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Talking With Emily Nussbaum About TV Criticism, Bad Fans, and Buffy the Vampire Slayer

Photo: Twentieth Century Fox

In 2011, Emily Nussbaum left her position as TV critic for New York to take a job at The New Yorker. I now occupy her chair. I phrase my status that way because one does not “replace” a writer as singular as Emily. The Pulitzer Prize winner just put out her first book, an anthology of previously published essays, plus transformed and new pieces on the state of the medium. The title: I Like to Watch: Arguing My Way Through the TV Revolution. The book’s release is a perfect opportunity to talk to Emily about the state of TV and TV audiences, past and present, something I never pass up the opportunity to do in real life.

How did you become a critic?
I was deeply ambivalent about writing arts criticism generally. It wasn’t so much writing about television as it was writing critical stuff, including pans and praise and formal analysis. When I was younger, and especially before I got into journalism, I think I had an allergy to the idea of myself as a critic. This, in complete contrast to my actual personality, which is very argumentative, made this a good profession for me.

When did that change for you?
I had a conversion moment, specifically having to do with Buffy the Vampire Slayer. A lot of people who write about TV have a particular show that sparked them, and this was the one for me. I’d actually written book reviews and poetry reviews before, and felt somewhat ambivalent and alienated from that task, but with this show, I felt like I was comfortable with writing about TV specifically. Not writing criticism, necessarily, but writing in a way that would allow me to mouth off and think out loud about how I felt about this particular medium. That’s part of what this book is about as well.

I started as a film critic in 1991, started writing about TV full-time in 1997, and did both things continuously after that. I remember standing outside of a screening room in the spring of 1999 talking to a friend of mine, the late Time Out New York TV critic Andrew Johnston, about the “College” episode of The Sopranos. An older film critic overheard us. He said something like, “You younger critics go on and on about The Sopranos, but ultimately, it’s just a big soap opera, it’s just another television show.” A few months later, there were pieces in the Times by film critics claiming the show was great because it was actually cinema.
Yes! [Laughs.] It’s so funny. You have such a valuable perspective on this, and you and I have gone back and forth in all sorts of complicated ways about this question of the word “cinematic” and the nature of movies and the nature of TV. But we have completely shared this particular irritation. I mean, pretty much at this point all TV critics share this frustration with the phenomenon of how, whenever something on TV is good, it gets claimed for a different medium.

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

Yes! You write about that in the book, particularly with Buffy the Vampire Slayer, which also opens up a related issue: There was a condescension toward TV generally, and then, enclosed within that, a subset of condescension directed toward shows about women.
That’s definitely true. At the beginning of the book, I use this contrast between Buffy and The Sopranos, two shows that I loved that were out at the same time and whose critical reception was radically different. Part of it is absolutely about gender, but part of it is also about what kind of ambition those two shows display. One of the reasons The Sopranos was acclaimed, besides the fact that it was a brilliant television show, was because there were all these ways in which it seemed to people to be elevated and adult, and something that they could be proud of talking about. A lot of the description of the show at the time was about the fact that it really was “like a movie,” and it really was “like a novel,” and it had all of these qualities that rendered it adult, elevated, and worthy of real criticism.

In contrast to Buffy?
Yeah. One of the most striking things to me about Buffy was that its ambition is very much within the context of television. It looked like a TV show, it felt like a TV show, and it was also structured and created like a television show — by which I mean it was on the WB, a commercial network, and it had separate acts, and it was mainly driven by dialogue. Initially, at least, the visuals were not hugely ambitious, although I think we both agree that they are still very interesting.

I miss the intensity of color on television that Buffy brought every week. They never fell prey to that “muted color equals serious art” cliché.
It’s true. That was definitely one of the things that marked the show as junk, as a guilty pleasure. That and the fact that Buffy combined a lot of different genres that people looked down on.

Like what?
Sitcoms. Teen soap operas. Also, the genres people think of as juvenile because they deal with the supernatural — vampire stories in general. These are genres that people talk about affectionately, but condescendingly.

And all of this was combined with the fact that it was a feminist show about a teenage girl. One of the things that always struck me psychologically about Buffy and about The Sopranos was that if you were watching The Sopranos, it was as though you were watching it next to a middle-aged man, even if you yourself were a teenage girl. So then we get into this question of the audiences for shows, or the implicit audiences, and that reflects all sorts of questions related to status and value and adulthood.

Is that stratification still a factor in the way TV is discussed?
I used those two shows a little bit symbolically at the beginning of the book, but no. Not as much. TV is more expansive now than it was then. There were amazing shows then, too, but today, it’s overwhelming to me and somewhat destabilizing to contemplate everything that’s out there.

