INTERVIEWS November 4, 2022

A Conversation with Emily Nussbaum

Emily Nussbaum is a Pulitzer Prizewinner in Criticism “for television reviews written with an affection that never blunts the shrewdness of her analysis or the easy authority of her writing.” She is the author of I Like to Watch: Arguing My Way Through the TV Revolution and was the television critic for The New Yorker from 2011 until January 2020, when she stepped back from the TV column to write her second book, which will focus on early reality TV. She has written about The Good Wife, Girls, Mad Men, and Scandal, among other shows. Previously, she worked as an editor and writer at New York Magazine, editing The Culture Pages (and creating the Approval Matrix) and writing both features and criticism. She won a 2014 National Magazine Award for Columns and Commentary. She has also written for Slate, The New York Times, Lingua Franca, and Nerve, among other publications. In March 2022, Nussbaum sat down with Booth to discuss reality TV, Twitter, and why she doesn’t give career advice.

Kellie Rizer Stewart (KRS): Your debut book, I Like to Watch: Arguing My Way Through the TV Revolution, was published in 2019. In the years since then, with the entire world looking much different than it did prior to 2020, do you think there’s been continued improvement in what’s considered “good TV?”

Emily Nussbaum (EN): The pandemic started when I went on leave to write my second book, and I’m writing a book about early reality television right now. So, I haven’t been writing [The New Yorker TV] column during this time. I’ve only had a tourist’s relationship with television, and right after I went on leave, I wasn’t watching a lot of TV because I’d been watching so much before. It was kind of a break from it. I just watched what I liked. I like TV, so I was watching a bunch of shit. I only know the things that trend pieces talk about, much of which was during quarantine. People were watching things, and there was this sort of binge-watching phenomenon that took place involving certain shows that became cultural crazes. Now, people remember in this foggy way, “Why were we all watching Tiger King?” I didn’t actually watch that one. One of the weird things was the question of how TV production worked during the pandemic, because a lot of shows had to stop producing. Then there was this question of how shows should reflect or not reflect the pandemic, and there were a few shows about the pandemic midway through it. They were largely unsuccessful. I watched one of them that was a series of short stories. The people from Orange Is the New Black did that one. It was sort of Zoom-based stories. It was interesting because there is a residue of those attempts. It’s that classic thing when something disastrous happens where there are shows that accidentally reflect the things that happened and speak to people because of that. There were only two that I think portrayed the pandemic well, and one of them was Love Life on HBO. The first season is fine. It’s not great, just okay. It’s in the realm of shows dealing with young people’s single lives, and it’s about this one woman and sort of goes through her entire single life and the different boyfriends she has over time. It’s smart but not anything that exceptional. The second season, for some reason, rises to this whole new level. It’s about this young black guy in publishing in New York who’s sort of neurotic in a precise and specific way with women. He goes through several relationships, and the pandemic is actually portrayed on the show. It’s such a shocker because you get to those episodes and you’re like, “Oh, yeah, this makes total sense.” It actually shows how it affected him and his relationships in a way that I found really smart. The other one is The Good Fight. It had one episode that showed the entire year of 2020.

KRS: Wow, just one episode?

EN: Yeah, when they came back for the first episode of the season, it was basically an extended. . . what is that thing that they show at the beginning of a TV show to show what you missed? “Last season on,” you know? Like that. The entire episode was basically filling the audience in on what had happened to all the characters over the course of the pandemic. I really recommend seeing it. It was brilliant, and one of the characters ended up getting COVID and was in a ward in Chicago. I don’t know how to describe it. It was just extremely powerful and sort of audacious, but not pretentious. It’s the only show that I’ve seen portraying people wearing masks and dealing with COVID that didn’t seem pathetic or well intended but clumsy. That one, I thought, was really good. The worst of them was The Morning Show. Have you ever seen The Morning Show?

KRS: The one with Jennifer Aniston? I’ve not watched it.

EN: It is a nightmare. 

KRS: It’s not good?

EN: No, it’s terrible. It’s literally one of these things where it has a potentially interesting subject. It’s set in a Katie Couric-type NBC story. It has great actors in it. However, it’s one of those shows that made me appreciate [American TV-and-film screenwriter, playwright, and director] Aaron Sorkin shows. I don’t like Aaron Sorkin shows, but at least they’re highly energetic and have this Sorkin-y specific feeling about them, with this aggressive language and pacing. So, [The Morning Show] is exactly like a Sorkin show. It’s only about the media elite and these very important, glossy people who are treated as the most important people in the world. However, it’s so corny and self-serious. It’s a bad show with great actors, a huge budget, and incredible resources. I think something went wrong in the process of making that. There are so many misbegotten plots. In the second season, the Katie Couric character--it’s so crazy . . . the Matt Lauer character has been Me Too’d out of his job. He is in Italy, and she goes to visit him in Italy at the height of COVID. It’s borderline offensive. It’s like, you took a horrible disaster in which a lot of people died, and you made it the weird backdrop for the situation of: How does Katie Couric feel about Matt Lauer? Anyway, that one was not my favorite. 

