Portrait

Cultural critic Emily Nussbaum on television’s move from “junk food” to high art. By Matilda Dixon-Smith.

Television critic Emily Nussbaum

Emily Nussbaum recently took to Twitter to ask her 200,000-plus followers for help. She needed travel tips, for Australia, for her family, with the caveat they “don’t actually care about beaches”. The wisdom of the crowd sent her on a familiar, exhausting traipse – like so many tourists before her – around Sydney Harbour, with two teenagers in tow. At Taronga Zoo, distracted by the displays of platypuses and penguins, they miss their ferry. Now, in the bright afternoon, they are standing on the steps of the Opera House, trying to orchestrate a meet-up with Nussbaum’s husband, who sits on a bus bound for Circular Quay. Her son texts directions to him. He replies with excited, though perhaps unhelpful, remarks about Sydney’s “impressive” buses. By her description, it plays like a sweet scene from a family sitcom.

“I always think it’s really fascinating that it wasn’t that long ago that people literally talked about television as though it was, like, junk food, regardless of what was on,” she says. “It was intrinsically not considered art.”

Nussbaum’s writing career – at New York magazine, Slate and The New York Times before The New Yorker, where she won the Pulitzer Prize for criticism – has tracked with enormous evolutions in both TV and criticism. “That’s what caused me to be interested in it,” she says of the work, “because it was transforming in front of everybody’s eyes.”

Now hundreds of shows premiere each year in the United States alone, streamed directly, accompanied by endless digital criticism that’s almost as instantaneous.

“The internet has, in many ways, been an incredible boon for hearing more varied voices about art, which is great. But the economic model for criticism, which was never strong, has collapsed to such an extent that older people really shouldn’t give advice to younger people,” she says.

She is blunt when she tells me “the problem is less with arts criticism than it is with newspapers and magazines as the economic model for supporting writers”, something any writer could agree with. “As I’ve frequently said,” she says, chuckling, “if I knew anything about economics I would not have gone into arts criticism.”

I offer my confession that she’s my writing idol. I love how so often her work captures something others have missed. So it was with Ryan Murphy, who she profiled beautifully in 2018 as “the most powerful man in TV”, seemingly understanding his grotesque, wheels-off theatricality in a way many others didn’t. Conceding her showrunner profiles –Black-ish’s showrunner Kenya Barris, Orange Is the New Black’s Jenji Kohan – are some of her favourites, she tends to squirm away from praise with charming bluster.

I ask whether young critics fawn over her, just as I did. “I–I don’t – feel comfortable talking about myself that way,” she replies. “So that’s my answer to that.”

My favourite piece from Nussbaum is her mea culpa for misjudging a show by its deceptively excellent pilot – NBC’s aptly named Broadway train wreck Smash. It’s a meal, wry and self-deprecating, yet still shrewd in its examination of how efficiently art can devolve. The opening line is an art form in and of itself: “Being a television critic often means being wrong – only really, really slowly.”

I ask Nussbaum about the pilot trap when we speak. “I mean, this is just baked into TV,” she says. “One of the weird things about being a TV critic is that people have to decide when to write about the thing.

“It’s hard, as a journalist, to figure out when the best time to say something is.”

Nussbaum says she’s often asked whether she wanted to be a TV critic back in college, which she says is ridiculous because she went to college in the ’80s, before television criticism in its current form even existed. She was drawn to the work in the ’90s by her equal admiration of two very different shows that were receiving very different critical responses – The Sopranos, frothed over by critics; and the feminist firecracker Buffy the Vampire Slayer, which she felt was being criminally overlooked.

“That’s actually what made me into a TV critic: I was just arguing with everybody about Buffy the Vampire Slayer, so I had to turn that into a job.”

We spiral into discussion about various iconic TV shows she’s covered in her time at The New Yorker. There was Sex and the City, which she chronicled in a blisteringly good column, “Difficult Women”. She quips it took her 15 years to write. We both admit to watching Glee, another divisive Ryan Murphy juggernaut, all the way through to the series finale.

“But the thing is, Glee started really well,” Nussbaum argues, though she doesn’t have to persuade me. “Glee had one of the best pilots; it was amazing. And, also, people didn’t give the show… I don’t know. I think Ryan Murphy’s shows can be kind of mixed bags at times, but he is an incredible pioneer, and people almost don’t remember … when Glee came out it was transformative. It really was this thing where it was like a stylised, arch, funny, queer comedy teen show. I mean it was really a crazy thing to see.”

We’re interrupted by her son, who wants to go into bat for Glee as well. Clearly, he’s well trained.

This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on Aug 25, 2018 as "Critical sass". Subscribe here.

Matilda Dixon-Smith
is a journalist and cultural critic from Melbourne.

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