The medium does seem to have taken a massive steroid hit recently.
A big part of writing this book was coming to terms, in an odd way, with what’s happened in the last five years, and with how much TV has changed — including some of my original ideas about TV, and its relationship with its audience. I’m fascinated by the relationship TV has with its audience, and how that makes TV distinct from other art forms, like, a book: You write it, it comes out, people respond to it. Or a movie, it’s the same kind of thing: It’s made, and once it comes out, it’s a whole object. It’s complete.

The book is the book. The film is the film. Even if there are extended cuts of a film, or editions of a novel, the object itself doesn’t substantially change. 
But television, historically, has not been a whole object. It’s something that’s created over time. It loops with its audience, and it changes, because the people who are making it change it. They change it because of ratings, because of internal things, and also because of how the audience responds to what they’ve done. A television series is at once a filmed and created thing. And also something that’s being made live before your eyes. It’s a rough draft that keeps becoming the final draft.

Right. Composition is improvisation slowed down. 
And now TV comes out on streaming [platforms], and you can watch it on your phone, and you can choose when to watch it. That has changed the relationship the show has with time, and with its audience. And there really is a lot of TV. So much that it becomes an issue of time management and creates an existential feeling of being overwhelmed.

That might partly explain why my reviews of the Netflix Marvel shows got increasingly bitter. There were maybe two and a half seasons of those shows that justified the sunk costs of all the hours they asked the audience to give up. By the time I got to Iron Fist season two, I was in this frothing rage.
I strongly relate to this. At this point, just figuring what both the good shows and the important shows are is its own kind of scramble. If you mess up, and you happen to stumble into a bad show and have to commit 13 hours to it, you are going to bear it some ill will.

I have several people that I Gchat or DM with, and we’re always asking one another, “What is coming out that’s good?” It’s an interesting process. I don’t worry that when TV critics talk to one another, we’ll get into a hive-mind state, in terms of sharing opinions. I don’t think that really happens. I find that critics in general are pugnacious enough. But when something that’s really spectacular and worthy of analysis comes along, it’s great to get the heads-up on it.

I worry that if I spend too much time watching things that other people are already covering, I’m abdicating my other role, which is to go forth, spelunk, find the new, good shit and say, “Behold!”
Right. Find the new things, find the little gems, find the off-the-beaten-track stuff. I’ll get on Twitter every four months or so and I’ll just say, “What’s out there that I’m not paying attention to?” That’s how I found out about Please Like Me, this Australian show that I love. It’s amazing, and for a time it was only showing on Pivot in the United States. Now it’s available on Hulu, and Josh Thomas, who made it, is making a new show.

One of the most enthusiastic raves that I’ve written in the past 12 months was for that Netflix zombie show, Kingdom
I’ve got to see that!

It’s a political satire with zombies, set hundreds of years ago in Korea. Nobody I followed on the TV beat was really talking about it, but then my friend Simon Abrams, who’s an expert on horror, said, “You love zombies, you’ve gotta be watching this show.” It’s good to have people like that in your life.
Yes! I feel like I’m being constantly tapped on the shoulder by shows that I haven’t written about or seen. I have an organizational thing on my phone called Wunderlist where I list shows that people mention in passing. Like, if I’m out and talking and somebody says, “Oh, you know, have you ever seen Peep Show?” and I’m like, “I’ve heard it’s really good, and I haven’t seen it,” and I’ll put it in the list.

I bet that’s some list.
It is, and it just gets longer and longer. Increasingly, Netflix is that list. I’ve been meaning to watch and catch up with this Japanese reality show, Terrace House, that I started watching, and then I just fell behind. I often think — what’s that book, The Fermata, where he’s able to freeze time?

Yes, by Nicholson Baker.
It shows either devotion to my work or terrible values that my version of The Fermata is like, “If only I could stop time and watch more television.”

You would be like the Burgess Meredith bibliophile character in that classic episode of The Twilight Zone, except hopefully your glasses wouldn’t break at the end.
No, that’s exactly what would happen! I would end up in a situation where I could watch everything that ever appeared on TV, and my glasses would break, and then I would drop my phone. That should be an episode of the new Twilight Zone.

Or a Black Mirror episode!
Do you remember a show called Blood Drive?

Yeah, it did one season on Syfy.
It was a crazy, grind-y pulp show about cars that ran on blood. I didn’t realize that was what it was about, and somebody told me about it way too late, and it’s always hung over me as a show that I wish I had watched earlier and written about. Because nobody was talking about it. There should be some sort of resource where it’s just good shows that nobody is talking about, where, as a benefit for critics, they’re reeled out through text or something on your phone, as a reminder.

