From her creation of the “Approval Matrix” in New York magazine in 2004 to her Pulitzer Prize–winning columns for The New Yorker, Emily Nussbaum has argued for a new way of looking at TV. In this collection, including two never-before-published essays, Nussbaum writes about her passion for television. More than a collection of reviews, the book makes a case for toppling the status anxiety that has long haunted the “idiot box,” even as it continuously transforms.
I Like to Watch: Arguing My Way Through the TV Revolution is a collection of 32 brilliant, generous essays, most of which have been previously published by The New Yorker, where Nussbaum is a TV critic ... Nussbaum's essays aren't merely moralizing, though they can fit into the genre of 'The Thing You Thought Was Bad Is Actually Good' essays, or the slightly rarer converse, 'The Thing You Thought Was Good Is Actually Bad' essays, which lose value quickly unless the writer is able to significantly engage with the artwork in its own right, outside of its role as a David or a Goliath. Nussbaum's do. They are marbled with her thinking about prestige and power and gender and taste, but they are also funny ... It's thrilling to watch Nussbaum stake the slick misogyny of True Detective, or the cloying phoniness of The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel, as she insists implicitly and explicitly that TV should be mind-expanding, complex, generous, and, above all, have things to say about who we are and what we want ... But what about the people who make TV? Here, she is not so certain. The collection's one new piece of writing...is a queasy, poignant 50-page consideration of the question: 'What should we do with the art of terrible men?' ... Here, her ambivalence is more affecting than the gleaming certainty of prior chapters. The essay functions as a kind of eulogy: not for the men, but for the things we had the privilege of loving uncomplicatedly, before we were forced to know better.
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 ... 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 ... I Like to Watch creates a new canon and celebrates a more inclusive notion of quality, beyond the confines of 'prestige' ... as essential a critical companion as any of [Pauline] Kael’s books, and it establishes its author as Kael’s peer and heir—whether Nussbaum agrees or not.
What Nussbaum does is thrillingly different; she treats television as art in its own right — not the kind of rarefied, fragile museum piece that requires you to handle it with a hushed reverence and kid gloves, but a robust, roiling form that can take whatever you throw its way ... though I Like to Watch is mostly a selection of Nussbaum’s reviews and profiles over the years, you can see how the residue of that 'drunken cultural brawl' still seems to animate her ... confident, dauntless criticism — smart and spiky, brilliantly sure of itself and the medium it depicts. But as appealing and seductive as it is, it lugs some of its own baggage too. Nussbaum reacts to a gendered cultural hierarchy by deploying the weapons of that hierarchy against it: a certain combativeness, a bold swagger. It’s a feminism steeped in the toughen-up language of cultural libertarianism ... As ardent as Nussbaum’s critical responses are, she also knows that art and our judgments of it aren’t necessarily chiseled in stone; there’s a contingency that can be inevitable and even potent, should we choose to accept it.