KRS: That’s very thorough!

EN: That’s a rundown of the shows that did it well, the ones that did it poorly, and the shows that attempted something because it was such a difficult situation. I think it’s still hard on set because people have to wear masks and get tested multiple times throughout the week because they cannot risk going under. Obviously, there’s a danger of somebody getting seriously ill, but it’s not really about that. You just cannot take the risks. When I was on a TV set recently, it was kind of miserable. I don’t mind wearing a mask at all, but you’re spending a 16-, 17-hour day on a TV set that’s very dark, everybody’s masked, and it just feels like being in a submarine. I feel a lot of sympathy for people making shows, because it’s a glamorous profession, but it’s always a little shocking to me how long the hours are and the additional pressure and frustration that exists now. Now all writers’ rooms are held on Zoom. I think it’s affected the entire industry in a variety of ways. At least, from what I’ve seen. 

KRS: You’ve discussed how American television writer and TV-and-film producer Norman Lear used the All in the Family character of Archie Bunker as an educational tool. Archie, played as a white man with bigoted, socially conservative views, perceived the rise of ethnic minorities, such as African Americans, Hispanics, and Jews, as a threat to his way of life. Sascha Cohen wrote in a Smithsonian magazine article “How Archie Bunker Forever Changed in the American Sitcom” that “to these white conservative viewers, he represented something of a folk hero. They purchased ’Archie for President’ memorabilia unironically and sympathized with his longing for the good old days. Archie was both the emotional center of All in the Family and the clear target of its ridicule.” What do you think is the responsibility of creators of all forms of art and entertainment in relation to these “educational tools?”

EN: I don’t think TV is an educational or moral tool. I don’t think that creators can control how people respond to their work. I think of humans as moral and ethical beings, and so I think it’s worth thinking about the ways that art functions in the world. It’s a burden to place on the artist to think, “Am I going to change people with my art?” In fact, that leads to some of the worst art. There are a lot of shows whose politics I agree with, but because they’re pedantic and cheesy, they’re bad art. If they happen to help people, that’s probably good, but they are to be judged on their originality, richness of vision, the sense of surprise--all of the kinds of layers that you look for. Otherwise, every TV show would just be like an Afterschool Special or something that’s trying to stop something bad. Norman Lear is one of my heroes, and he transformed television with his shows in the 1970s. Like a lot of TV, they were responses to earlier TV. He felt that shows about family, like The Adventures of Ozzie and Harriet-type shows, were these bland, phony shows that sold people a false image of what families were actually like, and he wanted to shatter that image on TV. So, he created shows in part as a response. He was a major liberal activist, and he definitely felt like it was very important to put a different kind of representation on TV and also, during that period, to offer a representation of the kind of political clashes that were going on. He believed in representation on TV and giving people not positive role models but a vision of themselves. All in the Family is a very complicated show. Like all TV, it’s not just one thing. It’s based on a British show and also on Norman Lear’s father, who was kind of a shady, Jewish, gangster type. He was not like Archie Bunker but was bigoted and a bit of a bully. And, of course, he’s making it in the context of network television, so it has to go through the system of making it there. There was a certain amount of pushback that Lear resisted. It was a massive hit. I do think he did not predict or even to a certain extent accept the fact that some people would watch that show and see Archie not as an empathetic comedy to be critiqued and mocked as that bigoted guy from Queens, but they saw themselves in there. People act like these discussions on TV are new. They’re not new. There were numerous debates about television in the 70s about whether or not television was harmful to people. Part of this was because there was an assumption that TV was not an art form but like something that was slipped into the public water supply: Is it going to be like fluoride and improve public health or going to harm people and be poisonous? There was a very complex debate about it. The one thing that is undeniable is that there was a split between Norman Lear’s intent, which was to shock people and shake them up and provide good art. It’s a nice thing as a critic; it’s sometimes your job to describe the split, not just between the author’s intent but between the multiple audiences of a show and how they see it. I can describe how I see something, but then I can also recognize others’ responses. To me, one of the unique and powerful things about TV is that it does have that quality of creating multiple audiences. 

KRS: Yes, you brought that up during your reading, where you used the example of the American version of The Office being a response to the British version of The Office, which was a mockumentary in response to reality TV. 