I want to go back to the audience-reaction thing for a second, because it’s an excuse to talk about one of your signature ideas, the Bad Fan. I think you’re right that Archie Bunker from All in the Family is probably the first prominent example of that. The show was constantly going out of its way to tell you that Archie was the butt of the joke, the exemplar of negative values, the person you shouldn’t be emulating, and yet, because he was the most charismatic character on the show, people gravitated toward him anyway. And of course, it happened again with Tony Soprano, Walter White, and lots of other characters.
TV critics are particularly aware of this, because when you write critically about an anti-hero show, the bad fan comes rising out in your mentions and your emails and becomes impossible to ignore. The essay in the book is about Archie Bunker, but the original time that I wrote about the Bad Fan was when I was recapping, I believe, the last few episodes of Breaking Bad.

Walter White fanboys were out in force during that last season. If I wrote a single mildly negative word about any part of Breaking Bad, I was informed that I had impugned my own manhood.
I ended up in a dreamlike situation where I attended an event at the Javits Center about a year after Breaking Bad had ended. It was raining out and I couldn’t catch a cab. I was standing on the corner, and then suddenly a cab pulled out of nowhere, and I got into the cab and the cabdriver, as he pulled away from the curb, said to me, out of the blue — like, I hadn’t asked him or said anything other than my address — he said, “I just finished watching Breaking Bad.” And I said, “What did you think of it?” He said, “I just watched the finale. I loved it.” He said, “Walt could sometimes do bad things, but he was really a good family man underneath, and I really related to him. He was kind of a great hero, in that way.” And I was like, Oh my God, I have literally gotten to actually meet this symbolic guy in my head, the Bad Fan. And we had this whole conversation about Breaking Bad, which we clearly had been seeing as a completely different show from one another.

This is an oddly common experience with a certain kind of TV narrative. It’s particularly frustrating for critics, who are trying to talk about the show as a thoughtful moral text and then find somebody online who’s like, “Yeah, cut out all those stupid scenes with Carmela, I just want to see more whackings.” It’s alarming.

I wanted to ask you about something. I wrote this essay about The Sopranos, and obviously you are a much bigger expert on The Sopranos than I am, and I have not talked to David Chase, and you and Alan Sepinwall have talked to David Chase. My theory in that piece, which I wrote right after the finale of The Sopranos, was that his response to the bad fans of The Sopranos had shaped the second half of the show.

Your guess is 100 percent correct. Starting in season two, they started showing the collateral damage done to people who weren’t in the mob. That was a conscious choice, and it only escalated from there.
Season two started with that amazing, amazing montage with the family.

Yeah! And some of the collateral damage happens in the episode with the Robert Patrick character, Davey Scatino, who owns a sporting-goods store and has a gambling problem. Tony exploits him to the point where he has to turn over his store. After that episode aired, Alan and I got a flood of letters at the Star-Ledger from people saying, basically, “I’m done with this show. I hate it. These people are horrible.”
Amazing.

We were like, “You didn’t have a problem with all the other gangsters they murdered, but because they bankrupted a guy who reminds you of the dad of someone your kid goes to school with, now they’re unsympathetic?”
It was such an interesting show in that way. One of the slams on TV, historically, was that it was like a slavering puppy dog that was endlessly trying to get your attention and please you, because otherwise you might turn it off and walk away. It had to constantly pander to get the widest possible audience. But there are all of these different junctures on The Sopranos where it’s confronting the audience about their complicity in what they’re enjoying. I always think of that moment where they beat the stripper from the Bada Bing to death as a punch in the face for the viewer — like, “You’re enjoying the Bada Bing girls? You enjoy the casual misogyny of these mobsters as a kind of titillating treat? Well, how do you like this?”

I think that’s the single greatest and most representative episode of that show — and also one that’s so horrifying that watching it more than once amounts to a kind of self-punishment.
To me, it’s part of what makes that show still, so many years later, so exceptional, the fact that — unlike, frankly, a lot of TV creators who basically want to please the fan and respond to the fan, including the Bad Fan, by giving them more of what they want, or anxiously tap-dancing to try to resolve the narrative in a way that will play favorably to the audience — The Sopranos had a signature of giving the audience what it didn’t want and pushing back at audience comfort levels, deliberately punishing viewers and destabilizing them in a way that just enormously expanded the range of what TV could do.

It did feel like a major change in that way, yes.
Do you remember when Buffalo Bill came out? That show with Dabney Coleman?

