The B&N Podcast: Emily Nussbaum on the Age of the Showrunner

Every author has a story beyond the one that they put down on paper. The Barnes & Noble Podcast goes between the lines with today’s most interesting writers, exploring what inspires them, what confounds them, and what they were thinking when they wrote the books we’re talking about.

With the golden age of television has come a golden age of great writing about television. As Emily Nussbaum points out in her new book I Like to Watch: Arguing My Way through the TV Revolutions, television has always had a uniquely intimate role in our homes and lives, since the technology was first introduced. And the television of the last two decades has become steadily more artistically ambitious and technologically enabled to permeate our culture, it’s seemed all the more necessary to talk about it: what did that last cut to black mean? Is the character we’ve been following since the beginning of this series turning into the villain instead of the hero? As Pulitzer-prize winning TV critic for the New Yorker magazine, Nussbaum has entered into that conversation with a kind of joyful aplomb, making her regular columns — and her presence on Twitter — less a courtroom where judgment is rendered and more like an arena in which the competing and conflicting impressions and emotions raised by last night’s episode (or the season just binged) can fight it out. She sat down with us in the studio just before this challenging, provocative and, yes, highly entertaining new collection was published to talk about the state of the screen, and why it matters to us.

From her creation of the “Approval Matrix” in New York magazine in 2004 to her Pulitzer Prize–winning columns for The New Yorker, Emily Nussbaum has argued for a new way of looking at TV. In this collection, including two never-before-published essays, Nussbaum writes about her passion for television, beginning with Buffy the Vampire Slayer, the show that set her on a fresh intellectual path. She explores the rise of the female screw-up, how fans warp the shows they love, the messy power of sexual violence on TV, and the year that jokes helped elect a reality-television president. There are three big profiles of television showrunners—Kenya Barris, Jenji Kohan, and Ryan Murphy—as well as examinations of the legacies of Norman Lear and Joan Rivers. The book also includes a major new essay written during the year of #MeToo, wrestling with the question of what to do when the artist you love is a monster.

More than a collection of reviews, the book makes a case for toppling the status anxiety that has long haunted the “idiot box,” even as it transformed. Through it all, Nussbaum recounts her fervent search, over fifteen years, for a new kind of criticism, one that resists the false hierarchy that elevates one kind of culture (violent, dramatic, gritty) over another (joyful, funny, stylized). I Like to Watch traces her own struggle to punch through stifling notions of “prestige television,” searching for a more expansive, more embracing vision of artistic ambition—one that acknowledges many types of beauty and complexity and opens to more varied voices. It’s a book that celebrates television as television, even as each year warps the definition of just what that might mean.

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Author photo of Emily Nussbaum (c) Clive Thompson.