EN: I’ve always felt that The Office is a tantrum in response to reality television. It’s a mockumentary, and it shows how the cameras make Ricky Gervais’ character, who is already a narcissistic person, into a monster. Then, the American The Office really changed that interpretation. Not only is it warmer, but it shows [the character of] Michael changing for the better. At the end of the show, it really is an odd conclusion, in that almost everyone who was on the show was positively affected by being on this apparently 10-year documentary. Except for Andy. However, the rest of them, their lives were in certain ways improved by being on the show. Specifically, Jim and Pam, when their marriage is in trouble, are confronted with all the footage of him looking at her from across the room, and it helps repair their marriage. It’s just kind of an interesting thing. However, there are numerous examples of shows responding to earlier shows. Seinfeld was in response to the warm, cheesy family sitcoms of the 80s. I think it’s a good thing about TV. 

KRS: Certainly, TV is always evolving. In fact, you’ve announced that you’re working on a forthcoming book about early reality TV. I’m curious about whether or not you consider some reality TV to be “good.” If so, why?

EN: My book is actually about the years 1947 to 2004, and it’s not about a lot of reality TV shows that people watch now. It’s about the development of the genre and covers many different kinds of shows. You know, in contrast to my sort of resistance to talking about scripted shows being moral or immoral, I’m sure I could come up with unscripted shows that I think have immoral qualities. In general, I’m resistant to treating art that way. Reality TV is complicated. I’m still working out my feelings about this, but it is kind of impossible to research or write about it without feeling the rot at the heart of some of the kinds of exploitation that goes on in reality-TV production. Especially during a period when people genuinely didn’t know what they were getting into. I’m not a huge reality-TV fan in general.  These shows are so powerful that they kind of violate the categories of good and bad. Are they effective and poignant and do they teach things about human nature? Are they illuminating in ways that scripted shows can’t be? I think the third season of The Real World with Pedro Zamora (HIV/AIDS advocate) was a weird masterpiece. It was a beautiful story that came out of the brilliant casting and the actions of the people in it. It’s a real thing that happened, but it was also a controlled thing. Part of the reason why it works is that the two main characters actually knew they were going on a show. So, they were kind of playing themselves but were also authentically participating in this weird human interaction. Each one was both the villain and the hero of the show. Pretty much every show after 2003, when people went on [a reality-TV show], they understood what reality TV was. I’m not saying that ways in which they were exploited or hurt aren’t real or legitimate or that some people don’t have gripes, but it’s like that quote in Airplane: “They bought their tickets. They knew what they were getting into. I say let them crash.” There’s a different quality to reality TV after 2003 because up until that point, it was a more genuine genre. I think there’s a level of never being quite prepared for reality TV because people don’t know how they’ll be taken out of context. However, they were making a conscious choice and actually acting as partners with the creators by self-branding themselves and understanding that they’re acting badly in order to be a villain. That’s not true of the period I’m writing about, when people—including some of the people making it--were often participating as a genuine social experiment. A kind of documentary combined with other genres. It’s a journey documentary because it’s mixing documentary with game shows, mixing documentary with talent contests, with soap opera. As with scripted TV, you can’t summarize things in any one way, but are there shows that are important? Are there shows that are powerful? Yes. Are there shows that are good? I think a lot of shows can have multiple contradictory qualities morally and still have a big influence. I don’t know whether or not you’ve heard of An American Family

KRS: I haven’t.

EN:  It was an enormously controversial show that came out in 1973 that some people consider the first reality TV show. That’s arguable. However, the conversations that people have nowadays about, you know, “Are Americans narcissists?” or “Why are they airing their dirty laundry on television?” have deep roots.

KRS: I’ll have to give An American Family a look. Clearly, you’ve had a long career writing essays and TV reviews. In 2016, you won the Pulitzer Prize in Criticism. Did accomplishing what many consider the pinnacle of this industry initiate a desire to expand into writing books?  

EN: Well, I mean, it really is just because when you’re a journalist, there will always come the occasion when you think, “Should I write a book?” My husband is a journalist, and he’s written two books. My [debut book, I Like to Watch: Arguing My Way Through the TV Revolution] is an anthology that includes new essays. There were certain themes that I’d consistently written about over the years that I felt would make a good book. It’s a kind of anthology that makes an argument for developing a new language to talk about TV. It detaches it from the status anxiety that has haunted it as a medium, that has to do with the history of television. So, I put together essays that tried to develop that argument. I also included profiles of TV creators who kind of exemplify some of these things, especially in terms of broader representation and different kinds of people making TV combined with the kinds of people making TV using campy stuff like soap operas and provocative, brightly colored TV, reviving the sitcom. It’s stuff that people don’t think of within the category of prestigious TV, like the serious anti-hero drama. I was trying to expand people’s notion of what kind of TV is worthy of serious consideration. That doesn’t mean puffing up every show, but it means treating it with seriousness as a genuine art form. I happened to have written [the book] in the fall of 2017 and ended up writing a 20,000-word essay on the Me Too movement, which was not my original intent.  That essay sort of deals with stuff in a slightly different way, and that’s the one kind of personal essay within the book. The answer is, when you’re a writer, sometimes you think you should write a book. Be careful what you wish for. 

