AUGUST 19, 2019
EMILY NUSSBAUM APPRECIATES the comparisons to Pauline Kael, she really does, but she just doesn’t see it. “It’s a compliment, I know,” Nussbaum told The Chicago Tribune. “We’re both women, both at The New Yorker. We both celebrate culture sometimes seen as junk.” But the similarities, she insists, end there.
And yet I find these similarities too difficult to ignore. The two cultural critics both champion “lowbrow” art, interrogate “highbrow” art, and, most importantly, are women in a male-dominated field. Nussbaum is rarely referred to as a “woman critic” the way Kael was, but in her new essay collection, I Like to Watch: Arguing My Way Through the TV Revolution, her womanhood feels inextricable from the caliber of her criticism.
Nussbaum begins the book by taking a scalpel to cultural hierarchies. She writes that in the 1990s, she had two favorite TV series: The Sopranos and Buffy the Vampire Slayer. The Sopranos was treated by critics as “a show for adults, something to brag about, not apologize for.” Buffy the Vampire Slayer, on the other hand, was dismissed as “a girl show, […] geeky, jokey, romantic, juvenile, and formulaic. It was disposable — a Dixie cup.” Nussbaum never explicitly identifies Buffy’s female protagonist as the reason for the series’s cultural disrepute — she doesn’t have to.
Throughout I Like to Watch, Nussbaum dedicates a rectifying amount of space to shows by, for, and about women. She takes much deserved deep dives into series that may not otherwise be taken seriously, like Sex and the City, Girls, Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt, Crazy Ex-Girlfriend, Jane the Virgin, The Good Wife, and Jessica Jones. Just as importantly, she has no interest in being what novelist Gillian Flynn has termed a “Cool Girl” — that is, “a good sport when something smells like macho nonsense.” That’s why Nussbaum also tackles the first season of True Detective — an overtly masculine and unmistakably “prestige” series — with a rough but fair pan. “No piece has gotten me more aggressive hate mail,” Nussbaum prefaces her review. “One hand-written letter, which addressed me as ‘Princess,’ claimed that I didn’t understand ‘shiksa crazy pussy.’” Disappointing, but unsurprising. Her review is neither.
True Detective has all the makings of a highbrow drama, molded in the image of predecessors like The Sopranos to the point of being “gratingly familiar.” But Nussbaum astutely notes that the show’s title credits reveal its true substance — or lack thereof. The sequence is a collection of “heroic male outlines and close-ups of female asses, crouched over spiked high heels.” Nussbaum opines, “[T]he deeper we get into the season, the more I’m starting to suspect that those asses tell the real story.”
Though Nussbaum says she didn’t grow up reading Kael, her work contains strong strains of Kael’s signature preference for quality over prestige. Film critic David Edelstein praises Kael as a “‘trash’ maven” who cast an egalitarian eye onto films of varying pedigree. In one of her most popular essays, “Trash, Art, and the Movies,” Kael “made fun of highbrow European angst films […] and called for an acknowledgement that [film] lent itself to lustier, pulpier, more sensual material.”
The same can be said of Nussbaum. Her review of Jane the Virgin — a decidedly lusty, pulpy, sensual show — is one of the collection’s best. “A few weeks ago,” the essay begins,
the CW aired a perfect episode of Jane the Virgin, directed by its star Gina Rodriguez. It had five plots, ranging from poignant to zany. Each scene was tinted in pastels, like a plate of macarons. There were two gorgeous dresses and three hot consummations, plus a cliff-hanger, several heart-to-hearts, and Brooke Shields getting attacked by a wolf on live TV. As usual, the world took all this perfection for granted.
Jane the Virgin is actually the reason I Like to Watch exists. The book’s inception was a conversation with a colleague. “I ran into someone in the hallway,” Nussbaum explained, “and asked what she was watching, and she said, ‘Oh, stupid guilty pleasures like Jane the Virgin.’” That didn’t go over well. Nussbaum admitted, “I unloaded a maniacal speech on her about how it was one of the most thoughtful shows on TV! How it’s a show about storytelling! So she slowly walked backwards and I never saw her again.”
