSS: This is FRESH AIR, and if you're just joining us, my guest is Emily Nussbaum. She's the TV critic for The New Yorker. She won a Pulitzer Prize for Criticism in 2016. Now she's the author of a collection of essays about television called "I Like To Watch: Arguing My Way Through The TV Revolution."

You write that 15 years ago, the rules changed when it came to sexual violence on cable. And I think you probably would not get any arguments about that statement. But give us some examples of the shows that you think changed the rules. I'm sure...


GROSS: ..."Game of Thrones" will probably be in there.

NUSSBAUM: That's true. This is such a complicated subject. I mean, for - one of the shows that changed things was "The Sopranos," actually, because that had a much talked about scene in which Dr. Melfi was raped. And what was fascinating about the scene was that it happened to a main character. It was a central part of the show, but they also did this very interesting thing with it, which is that she was tempted to get Tony, the main character of the show, to avenge her as a mobster because he could be violent, and she didn't do that. And so the absence of action was itself a kind of interesting storytelling. And that seemed serious and thoughtful and artistically powerful and daring in a way that a lot of TV treatments of sexual violence hadn't been. And there had been other portraits of rape and sexual violence earlier. I'm not saying that it had never been on TV, but some of them had been very lurid in, you know, on - and then, you know, TV was largely network television at the time. And there were just things that you couldn't talk about on TV because advertisers would object to them. They seemed lurid and unsettling.

In the wake of "The Sopranos" and on - you know, "Oz" actually came before "The Sopranos" on - and the more open doors of cable, there was a little bit of an arms race, I feel, as far as increasingly graphic portraits of sexual violence. And there's been a lot of feminist criticism of this. You know, this is lurid, and it's tacky. And it's pornographic, and it's exploitative. And that's absolutely true of some shows. But I've always made the argument that it was, in the aggregate, a good thing on many shows that even have got - been criticized for this because it was a side effect of making female stories central to television.

And sexual violence happens to men, too. But when you start taking women's lives seriously, sexual violence and all sorts of different things - sexual harassment and just - many subjects that were not dealt with on TV are going to be part of those stories. And so sometimes, there would be this criticism of shows like - I'm trying to think of specific shows that had this aspect in them - like, I mean, you know, there's a range of shows that were about women that had backstories that involved the women having been raped or having those experiences. Sometimes, they were cheaply done. Sometimes, they were well-done.

I mean, there was a - one on "Scandal," where a character had a backdrop story, and there was a lot of complaints that it was just an excuse for why she was evil. I actually thought it was a thoughtfully done story. And I thought this was true in a lot of shows. I have a piece about "Kimmy Schmidt" that talks about that show as a coded show about a woman who experienced this horrible sexual violence and the way it affected her. But I'm interested in shows when they do this well, and I criticize them when they do it poorly. But I don't think you can make a blanket rule that says rape on television is harmful.

The criticism that was at "Game of Thrones," I think, is about how the show portrayed sexual assault. To me, I never had a problem with the fact that that show was sexually violent. I mean, to be extremely flippant about it, that's literally the subject of the show. It's, like, about a rape-o-verse. It's about a universe in which sexual violence is central to how power is expressed. And it's - the best parts of that show are about the question of how not just women but any man who is excluded from power works their way through a violent patriarchal system. It's about - it literally is a game. It's about, like, the strategy of how you work that. Like, do you - if you marry somebody, you're a kind of playing piece. Like, there's all these ways of handling trauma on that show.

The problem is that sometimes, that show had scenes that really did seem cheap and repellent to me or just confused about what they were doing. Like, there's a notorious scene between the brother and sister characters, where the director, the creator and the writer seemed to have completely different ideas about what's happening.

So, you know, my main thought is it's good for complicated human subjects to be part of the art on TV, and it's bad when they're done poorly. But that's sort of an obvious point. So it's definitely something that I've written about a lot, though. And, frankly, it's part of both of the shows that I was interested in at the start - "Buffy" and "The Sopranos." That subject is central to both shows, so, you know, it's something that is unavoidable if you're writing about TV right now.

GROSS: When you do think that a scene is handling sexual violence in just an exploitive way, a voyeuristic way, and you say that in print, do you worry about being interpreted as being prudish? - because I know that's an issue for you. You're always checking yourself and making sure, am I going to sound just prudish? Am I being prudish? Like, what am I saying?

NUSSBAUM: It is an issue for me. But at the same time, I don't know. One of mine - you know, different writers have different solutions when they're writing. And when I'm stuck on something, one of my solutions is just be honest. Like, be honest about your response.

There's stuff in this book where I actually talk about that anxiety about being prudish or being a censor. But there are times that I actually think it is OK to talk about the morality of art. I mean, again, I think it varies.