KRS: Well, that’s a great, honest answer and something that I too hope to do someday. I did a deep dive into your Twitter feed. It’s both informative and highly entertaining. I, too, wonder what the relationship between the California Raisins and M&M mascots would be. Hopefully positive, as they’re both tasty and convenient snacks. Anyway, you frequently use your Twitter platform to create discourse and share articles regarding social activism, such as the The New York Times opinion essay “A Young Activist’s Advice: Vote, Shave Your Head and Cry Whenever You Need To,” written by youth-gun-reform activist Emma González. What do you think is the relationship between political and social issues and pop culture and media?

EN: I know my Twitter feed has a professional aspect to it, and I try not to say things that are going to be idiotic or offensive to my colleagues. The thing is, it’s not necessarily professional. I retweeted Emma González’s piece because there’s a lot of terrible news going on and I find it to be a moving essay. I think I was on Twitter before I started at The New Yorker, and I was on it because my husband’s a technology-driven journalist, and he wrote an excellent piece about Twitter very early on for The New York Times about social proprioception. I’ve always been a digital/online person, and Twitter is actually the only thing I’ve ever used about which I thought, “I literally do not understand why this exists.” It took me three months to understand why anyone would use Twitter. I stayed on it, though, and I think there was an asteroid shower and everybody was tweeting about it simultaneously. It felt like this nice community experience where people were trading jokes and observations. However, the way I’ve always thought about Twitter was the way the late [American columnist and The New York Times critic] David Carr talked about it. He was a big advocate for journalists to use Twitter. I know people think that Twitter is incredibly toxic, and it is in many ways, but he was essentially like, Twitter is a social environment. It’s not a printing press. It’s not like having a publication. It’s like going to a party. He regarded it as like reaching a ladle in and pulling out a conversation and then reaching another ladle in. It’s a constant, ongoing thing. That’s how I’ve always thought about it. I’m a relatively social person, and Twitter, interestingly, works for both introverts and extroverts, which is unusual. I regard it as going to a party . . . a weird party where everything you say lasts forever and everyone around the globe can hear you. I appreciate how it gives me access to hearing other voices and talking to other people, sometimes about TV. I do think people get confused because I’m not unlike the person I am on Twitter, but in the same way that I’m not unlike the person I am at a party. Neither of them is my whole self. I don’t think of it in a self-conscious way other than trying not to be a jerk, which is so tempting when people say stupid things. I used to get into arguments with people occasionally, and then I decided it was like shouting through a straw. However, I have had fruitful debates at times. I think if you’re mutually respectful, sometimes it can be fine. It’s a good test of your self-control because there’s this quality of, can you speak to somebody with different views than you. I’ve found it valuable for getting outside of my bubble, and I have access to a global television audience. Like, when Scandal was out, people were talking about the complex racial dynamics of Scandal, and I felt like it was very interesting for me to hear from fans from different backgrounds who were globally discussing it. Professional TV people are only one small audience. So, hearing from various viewers helped as I was writing my piece. It illuminated for me the different ways in which people perceived the seeming color-blindness of the show in the first season. That’s just an example; I’ve talked to people about all kinds of different shows. 

KRS: You’ve previously posted Twitter polls asking your followers what movies and TV they recommend that you watch. Whether it’s with a poll or asking followers for recommendations, do you find that the results usually steer you well?

EN: I’m sure I’ve had both. It’s like having a conversation with people. Recommendations for shows? I’ve gotten great ones. I had a friend who was going through a very terrible period recently. She was in a lot of pain, and she was looking for a cozy, comforting, but very intelligent TV show, and she had a desire for shows without murder. She was looking for a specific type of show, so I put out a post looking for that sort of thing. It created a gargantuan thread. One of the reasons I like doing that is I know it’s useful to people beyond the person I’m making it for. Sometimes, I have posted just for my writings as a critic. I would just say, “What out there is really good that people are talking about?” There’s a huge number of shows out there. One time, somebody recommended an Australian television show called Please Like Me. I watched it and it was wonderful. I would never have known about it otherwise. So, I find Twitter useful in that way.

KRS: Speaking of the immense number of shows out there, you’ve referred to a “crankiness of critics” caused by the overwhelming selection of TV at everyone’s fingertips, which is largely due to the high number of streaming services pumping out new shows. Do you believe that more options will equate to a higher level of art?

