In these months that have each felt like a year, one of the only constants has been TV.
Whether we binge "Tiger King" or stream "When They See Us," television is there — to let us escape, to reflect the world or sometimes both. And what we choose can become far more than just a show, as Emily Nussbaum knows.
Nussbaum spent nine years as the New Yorker’s television critic, earning a Pulitzer Prize in 2016. Her anthology "I Like to Watch: Arguing My Way Through the Television Revolution" (Random House, $18), newly out in paperback, brings her — virtually — to BookPeople on Monday. She’ll be in conversation with novelist and journalist Taffy Brodesser-Akner.
» RELATED: Texas Book Festival calls off physical event, will go virtual in 2020
"Watch" enshrined Nussbaum’s long-held lament that for too many, the only television worthy of meaningful criticism was prestige fare like "The Sopranos." Yes, she was a fan, but it was the adjacent response to "Buffy the Vampire Slayer" that clinched it. Why was the latter considered throwaway while the former was deemed highbrow art?
"I watched ‘Buffy’ and I loved it," she explained by phone last week. "I thought it was ambitious and powerful, and it frustrated me the way people talked about it — fun, junky, for teenage girls." Over the course of her book, Nussbaum writes about how perceptions of identity and aesthetics could sideline a show into guilty-pleasure territory.
"The reasons that ‘Buffy’ was seen as a lesser show (were) that a teenage girl was the heroine. It was filmed in a very network way — it didn’t look like a movie. It was arch, and it was comedic," she said. "It’s funny, another trigger for me. ... I was talking to a woman about what she was watching, and she said, ‘Oh, just stupid stuff like "Jane the Virgin."’ ‘Jane the Virgin’ is a great show! But because it has all those markers I’m talking about, it’s seen as something tainted."
Of course, Nussbaum noted, the attitude toward TV has evolved quite a bit since she wrote some of the essays in "Watch." Particularly amplified of late is the impact of current events on viewers’ habits. The HBO adaptation of Philip Roth’s "The Plot Against America," for example, was certainly timely in its depiction of politics. But it arrived in mid-March, as the coronavirus pandemic triggered lockdowns, and some viewers shied away in favor of lighter diversions.
Even more recently, Nussbaum said, protests against police brutality and systemic racism have prompted a different lens.
"There’s been a real reconsideration of a lot of things on TV, like the centrality of police on television," she said, tracing an arc from the Westerns that once dominated prime time to shows that highlight police officers to this month’s cancellation of reality stalwart "Cops."
"I love ‘Brooklyn Nine-Nine.’ It’s a beautiful, multiracial sitcom that in some ways is kind of utopian, and it’s definitely addressed race, but it feels and looks different to viewers right now," she said. Terry Crews, one of the NBC cop-shop dramedy’s stars, said this week that showrunners scrapped planned scripts for next season in order to better reflect the current discourse into its storylines.
» RELATED: ‘RuPaul’s Drag Race’: The right way to binge-watch
Several shows already have incorporated such content, Nussbaum noted, citing past episodes of ABC’s "Scandal" and Freeform’s "Good Trouble" as examples. And shows about Black lives that don’t directly relate to the racial justice movement are important, too, of course.
"Whenever good art is made, it tends to feel like it’s a mirror," she said. "Good art speaks to its time."
Her own pandemic viewing includes Mindy Kaling’s Netflix series "Never Have I Ever" and two Hulu miniseries, "The Great" and "Mrs. America." And don’t miss "I May Destroy You," the new HBO series from "Chewing Gum" creator Michaela Coel, Nussbaum counseled.
"There’s a slapstick aggression to it," she said of the creatively structured show, which follows Coel’s character as she grapples with the aftermath of an assault. Coel is "a fantastic performer."
Damon Lindelof’s adaptation/continuation of Alan Moore’s graphic novel "Watchmen," which HBO recently put a new promotional push behind, is another prime example of relevant TV, she said.
"I’m so glad I got to review that show," she said. "It was recognized when it came out as a brilliant extension of the source material that interrogated it and transformed it, and now it seems directly relevant. … It’s the kind of show — and I love shows like this — there’s shows that teach you how to watch them, shows that disorient you in a pleasurable way, and then teach you something."