The Art of a Glowing Screen

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

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Yes, we've had some good painters over the years. A handful of distinctive poets. A smattering of brilliant novelists. But the greatest American arts—which is to say, the arts most distinctively American—prove surprisingly collaborative, when one stops to think about them. However much we pride ourselves on our muscular individualism, however much we think of art as the work of lone geniuses working alone in lonely garrets, America's archetypal contributions to world art have tended to be group projects and joint endeavors.

The destruction of every American painting would be terrible, no doubt, but painting as an art form would survive. The erasing of every American opera would be . . . kind of terrible, I guess, but the European operatic art would endure. Yes, we've had excellent practitioners in every classic art, but the arts that would be absolutely ruined without America’s contribution? The Broadway musical. The Hollywood movie. The jazz combo. The rock band. And, of course, the television sitcom. Collaborative arts, every one of them.

That word art may need a little jiggling, though, if it gets applied to everything from Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony to the first season of I Dream of Jeannie and the eleventh season of Duck Dynasty. Broadway theater, jazz, and rock have all had detractors, especially in their early days. But the complaints are minor compared with the howls against TV. Paralleling the history of television is a history of complaint about television: the boob tube, the idiot box, the medium that was its own strange message, the device by which we amuse ourselves to death.

In 1961, Newton Minow, the chair of the Federal Communications Commission, gave a much-quoted speech to the National Association of Broadcasters, in which (ah, the days gone by) he called television "a vast wasteland." To watch a day's worth of broadcasting, he said, is to see "a procession of game shows, formula comedies about totally unbelievable families, blood and thunder, mayhem, violence, sadism, murder." Interspersed in all that were the endless commercials "screaming, cajoling, and offending." But "most of all," what characterized television was "boredom."

Minow took his lumps, denounced as a snob in the wonderfully snobbish reverse snobbery—we're just plain folks, ma'am—of successful artists at the time. (And so the S.S. Minnow, the wrecked boat in Gilligan's Island, was named in mockery of him.) But he was not alone in wondering what we were doing to ourselves by airing Mister Ed and Car 54, Where Are You?, together with Top Cat,and Hazel—all shows that debuted in 1961.

And yet, just as the boob tube had its detractors, so it had its defenders. Paralleling the howl of complaint was a steady cheering, greeting each new program as a programming advance: a kind of moveable claim at the beginning of each new season that television had finally—this time—perfected its art.

The latest entry in this genre of praise is Emily Nussbaum's new book, I Like to Watch: Arguing My Way Through the TV Revolution. A Pulitzer Prize-winning television critic, Nussbaum gathers thirty of her columns and essays, her favorites of the work she has done for New York magazine and the New Yorker. And she rounds out the volume with some previously unpublished essays—including a full-throated apologia pro vita sua, in which she explains that her love for (and willingness to argue with her friends about) Buffy the Vampire Slayer proved both the rock on which her pursuit of a graduate degree foundered and the foundation of her career as a reviewer of television shows.

Along the way, she reprints her profiles of successful television showrunners, plants a quixotic flag in praise of Sex and the City, looks back at the likes of Norman Lear, seems to fail to find a single woman in the history of the genre she doesn’t want to think a brave heroine who somehow succeeded despite the male hierarchy of the TV studios, and considers the collaborative, sequential nature of television series—in novelistic terms, a return to the seriatim art of, say, Samuel Richardson and a rejection of the unified story demanded by the next generations of art, from Jane Austen to Henry James.

She is smart, as well, about the #MeToo movement: unwilling to give up either her feminist solidarity or her appreciation for art by the likes of Woody Allen, Roman Polanski, or even Louis C.K. The effort to remind us of her wokeness is a little overbearing, but all in all, I Like to Watch is an informative, quick-prosed read.

The problem, if problem there is, seems to be that Emily Nussbaum consistently refuses to engage the philosophical topics her work suggests. She wants to be smart, more than she wants to be deep—which is a disappointment, given that she clearly has a mind capable of thinking in deeper, more civilizational terms.

Thus, for example, she takes for granted that in the 20 years she has devoted herself to the art form, television has vastly improved. From The Sopranos and Lost and The Wire, down through Deadwood and Breaking Bad, a new vibrancy and artistic power has entered television. Even the bad programs are better than bad programs used to be. Even the middling is somehow more than middling. Jane the Virgin was probably equal to Mister Ed as a guilty pleasure for those who watched television in the years in which the programs aired, but as forgettable, implausible stuff, the latter program was better than the earlier one, in Nussbaum’s artistic canon.

Maybe so. Probably so. Certainly so. TV has improved. But why? Back in the early 1960s, Marshall McLuhan predicted the emergence of something like the Internet. He also suggested it would have an effect on television. Once we have an ability to binge-watch, revisit, and study TV programs in a new way, completely different from the ephemeral broadcasts of the old programs, how could that not influence the makers of programs—the showrunners, the actors, the writers, the directors: the whole human panoply of the collaborative art? "The next medium," McLuhan declared, "will include television as its content, not as its environment." And thereby it will "transform television into an art form."

Maybe so. Probably so. But this is the kind of idea Emily Nussbaum needs to take up—the depth of thought to which she needs to discipline herself.