EN: I think the main thing is that television is an industry that has changed radically and not just within the last 10 years, as literally every year there’s a major change in how production works, how technology works. Streaming didn’t exist until a few years ago. Now, it’s a dominant thing. People used to not be able to schedule when to watch a television show. Now, you can watch entire seasons at once. There used to be only network, then there was network-less cable and some of the cable networks had niche brands with specific types of shows they would make. Now, there are all these oddball streaming networks. My feeling about it is that I only care so much, as I want there to be models that allow good and original shows to survive. I don’t care whether it’s on a network or on a streaming thing or on cable. I do care whether or not small shows that are never going to get a large audience actually have means of survival. Historically, as TV was a mass medium that happened on three networks, you literally couldn’t keep a show on the air unless it got a huge audience. Now, it’s possible to survive with just a small audience. That’s an improvement. Like anything, books, movies, there are some that are garbage and there are some that are great and there are a lot that are in between. The real problem is just wanting to draw attention to the good art and not wanting it to get subsumed in a wave of content. It’s tempting, I think, when watching something like Netflix to watch mediocre stuff that just happens to come up because they have such a good interface. It’s just as much a technological issue as it has anything to do with quality. It’s frustrating because I feel like it sometimes takes the attention away from good shows. 

KRS: I get overwhelmed when I go on Netflix and only see the top three or so shows featured, and then I scroll for 20 minutes and either give up or just settle on something.

EN: Definitely. 

KRS: In your book, you use the example of Tony Soprano as “the first of the great middle-aged, white male anti-heroes who would dominate TV for nearly a decade.” I’m a self-admitted Euphoria fanatic. Do you consider the character of Rue, a teenage drug addict, to be redefining the modern-day TV anti-hero?

EN: It’s weird, because the thing about Tony Soprano is that The Sopranos was a very important show on multiple levels. One of them is that television had historically not been able to support characters that upset or alienated the audience, because the economic model of network television was that you had to keep inviting the person back every week. So, if the audience didn’t like them or if they upset the audience, you couldn’t really maintain a viewership. They experimented with this at times. There was a show called Buffalo Bill starring Dabney Coleman as this egotistical, crusty talk-show host. It’s a show about a guy who’s not all that likable, and it was a flop. I remember there were a bunch of articles making the case that you can’t have a negative character on TV. Tony Soprano and the rise of the rule-breaking, middle-aged, male anti-heroes was a breakthrough and opened the door to different kinds of characters. The fact that they were all created by middle-aged white guys was not a coincidence. That is perhaps an accidental, but good use of privilege. Because those guys ran TV in general, they had the most leeway to experiment and get things greenlighted. They created shows that were reflections of their own frustrations with television and making things in a form that has a lot of rules and a lot of people telling you what to do. Many of those shows ended up being reflections of midlife crises for men wanting to do what they want and exert power and control over their shows. One of the results of that was that once people felt comfortable being able to tolerate that characterization, those doors were walked through by many different kinds of people. There were a lot of female anti-heroes of various types. Not only anti-heroes but characters that made people uncomfortable in different ways. On Enlightened, which is a brilliant show, the character of Amy Jellicoe is not an anti-hero, but she is a character that strikes a nerve. She’s a particular female character that I argue is part of a rise of female characters that didn’t just comfort you and make you feel good to identify with them. They actually jangled and agitated you. Rue is a pretty sympathetic character, as far as I can see. I’ve only seen the first season of the show. I mean, she’s an addict, so she can be a fuck up, but the show actually treats her as a sympathetic sort of gimlet-eyed viewer of the world. She’s a darkly romantic vision of an addict that her friends want to help and has potential. That’s not quite the same to me as an anti-hero. It depends on how you define it. 

KRS: That’s a great description.  

EN: Well, I’ve only seen the first season plus one episode of the second season, so I don’t want to claim grand things. I just think it’s in a different tradition.

KRS: That’s fair, and while we’re on the topic of Euphoria, you’ve said in interviews that the most interesting TV shows include leads that are women, people of color, and members of the LGBTQ+ community. Euphoria features every one of these marginalized groups. Do you believe this is what’s contributed to the show’s critical and cultural success? 

EN: There are numerous shows out there that are far more inclusive and diverse. Euphoria is a successful show because it’s a teen sensation and it’s really dirty. It excites a youth audience, and it’s definitely powerful to have a trans actress on the show. However, there are also many other shows at this point that have both trans and gay people on the show. Many shows have racially diverse casts and specifically because there’s been a pushback on the overall whiteness of television. There are a bunch of great, queer people, black people creating television. However, that’s always been the difficult part behind the scenes: getting black and brown and gay and female people behind the camera and creating shows. I don’t think Euphoria is a standout in that way at all. The conversation surrounding it is actually sort of frustrating because the reason it’s successful seems obvious to me. It’s a show about unbelievably hot teenagers partying and having sex all the time in pornographic ways. I don’t think people are watching it because it’s a socially progressive show.  

