The Delacorte Lectures

What’s ‘worth seeing’ on TV? Emily Nussbaum knows.

November 16, 2017
Professor Keith Gessen chats with Emily Nussbaum. Photo by Karen K. Ho.

After the comedian Louis C.K. admitted last week to sexually harassing several women, The New Yorker’s TV critic, Emily Nussbaum, wrote that she wasn’t interested in the rush to immediately reassess his artistic legacy. Nussbaum argued stories about C.K., Kevin Spacey, Harvey Weinstein, and others present an opportunity, first and foremost, to reflect on endemic abuse and misogyny in comedy and the wider entertainment industry. “As it turns out, other people have those stories, too,” she wrote. “As far as I’m concerned, before we talk about art, we should listen to them.”

That’s not to say art can’t be an essential lens through which to view that conversation. Nussbaum reiterated the primacy of victims’ stories in conversation with Columbia Journalism School Professor Keith Gessen on Tuesday night, a part of the Delacorte Lecture Series. But she elaborated on how two shows this year—Girls and One Mississippi, on which C.K. was an executive producer—heavily referenced rumors about the comedian before The New York Times formalized them in print; taking C.K.’s trademark confessional style and using it to turn the spotlight back on him.

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“These shows ended up using the artistic power of that half-real, half-not-real scenario to punch right at the center of the problem of abuse. And those shows are worth seeing,” Nussbaum said. “I want there to be a larger conversation about abuse in comedy, and abuse in television, and harassment. But I also want there to be recognition that there’s an enormous amount of amazing female creators out there, who are creating shows that talk about these things in art. That’s such a never-before-done thing.”

There’s an enormous amount of amazing female creators out there, who are creating shows that talk about these things in art. That’s such a never-before-done thing.

Nussbaum’s work sings with an unconditional, unapologetic love of TV for TV’s sake. But she’s never shied from sieving what’s important out of what we’re watching—be it the unvarnished feminism of Sex and the City or the deft survivor story of Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt. Obviously, Nussbaum doesn’t just talk about women’s issues in and on TV, but she did talk lucidly and insistently about them long before the current “Weinstein moment.” Recalling a debate a couple of years’ back on sexual assault-based plotlines, she told Gessen: “There’s a ton of shows with rape back stories. That’s a sign women’s life stories are being taken seriously on TV, because sexual violence is a big part of women’s lives. It’s not the only thing, but it’s one thing.”

One senses, from Nussbaum, a reluctance to muddy the joy of television with the tawdry realities of politics. But she’s really good at it, as she’s proven this year in acclaimed essays situating Donald Trump in the tradition of joke-telling, and reconsidering The Apprentice. “I didn’t wanna write that piece, my boss made me write it,” Nussbaum said of her Apprentice take. “I was like, writing about Trump and The Apprentice is simultaneously this incredibly boring and obvious thing, and painful and toxic. But at the same time, it’s why we have this president.”

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What she found surprised her—not only was the show an (electorally prescient) advertisement for Trump as “the greatest businessman in the world,” it also offered a glossy, meritocratic vision of American business. “Obviously Trump is a massive misogynist, that’s a central thing about him,” she said. “But the show almost feels like this lean-in fantasy of female achievement.” Either way, Nussbaum feels it’s essential viewing, and regrets that it can no longer easily be streamed online. “It’s an important American text, and it’s not available to people, and there’s something very frustrating about that.”

Nussbaum doesn’t hold Trump against reality TV as a genre. Nor does she claim to have any wider political insight. Nussbaum’s muse is television, not the noise that surrounds it. On Tuesday night she demurred on students’ questions about business models—“I’m a whatever works person”—and she’s acutely aware that stuffiness is an occupational hazard at The New Yorker.

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Her style is a curious, fizzy hybrid, retaining the talkier tone of her earlier work for New York magazine (where she founded the Approval Matrix), but stirring in dollops of high theory. In the same breath she’s a refined cultural critic and your TV junkie buddy chatting at a bar; trading notes on Breaking Bad with Gessen she said, “I was so behind on that show and I felt so guilty,” then mused on its implicit dialectic around the morality of the anti-hero. “People used to think about TV as junk,” Nussbaum said. “When TV started getting better, they had incredible anxiety about it as a form you could think of as art, rather than as fluoride, or sociology, or chewing gum, or a drug.”

Nussbaum has been in the vanguard as TV criticism has metastasized as a legitimate enterprise in the bastions of high culture; she won the 2016 Pulitzer Prize in Criticism after LA Times columnist Mary McNamara’s 2015 award ended a long fallow streak for TV writing, while earlier this year The New Yorker published its first issue dedicated wholly to television, with Nussbaum’s profile of Orange is the New Black showrunner Jenji Kohan as its centerpiece.

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Jenji Kohan of Orange is the New Black.

But Nussbaum is still deeply skeptical of prestige TV. On Tuesday, she launched into an eclectic, unsolicited list of must-watch picks that no one could accuse of being pretentious: Crazy Ex-Girlfriend, Enlightened, Broad City, Jane the Virgin, Atlanta, Fleabag, The Leftovers, The Americans, American Vandal, Lady Dynamite, Search Party, Review, BoJack Horseman, Big Little Lies, The Comeback, Chewing Gum, Love You More, The Middle, Black-ish, Fresh Off the Boat, The Fosters, Scandal, Orange is the New Black, American Crime Story, Rectify, One Mississippi, and The Deuce.

Television is fortunate to have an advocate like Nussbaum in such a high place. She understands its fundamentals as a popular, democratizing medium that both influences and mirrors society, but which is also, in its purest form, diversion, escapism, entertainment. “I love television,” she says. “I watch it when I’m relaxing as well as when I’m working.”

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Jon Allsop is a freelance journalist whose work has appeared in the New York Review of Books, Foreign Policy, and The Nation, among other outlets. He writes CJR’s newsletter The Media Today. Find him on Twitter @Jon_Allsop.