In 1997, Emily Nussbaum was a doctoral student at NYU, studying literature and “foggily planning on becoming a professor,” when an episode of Buffy the Vampire Slayer changed her life.
At the turn of this century, television was still considered unserious, “a disposable product, like a Dixie Cup,” Nussbaum writes. It was also bad for you — in “the much-quoted (although possibly apocryphal) words of ’90s comic Bill Hicks,” it was “a spiritually harmful act, like ‘taking black spray paint to your third eye.’ ”
But Buffy “spiked my way of thinking entirely,” Nussbaum writes. The particular episode featured a group of high-schoolers possessed by hyenas who eat — yes, eat — the principal. But that didn’t matter. What got Nussbaum was how the show treated Buffy not as eye candy but as the hero of her own story: “Like plenty of teenagers, Buffy believed what was happening to her was the end of the world. But she was right: her demons were real.”
“I’d never finish my doctorate,” Nussbaum writes.
Lucky us. I Like to Watch: Arguing My Way Through the TV Revolution is a collection of 32 brilliant, generous essays, most of which have been previously published by The New Yorker, where Nussbaum is a TV critic.
Nussbaum’s love of Buffy wasn’t enough to make her a critic; it was the arguments she had about Buffy, and the way her peers considered Buffy trivial, soapy, and fundamentally unserious — in contrast to that great and weighty masculine mob drama, The Sopranos, which was understood to somehow transcend the medium. She writes:
“When I proselytized for Buffy, or debated my fellow graduate students about Sex and the City, the fight felt like a way to hash out other questions — questions of values, which were embedded (and often, hidden) in questions of aesthetics. Centrally, these were arguments about whose stories carried weight, about what kind of creativity counted as ambitious, and about who (which characters, which creators, and also, which audience members) deserved attention. What kind of person got to be a genius? Whose story counted as universal? Which type of art had staying power?”
Nussbaum’s essays aren’t merely moralizing, though they can fit into the genre of “The Thing You Thought Was Bad Is Actually Good” essays, or the slightly rarer converse, “The Thing You Thought Was Good Is Actually Bad” essays, which lose value quickly unless the writer is able to significantly engage with the artwork in its own right, outside of its role as a David or a Goliath. Nussbaum’s do. They are marbled with her thinking about prestige and power and gender and taste, but they are also funny: “It’s a reality show about the types of people who are most likely to agree to appear on a reality show,” she writes of one show. “I found the first two episodes handsome but sleazy, like a CEO in a hotel bar,” she writes of another.
It’s thrilling to watch Nussbaum stake the slick misogyny of True Detective, or the cloying phoniness of The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel, as she insists implicitly and explicitly that TV should be mind-expanding, complex, generous, and, above all, have things to say about who we are and what we want.
But what about the people who make TV? Here, she is not so certain. The collection’s one new piece of writing, aside from the introduction, is a queasy, poignant 50-page consideration of the question: “What should we do with the art of terrible men?”
Growing up, Nussbaum idolized Woody Allen. As a teenager, she had a dream about baking him cookies, worrying in her dream that he wouldn’t understand they were homemade (“It’s about wanting the artist you care for to know that your admiration for them is authentic, genuine, and from the heart.”). In the next paragraph, she quotes Dylan Farrow’s “heart-stabbing” open letter alleging that Allen molested her: “What’s your favorite Woody Allen movie?” Farrow writes. “Before you answer, you should know: When I was seven years old, Woody Allen took me by the hand and led me into a dim, closet-like attic on the second floor of our house.”
Nussbaum still has an answer: The Purple Rose of Cairo.
Nussbaum recognizes his movies, now, as almost a form of grooming, in the way they normalized relationships between teen girls and old men. “But maybe all art is grooming,” she continues. When she derides, some pages later, the way Louis C.K. justifies his predatory behavior by having one of his characters say, “We’re all perverts,” it’s hard not to see these statements as versions of the same shallow and self-serving idea, a wallpaper of “no one’s perfect” over some very distinctive blood splatters.
That line, about all art (maybe!) being grooming, has stuck with me for weeks, not because I find it convincing, but because I can’t understand how Nussbaum could. Maybe she meant it metaphorically, as a way of saying that all of our art doubles as a justification of, and case for, the things we love, the choices we make, and the kinds of lives we lead. (If that’s true of art, it’s true of criticism too.)
But that doesn’t quite convince me either: Nussbaum has spent much of I Like to Watch making the case that good TV is liberatory. The line feels halfhearted, wistful, something you test out hoping it might hold, even though you know it won’t. Here, her ambivalence is more affecting than the gleaming certainty of prior chapters. The essay functions as a kind of eulogy: not for the men, but for the things we had the privilege of loving uncomplicatedly, before we were forced to know better.
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