KRS: What examples of more diverse shows stand out to you?

EN: There are a million shows that I think are more interesting when it comes to this subject. This isn’t to put down Euphoria. Again, I haven’t even seen the second season. So, I’ll never judge something I haven’t seen. I think Euphoria’s interesting, and I think it breeds a great chaos within the audience that they wouldn’t expect. It’s also fascinating how it’s filmed. The episode that I saw was really striking in a way that is very much about the influx of directorial approaches that vary on TV. That didn’t used to be the case. Other shows that have diverse characters are, for instance, South Side, a brilliant sitcom on HBO. Abbott Elementary is this big breakout sitcom on TV right now. The Good Fight is a great show that’s set at a black law firm in Chicago, with a million different racial and political issues within it. It’s approached in a fascinating and challenging way. If I’m specifically naming diverse shows, We Are Lady Parts is about a Muslim, female band and is a brilliant show. In PEN15, one of the characters is a biracial woman and she talks about it, but that’s not what the show is about. The show’s about her, and that’s just an element of her. A lot of the shows that I watch have varied and diverse casts, but that’s not really what they’re about, per se. As We See It is a very good show that’s about three people on the Autism spectrum who are living together. I want there to be more representation on TV of all sorts of categories. The thing is, the reason I want more representation on TV is because it makes stories more interesting and provides a wider variety of art. Who wants to hear the same thing over and over again from the same person? It also gives more freedom to creators. I think there is the capacity for a show to be diverse and explicitly political and also great and powerful. However, I don’t think that’s what makes a show a good show. It has to go beyond that; otherwise, that’s the worst kind of diversity. I’m not talking about Euphoria, but the worst kind of diversity is when someone’s best friend is a good person who is an immigrant. And they’re there to show the audience that immigrants are people and should be treated as such. However, that goes without saying. That’s not really what art is. 

KRS: That goes back to what you were saying about TV shows becoming Afterschool Specials. You brought this up during your Visiting Writers Series reading, when you were talking about some of the reasons why you didn’t like And Just Like That….

EN: One of the problems with And Just Like That . . . is it almost hilariously, with well-meaning intent, attempts to bring people of color into their world. However, it’s in this utterly artificial way where they decide that if there’s going to be people of color in their world, it has to be a learning curve for the original characters, as if they’ve never met any black people. Part of the reason it makes no sense--among the many, many reasons it makes no sense--is that [the character of] Miranda had a black boyfriend on Sex and the City. It wasn’t the best plot on the show, but I thought it was a plot that was very funny and made fun of Miranda’s own exoticization of her boyfriend. She basically got involved with him because she was watching a British show about an interracial couple, and she became obsessed with it. Les and Mimi,or something like that. She got obsessed with it, and then she got involved with this guy who was a black sports-medicine doctor. They dated for quite a while. We enter [And Just Like That…] as though she’s never met a black person. Obviously, the [main characters], like everybody else, have been shaken up by many different social movements, by the Trump administration, by the Black Lives Matter movement. That makes sense. Yet, the show does it in such an incredibly unoriginal way. However, I would argue that the worst character on the show is the best character on the show, which is Che Diaz [played by Sara Ramirez]. They’re this nonbinary podcaster who is unbearable. However, you can’t look away from them. I’d rather something be interesting and a mess than it be boring and just telling you what to think. I don’t know whether it’s interesting on purpose or interesting by accident. There’s been a lot of criticism over the way the character’s treated, but I actually like that part of the show because at least it has some chaos. That’s what I would say about Euphoria. At least it’s a chaotic show.     

KRS: When you’re reading books or watching movies, are you looking for similar elements that you appreciate in TV shows?

EN: I’m looking for stuff that I think is good and interesting. I think that’s true with all art.

KRS: You’ve widely shared the story of how the origin of your career as a TV critic can be credited to watching an episode of Buffy the Vampire Slayer. At the time, you were a PhD student studying Victorian Literature at NYU. I have also experienced a sharp, career shift. What is your advice to anyone feeling the draw to begin a new career when already working themselves down a trajectory to a vastly different profession? 

EN: I don’t think people like me should be offering young people advice. 

KRS: You don’t? 

