These are exciting times to be a television critic. Never, in its 90-year history, has this medium offered such richness and variety, from cinematic-quality dramatic series of cinematic quality with scripts of literary complexity to smart comedies that are exploding all the old formulas. The very definition of "television" is shifting, as new technology brings what was once a homebound experience to our smartphones and devices, while the Internet has shaken up the old TV-network model.
Sitting happily amid this maelstrom of change is Emily Nussbaum, the television critic for The New Yorker, who in 2016 won a Pulitzer Prize for her trenchant, and often infectiously enthusiastic, critiques of the cornucopia that is today's TV.
Nor is her writing limited to the high-end fare. Alongside her appreciative reviews of the likes of Wolf Hall and Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt are equally insightful appraisals of cooking shows, true-crime documentaries and comedian Joan Rivers.
"One of the things I like about Emily's work is that she's one of the few people to write long-form reviews that are not just about the quality content," says Joshua Neves, a media professor at Montreal's Concordia University. "So much of what is on television in any form is not these prestige cable shows; it's reality TV and news and talk shows. It's surprising how little of that has been seriously taken up within criticism."
Nussbaum does indeed take television seriously. She's part of a new wave of critics who don't feel the need to apologize for TV or compare it with other, older cultural forms. In fact, she might bridle at the use of the terms "cinematic" and "literary" to describe TV dramas.
"'The critical conversation about television has been distorted by what I often describe as a status anxiety. The way that you praised television was always to compare it to books or movies.'"
- Emily Nussbaum
TV critic, The New Yorker
"The critical conversation about television has been distorted by what I often describe as a status anxiety," Nussbaum says. "The way that you praised television was always to compare it to books or movies. My mission as a television critic has been to try to forge a language of critical response to TV that is actually about what TV is, rather than trying to elevate or defend it."
Nussbaum and Prof. Neves will be discussing the cultural ascendancy of television on Feb. 9 at Concordia as part of Thinking Out Loud – the university's series of public conversations in partnership with The Globe and Mail.
That ascendancy is linked inseparably with the rapid developments in digital technology in the first decades of the 21st century. Television, already a mass medium, is now more ubiquitous than ever as it stakes a claim in cyberspace.
"There's been a lot of new research in the last few years about the Internet's role as a distribution platform for TV," says Prof. Neves, who is the new Canada Research Chair in Global Emergent Media at Concordia. "A lot of people are arguing that it has fundamentally altered the design of the Internet," making it less individualistic and more like a traditional broadcasting system."
According to Prof. Neves, the old "pirate" sites that offered illegal on-line access to content have been mostly shut down, and the TV industry is "pushing people towards various streaming services or, often, a multi-device platform," he notes.
"You can get access to an app on your phone, you can take it on your laptop when you travel, or you can watch it on a larger screen in your living room," he says.
At the same time, such Internet giants as Netflix and Amazon are challenging the big networks as they expand from providing content to producing it as well.
Artistically, however, the TV revolution began with cable in the 1990s, when specialty channels could target niche audiences. It was via cable, and that seminal cult-hit Buffy the Vampire Slayer, that, Nussbaum says, she first became enamoured of TV. "I developed this strange fanhood for Buffy that I'd never had for any kind of art before. I ended up talking about it and debating about it a lot. It got me interested in what was changing in TV."
Cable allowed for experimentation and it still does, with the successful experiments sometimes reshaping whole genres. Nussbaum notes how the original British version of The Office bred a new form of dark, uncomfortable comedy, dubbed "sadcom," which was the antithesis of the familiar upbeat sitcom.
More recently, comedian Louis C.K.'s series Louie, with its indie-film edginess, has influenced another new comedy strain, seen in shows such as rapper Donald Glover's Atlanta. "That form of the sitcom as a kind of indie-auteur film is a really new thing," Nussbaum says. "There weren't shows like that before, and that's partially because the economic model allowed something like that to get greenlighted and made. When there were only three network channels, you couldn't pitch a show like that."
TV without apologies
The New Yorker’s TV critic Emily Nussbaum and Concordia University’s Joshua Neves discuss viewing platforms, binge-watching and what they’re hooked on now
Why has television become so good?
Joshua Neves: There is more money and bigger stars and
higher production values in television shows, which is a response to major shifts within the industry. With the Internet, Hollywood and other production centres are now able to recoup big investments from TV productions in a way that they couldn’t merely through commercials, syndication and a limited aftermarket with VHS and DVDs.