I do. Bill was an unrepentant asshole, and he was the main character. And that was a broadcast-network show! I guess that was a canary-in-a-coal-mine example of the kind of show we’ve been discussing. 
Yeah, it truly was. I don’t think I was writing about TV at the time, but I remember that when it came out, it got all of this publicity that basically said that this show, which starred Dabney Coleman, who’s a great actor, as this prickly, curmudgeonly TV anchor, was gonna be a test of whether audiences could watch a show with an asshole as the main character. The show was a flop, so the conclusion was “Okay, TV can’t do this.” Obviously, that was not true. If anything, TV went on to show us way too many assholes.

Yes, yes.
One of the things I sometimes worry about with this book is that, although it has this piece celebrating The Sopranos, it also has this piece that was a real early pan of the first season of True Detective, and it’s clear that I definitely have some kind of chip on my shoulder about the anti-hero narrative. Not so much because I dislike individual shows, but because of the dominance of that kind of show, its being treated as the most important and most central kind of ambitious TV. To me it was one of those things that blotted out a lot of other interesting TV.

One, how do you square the rise of the female anti-heroine, as exemplified by shows like Fleabag and Veep — and even Game of Thrones, which has some pretty cruel and brutal women in it, even though the showrunners are men — with the Bad Fan phenomenon? If a female viewer identifies with somebody like Daenerys in a celebratory way, are they Bad Fans, too? Is that better, worse, or the same as a man investing part of his identity in cheering for Walter White?
I think it’s exciting. The terrible-men shows helped open the door for terrible-women shows, and in the aggregate, that’s a positive, because you just get a broader range of human behavior, human emotion, shame, flaws, mistakes. While it’s definitely true that I have problems with anti-heroes as a brooding, glamorizing shtick, that doesn’t mean I dislike characters who are lousy people. I often love them, especially in comedies.

And there are different definitions of anti-hero. To me, Carrie Bradshaw from Sex and the City was an anti-hero, because she wasn’t an easy role model, she was specifically designed to agitate and upset the same viewers who identified with her. Basically, I think it depends on how the show is operating — whether it is lazily turning people on with torture or if it has something more original to say. Personally, I thought Daenerys was not that well characterized by the finale, so it’s hard for me to describe the fanhood of that show as Bad Fans. Or maybe they are, but it’s a failure of the show, not the fanhood.

Killing Eve is a weird case, because half the female audience for that show seemed to be aggressively excited by the idea of being the world’s prettiest, most manipulative serial killer, who messes with people’s heads by imitating victimized women. Which probably says something about the way the last few years have felt for women.

Speaking of which: You wrote extensively about #MeToo in the book, in relation to toxic showrunners and performers, particularly Louis C.K. But I got the impression by the end of it that it was still all too fresh and raw, and you hadn’t settled on how to feel about it. Is that an accurate assessment?  
Yeah, that is definitely a fresh and raw piece. It’s a piece I’m proud of, but it’s also a piece that is quite literally about not being able to resolve contradictory ideas — and it’s something that was written mainly because my book leave took place in the fall of 2017, right as the Weinstein piece crashed down.

Originally, I was planning to write three or four short essays on completely different topics. Instead, I wrote this one unusually personal essay. I don’t know if I have any further thoughts on that. But I did just write a piece about post-#MeToo TV, which was really satisfying, because I’ve been genuinely impressed by how many shows have shaken up their own stories to incorporate new ways of looking at the world.

None of these matters are settled. They’re in flux.
One of the really gratifying things about television criticism has been not just the ability to express my own ideas but to read the enormous expansion of conversation about TV in the last 20 years, much of it online. Some of it came from other critics, but sometimes it happened in online discussion boards, in recaps, and in other ways of responding to things, from fans and haters.

That’s an important aspect of your identity, being online?
Yes, my origins in writing about TV are very much online. It’s hard to detach TV as a medium from the technology that produces and distributes TV, but it’s equally hard to detach it from the ways in which it’s discussed. My first experiences writing about TV were on Television Without Pity, which used to be this great discussion board. It was anonymous, but it was really smart and impassioned, and it really suited episodic TV that took place over time. What happened there wasn’t about just writing a review and putting it out there and having people read the review and think about whether the show was good or not. It was about people having this ongoing conversation that took place over the years, about what was happening on The West Wing or on some reality show. When you talk about TV that way, it’s no longer about one person being right or being wrong. It’s about people bouncing impressions and emotions and analyses off each other.

That’s why it’s a good time to be writing about television. You have a vibrant art form, and also a vibrant critical environment, and I think the two things are connected.

This interview has been edited and condensed.

Emily Nussbaum on TV Criticism, Bad Fans, and Buffy