EN: No, because sometimes people ask, “How can I follow your career path?” Journalism specifically has changed so much. I often feel like older people’s advice is anecdotal. I only ever give people practical advice, some of which is based on experience. This isn’t about a career shift, because lots of people do that. Also, things are driven by economics. Some people have gargantuan student loans, and they can only make choices based on that. I think it would be high-handed of me to give people general advice about shifting careers. Obviously, the ideal thing is to work in the field that you’re passionate about, that supports you, that you’re good at. That’s the ideal thing in the world. However, the world is more complicated than that. The only advice that I give people includes two canned pieces of advice that I give to classes when they ask me this stuff. One of them is that as a journalist, if you’re offered a job working for a small publication or institution that is relatively economically well supported, you should take it over a large place. At a small place, you will learn how to do everything. You’ll have the opportunity to build a community. This is just my experience. Basically, a start-up with money is a great place to start. You will get to do more kinds of work than you would as an intern at the bottom of a large institution. It’s also because there are other people working there who are at the beginning of their career, and you can build relationships with them. As they move on to other jobs, you stay in touch with them, support one another, and end up working for each other. It was very useful to me to write for Lingua Franca,because a lot of the writers and editors at Lingua Franca are people who went on to have great careers and are intellectually inspiring. That was the kind of magazine that was read by other writers, so that was helpful. The other thing is that, and this isn’t about schmoozing, it’s good to be liked by editors, because they are very overworked and they want to work with people who they find are good to work with. The other thing that I would say is to respect the fact that editors and writers have interconnected jobs and that editors are very overworked. Being responsible, a good communicator, and being able to take criticism from editors in a reasonable way are also helpful in starting a career. These are just practical career things. They’re not about that larger thing of should you change your life. Obviously, you should change your life if you can do so and it puts you on a better path. I was just talking to somebody yesterday who used to be in finance and then went into the arts. That was a good decision for them, but I’m not a career counselor. I always said if I knew anything about economics, I would not have gone into arts criticism. I do think that older journalists offer completely terrible advice to young people, because journalism has collapsed as an industry. All the magazines are in trouble. Newspapers have disappeared. Web journalism doesn’t pay well. There are huge labor problems, and arts criticism is particularly fraught. I don’t want to advise people to do things that are kind of idealistic, like, “Go for it!” People have to make their own grounded decisions about how to make their life better. 

KRS:  I appreciate that. My undergrad degree was in magazine journalism, and I interned at a newspaper that had just combined their radio, TV, and online all in the same building, on the same floor. I remember interning there and thinking that I couldn’t do this forever. They were very overworked and stressed. 

EN: That’s the thing: I love arts journalism, especially arts criticism. I love investigative journalism. I think it’s really valuable. I didn’t go to journalism school or anything, but it’s undeniable that a lot of these jobs are at risk, in danger of getting eliminated. That’s just true. 

KRS: As someone who is a professional critic, do you think your work has allowed you to better take criticism towards yourself from both professional reviews and internet trolls?

EN: Probably more than some people and less than others. I try to bear in mind that there are things I write that probably hurt individual artists. It’s the nature of being a critic that I was somewhat resistant to early on. I didn’t necessarily want to be a critic, per se. I did want to talk about television. One thing I used to believe about writing about television specifically was writing a certain kind of pan of a TV show was a way of praising television. I thought it showed that you had high standards and expected it to be good, because for so long people just took it for granted. It used to be that if a show tried anything ambitious, bully for it. Let’s write a nice thing. I think now there’s a certain kind of negative review I write that has a sort of niche. The side effect of that is I understand the artist might read it and be hurt by it. That’s just the nature of it. If I put something out, of course some people are not going to like it. I know there are people who hate my work. There’s just nothing you can do about it. You cannot control people’s responses to you. You just do the best that you can. I’m not unsympathetic to people who get paralyzed by their anxiety of criticism. Unfortunately, the internet makes criticism much more visible. It’s like you have access to people just shit-talking you in weird corners. Most people are egotistical, and they do search for stuff. You know, I did read my Goodreads reviews. I just don’t have a problem with that and, actually, I found them useful. If people like my book, that’s gratifying. The people who had criticism were often quite interesting, and some of them seemed to totally misunderstand it. Some had things I didn’t necessarily agree with but taught me something about the way the work was perceived or said things that I agreed with when I thought critically about my own writing. One of the things that worries me about criticism in general is, who would want every artist to be a sociopath with unbelievably thick skin who is never affected by criticism? That would mean that all artists are just monstrous egotists who are never affected by how others respond to them. As far as my criticisms, I’m not writing for the artist, and the people who are responding to my book are not writing for me. I’m very critical of myself, so I’m not surprised other people are critical of me. I think most writers are a mixture of grandiosity and self-loathing. I think it’s native to many artistic professions, and arts critics are no different. 

KRS: I think it’s a good reminder that book reviews, movie-and-TV reviews are not for the creators. They’re for potential audiences.