Emily Nussbaum: It has a lot to do with the technology. When I was growing up, TV was live; you couldn’t pause, save and store shows. That’s such a significant change, not just for viewers but for TV makers, too. I had a conversation with [The Wire creator] David Simon, who said he didn’t decide [just] to make a show that had a denser style – you could only do it once you could begin to pause and rewind, but also when you could discuss it on the Internet and decode it. Once you could take clips out and put them on-line and say, “What do you think is happening in this scene?” – that radically changed what TV makers could do. There’s a different kind of show you can make if you can treat it like a text.
In what way do you consume television and how many hours a week do you watch?
Nussbaum: I watch on my computer, on my phone, an iPad as well as on a big screen. I feel that’s how most people watch TV at this point, so I want to watch it in the same way. I have no idea how much I watch in a week.
Neves: I probably use my laptop more than anything and that’s certainly true of my students, too. Being a Californian who now lives in Montreal, I find myself watching more television in the winter, when it gets quite cold and it’s dark early. I’d say I watch from a couple of hours on a not-busy night to, like anyone on a cold weekend, binge-watching a show.
What do you think of the binge-watching phenomenon?
Nussbaum: It’s great. I do it occasionally, if I’m not caught up with a show and I decide I want to review it. Sometimes it’s a horrible experience, like when I watched three seasons of The Walking Dead all in a row. [Laughs.] But I have to say that it’s an incredibly pleasurable thing to watch a show that is really good or stimulating or smart, all in one go, and immerse yourself in it.
Neves: But when discussing the role of television in our society, this is one of the areas where you get some of the sharpest criticism. It’s seen as being the perfect example of how we’re taken over and exhausted by TV. People seem very skeptical about the pleasures involved in it.
What shows have you been watching lately that you’re most excited about?
Neves: I recently watched an Australian comedy called Please Like Me, which I rather enjoyed and fits with that trend of small, personal, quirky, smart shows. I’ve also recently watched the British series Fleabag, which is good example of this sort of dark and funny show that doesn’t quite give you what you think you’re going to get.
Nussbaum: Among dramas, I’m really excited to see the next season of The Americans. It’s this incredibly moving, smart and uncompromising drama about intimacy. Then there’s a whole range of half-hour shows that I could name, the standouts being Fleabag and Atlanta. Also, I love musicals, and Crazy Ex-Girlfriend is this strange experimental show that I really dig.
Emily Nussbaum is the television critic for The New Yorker, for which she won the 2016 Pulitzer Prize for Criticism. She was previously the culture editor for New York Magazine and has written for The New York Times and Slate.
Joshua Neves is an assistant professor at Concordia University’s Mel Hoppenheim School of Cinema and the Canada Research Chair in Global Emergent Media. His lab is dedicated to the critical study of global new media.
The do-it-yourself nature of the Internet has also allowed creators to bypass the industry and make their own TV. "One of the most exciting shows in the last few years that I've watched is High Maintenance," Nussbaum says, praising the Web series' highly visual style of storytelling.
Prof. Neves, however, questions the motives of television being created on-line. "It doesn't constitute an alternative TV culture so much as it represents another aperture into the industry." Sure enough, High Maintenance was picked up by HBO and, Nussbaum notes, its quality has since fallen off.
For all her enthusiasm, there is one current TV trend that Nussbaum could do without. "What is a perpetual frustration to me is this notion that there has to be this one show that everybody should be watching," she says, alluding to such heavily hyped dramas as Mad Men and Game of Thrones.
"The truth is, there's a range of kinds of ambition on TV and not everyone wants to watch the same thing.
"I tend to like shows that are doing something new with the medium and that take risks. I'm always looking for something that changes the medium at large and is not just individually a good show, because that's where the real excitement lies."
|THINKING OUT LOUD|
Thinking Out Loud features live events and podcasts, sharing big ideas with the public. Join us for a live event in Montreal (Emily Nussbaum on Feb. 9; Ethan Song and Andrew Molson on Mar. 1, and more) or listen to clips from past events. Find out more at www.concordia.ca/tol.
This content was produced by The Globe and Mail's Globe Edge Content Studio, in consultation with an advertiser. The Globe's editorial department was not involved in it's creation.