Pauline Kael had a similar zeal for craft, one that she too expressed fiercely in everyday interaction. Edelstein recalls the first time he met Kael: “[S]he introduced herself in a movie line and said nice things about my work.” When Edelstein told his colleagues that he had met Kael, they insisted her intensity was something to be feared. Their advice to him: “Walk away, walk away.”
In the end, ruthlessness became Kael’s trademark: one obituary notes that she called Dances with Wolves a “nature boy movie” and Rain Man a “wet piece of kitsch.” Nussbaum’s trademark, on the other hand, is exaltation. The series she celebrates are not necessarily “trash,” in Kael’s terms, but rather works that have been mistreated and misunderstood in critical conversations. Above all, Nussbaum has elevated the work of women like few other television critics have. Her feminist lens does not limit her brilliance as a critic — it is instead a significant source of that brilliance.
Nussbaum’s essay on Sex and the City is another standout. It crystalizes Nussbaum’s distinctly female critical edge:
[W]hy is the show so often portrayed as a set of empty, static cartoons, an embarrassment to womankind? It’s a classic misunderstanding, I think, stemming from an unexamined hierarchy: the assumption that anything stylized (or formulaic, or pleasurable, or funny, or feminine, or explicit about sex rather than about violence, or made collaboratively) must be inferior.
In the essay, Nussbaum considers Sex and the City’s sullied legacy in comparison to that of The Sopranos, which continues to top every best-of list nearly two decades after its premiere:
[A]s The Sopranos has ascended to TV’s Mount Olympus, the reputation of Sex and the City has shrunk and faded, like some tragic dry-clean-only dress tossed into a decadelong hot cycle. By the show’s fifteen-year anniversary, this year, we fans had trained ourselves to downgrade the show to a “guilty pleasure.”
There’s that phrase again, the one that always sends Nussbaum swiftly down a righteous path to justice: “guilty pleasure.” It’s a loaded, coded, and discreetly gendered term. In the words of Carrie Bradshaw, I couldn’t help but wonder: What art is relegated to being a guilty pleasure, and what art are we allowed to enjoy proudly? My go-to “guilty pleasure” was Phyllida Lloyd’s Mamma Mia!, but I now recognize that the merits of the film — its joy, its aliveness — are too undeniable to belittle as guilt-inducing. Inspired by Nussbaum, I’ve abandoned the term completely.
This, then, is Nussbaum’s critical mission: “[Q]uestioning how [the arts] are set against each other and encouraging something mushier.” Mushy is also a loaded, coded, and more overtly gendered term. That is, it’s a way of describing and diminishing woman-feelings. But when Nussbaum says “mushy,” it becomes a rallying cry. Why yes, of course, I want more mushiness in my television. Mushiness — and gooeyness, and pulpiness, and actual-real-life-heart-on-your-sleeve feeling — doesn’t have to be synonymous with “trash,” as Kael also adjudged. Through her criticism, Nussbaum has made mush not just okay, but desirable — a feature, not a bug.
If you watch what is critically agreed upon as “prestige” TV, you will inevitably find women who are objectified, who are gratuitously abused, who are flat and static characters. Want to enjoy the Greatest Shows of All Time? You’ll have to watch lots of prostitutes get murdered, lots of wives nag their husbands, and lots of men talking to each other about Man Things.
I Like to Watch creates a new canon and celebrates a more inclusive notion of quality, beyond the confines of “prestige.” Sex and the City is “a bold riff on the romantic comedy,” in which “complexity carried the day.” Crazy Ex-Girlfriend does “a wonderfully empathetic job exploring what it feels like to be a female magnet for chaos — self-destructive and longing for love.” Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt, a goofy comedy, is a testament to the fact that “[w]hen women’s lives are taken seriously, sexual violence is going to be part of the drama.” Jessica Jones is a “genuine leap” and “distinctly adult, an allegory that is unafraid of ugliness.”
Consuming art as a woman is not always easy. Watching movies is not easy; watching television is not easy. The works made in these mediums are rarely made for us, and are even more rarely made by us. Emily Nussbaum gets that. She sees it. She knows “there’s a tiny aperture for women’s stories — and a presumption that men won’t watch them.” That’s one reason she gave us this collection. I Like to Watch is as essential a critical companion as any of Kael’s books, and it establishes its author as Kael’s peer and heir — whether Nussbaum agrees or not.