EN: Goodreads is also a swamp of pathology in certain areas. I’m not a proponent of cancel culture, but there are situations in Young Adult literature, for instance, where people have read an early version of the book and taken it out of context. It’s one thing to write a criticism of a book; it’s another to say that this phrase is racist, this person and this book must be destroyed. Sometimes, they’re right, but a large portion of the time, it’s just a poisonous atmosphere that doesn’t have much to do with meaningful criticisms of work in its context. I do think there’s probably a subset of readers that participate in this in a way. I think it’s reasonable to criticize. Do I think that writers should attack their critics? Absolutely not, and people have a right to hate your book for whatever reason, whether they’re right or wrong. Of course, sometimes, they’re right about the racial politics in the book. I just think there’s a kind of mob mentality online sometimes. Some people feel very strongly about several things, including the idea that the only people who should write books are the people from the same identity of the people in the books. That’s not my feeling, but there’s a whole movement about that. I think that’s part of the reason why people who write books that speak to young people have to do a subset of progressive tasks. It doesn’t seem to affect essayists as much. It seems to be in certain subcommunities. Some of the conversations may be healthy, because I think it’s good to discuss the politics and representations in works. I just think that the algorithmic nature of social networking and the way that things can go from zero to one hundred is often not the most reasoned conversation. 

KRS: What are you currently reading? What are you currently watching? We’ve already touched on these topics a bit, but what else would you really like to point out? 

EN: I’m reading a bunch of different things. My colleague, Kathryn Schulz, wrote a wonderful memoir called Lost & Found about her father’s death, among other things. That’s really good. I’m reading a couple of different books for work. There’s a very good biography of Ben Hecht, who was a screenwriter in Hollywood. I want to read this book called Red Carpet: Hollywood, China, and the Global Battle for Cultural Supremacy

KRS: That sounds fascinating.   

EN: I started reading the new Jonathan Franzen book, Crossroads: A Novel, which I want to read so I can have opinions about Jonathan Franzen. Also, it sounds great. Mainly, I’ve been reading stuff for my book. What have I been watching? Instead of naming all the things I’ve been watching lately, some of which have been great and some of which have been disappointing, I’ll just name the things I think are great. What We Do in the Shadows is so great. There’s PEN15,and I know the new season of Russian Doll is coming out. I’m really excited about that because I love that show. Peacemaker was a pleasant surprise, and I really loved it. I liked Halston; not too many people liked it, but I thought it was good. It’s a Ryan Murphy show. I haven’t liked the things he’s done for Netflix, but I did like that one. I Think You Should Leave with Tim Robinson, the sketch show, was brilliant. I will say Pam & Tommy, which I have mixed feelings about not just because there’s an ethical problem with the show, but I also think of the numerous shows that reframe an ill done to or by a 90s starlet. It’s one of the more interesting ones, but the more the series goes on, the more I feel like there’s this essential flaw that has nothing to do with the consent [Pamela Anderson] gave for the show. It has to do with an overcorrection in portraying her as a kind of saintly innocent. However, there are parts of that show that are so vivid and powerful and are about something I don’t think has been covered enough in art. It’s this period in the 90s when the internet and changes in digital culture shattered everything from the public self to sex to communities of people online and how ideas spread. It has some great performances. Despite me saying I’m not really concerned with the morality of shows, it’s hard not to respond when somebody comes out and says, “You’ve recreated my sex tape, and that was a traumatic experience for me.” It’s funny, because Tommy apparently loves the show. I also watched Inventing Anna ….

KRS: I’m curious what you thought about it. 

EN: I like Shonda Rhimes’ work, but by the end of that show, I was like, what is going on? Why are they treating [Anna Sorokin] like this awesome girl boss? I thought it was completely crazy. During the last two episodes, my eyes were popping out. I didn’t think it was the greatest show, but I did think it had a spectacular central performance. [Julia Garner’s] performance as Anna was so compelling.

KRS: I agree. I also felt conflicted, primarily over the fact they paid the real Anna quite a bit of money for the rights to the story. 

EN: It’s like the inverse of the problem with Pam & Tommy. All the shows I’ve been watching have ethical problems about the portrayals of the people in them, but they’re the opposite problems. You know, nothing’s clean. You watch things, and they’re going to have conflicts in them. I’m not trying to let people off the hook, but it is funny, because it’s hard to watch either of those shows without your awareness. That said, somebody’s participation or non-participation does not ultimately determine the show’s artistic qualities. There are things that people participate in that are really just propaganda, and there are things that people don’t participate in that are nuanced and compelling. It’s funny, though, because so many of the shows that have come out are all portraits. There’s this thing about grifters and conmen and cults--that’s what people are watching nowadays.

Kellie Rizer Stewart is a fiction writer from Ohio. She is currently in the MFA in Creative Writing program at Butler University.