One of my favorite pieces in this book is about the show "Law & Order: SVU." And in an attempt to take that show seriously - because that is a popular show that is all about sexual violence - and, you know, it's a "Law & Order" network show, which quite deliberately is - I wouldn't say it's shoddily made. In a way, it's a very well-made, but it's - it has these, like, corny repetitive structures that any regular viewer of the show knows are like that. Like, it - you know, you always know when a famous person appears at the beginning of that show they will end up being central to the crime. And then there are these ridiculous scenes where people find a body, and they're chitchatting.

I mean, it's fun to watch for that reason. And part of what I write about in that piece is the fact that the formal network cheapness of the show is part of what makes the sexual violence on the show bearable to viewers. It has a huge female audience. Like, the notion that sexual violence on TV is there because men want to watch eroticized pornography of violence against women is, I don't think, accurate. I mean, crime shows are very popular with female viewers, and I think there are good reasons for this. Those are cathartic artistic expressions of common experiences and fears.

And so there is a way in which I talk about "SVU" as being a different kind of fantasy, which is that it's a fantasy of a police system that cares so deeply about victims of sexual violence that it will have an almost supernaturally wonderful female cop help you out through the most horrible experience of your life and work very hard to get you justice. And often, that's not something that exists, so I think that's part of the appeal of the show. But that show is often not on the critical radar. Like, things like that that are legal procedurals and shows that are formulaic are often something people don't take very seriously, but those are important parts of the culture. And also, I'm not excluding myself. I was obsessed with "SVU." Like, I watched probably every episode of that show, so, you know, I had good reason to write about it.

GROSS: Where does cable news figure into your TV watching and your TV criticism?

NUSSBAUM: You know, I hate cable news. I think it's been really harmful, but I do try to watch it sometimes. I haven't written a lot about it. I will say that whenever something's going on, I just watch Fox. I feel like I'm very obviously a progressive liberal of a certain stripe. I have certain opinions. I watch MSNBC, sometimes CNN - sometimes. But to me, it's much more valuable to be aware of what they're talking about on Fox, so I watch that network relatively consistently, and I'm aware of all the people that are on it. It's hard to talk about news, and it's possible that I should write more about it. It's funny because the question of - you know, I write about TV. I mostly write about scripted shows - comedies and dramas. I sometimes write about reality, and I have occasionally branched out and written about other things. But I sometimes meet people who never watch the shows that I write about and only watch sports and news, and it's basically - it's just - they have a completely different vision of what TV is. And if I had all the time in the world, I would write about all these things.

But, yeah, I mean, what I'm most interested in in terms of cable news is the way that it interacts with the Internet because at this point, I feel like it - and this is true of late-night comedy shows also. There's a strange, looping relationship between shows that are basically designed to create hot, little viral clips that go around, and the relationship between the whole and the particle that goes out there is, I think, hard to get a grasp on. But, you know, look. I don't like a lot of the talking head stuff. I find it much more useful to get my news through reading stuff. I mean, I think that there's this very tiny bandwidth for TV news, where a complicated story can get reduced to something very small. It's not - that's not universally true. There's stuff on cable news I found helpful. I mean, there's visual and audio things that inform you in a different way, but I have to say I do generally have not a dismissive but a frustrated attitude toward it as a news source and as a part of civic conversation.

GROSS: So you're very active on Twitter. I know you like interacting with other people who love and watch a lot of television. What's the best and what's the worst way to use Twitter as a TV critic? What lessons have you learned about that?

NUSSBAUM: The best way to use it is to use the access to a global TV audience to get recommendations because it's basically like just dipping into a hive mind, especially when I'm looking for shows that I'm not paying attention to that are great. The worst way to use it is to get into arguments with people.

GROSS: (Laughter) Yeah.

NUSSBAUM: But I think that's true with anybody on Twitter. And you know something? Everybody learns their lesson in time because it's - you know, I often say this. It's like shouting through a straw. It's just this very narrow, strange thing. That said, I'm too positive about Twitter, I know, because it's a disastrous medium, but I've actually had fruitful debates on Twitter. But it definitely is not the ideal environment for it, so I don't recommend that others try that. Don't try it at home.

GROSS: Emily Nussbaum, thank you so much for talking with us.

NUSSBAUM: Thank you so much.

GROSS: Emily Nussbaum is the TV critic for The New Yorker. Her new collection of reviews and essays is called "I Like To Watch: Arguing My Way Through The TV Revolution." Tomorrow on FRESH AIR, our guest will be Pulitzer Prize-winning novelist Colson Whitehead. His new novel, set in the early '60s, is based on the true story of a notorious Florida reform school, where many boys were beaten and sexually abused. Dozens of unmarked graves were discovered on the school grounds. The state shut down the school in 2011. The novel is called "The Nickel Boys." I hope you'll join us.


GROSS: FRESH AIR's executive producer is Danny Miller. Our technical director is Audrey Bentham. Our engineer today is Adam Staniszewski. Our associate producer of digital media is Molly Seavy-Nesper. Roberta Shorrock directs the show. I'm Terry Gross.

(SOUNDBITE OF MARCUS ROBERTS' "IT'S MARIA'S DANCE") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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