I Like to Watch: Arguing My Way Through the TV Revolution by Emily Nussbaum
Published by Random House on June 25th, 2019
Genres: Non-Fiction, Essays
“There was something alive about the medium to me, organic in a way that other art is not. You enter into it; you get changed with it; it changes with you.”
ARC received via Netgalley in exchange for an honest review.
I’ve been a huge TV watcher since I can remember. But I was always told I was rotting my brain and wasting away my time with it. TV was junk and it wasn’t ever considered an art form.
It wasn’t until I got to university where I started to realize that that wasn’t the case. There were intellectual discussions being had about last night’s Breaking Bad or Mad Men. It suddenly clicked to me that it was a valid art form. It was storytelling, but in a different format. And I realized there were other people out there who saw it the same way. In fact, they were vocalizing their theories and breakdowns of episodes in articles!
I happened to stumble upon Emily Nussbaum’s work when I read her article, “In Defense of Liz Lemon.” From there, I’ve closely followed her work. So all of that is to say that I was very excited when I got an ARC for I Like to Watch. I screamed and told everyone I knew about it.
The book is a collection of essays that Nussbaum has written over the years detailing her love affair with television as she sets out to prove that there’s a false hierarchy out there that elevates one artform over another.
I was surprised that there were only two new essays in the collection, but it was nonetheless a nice trip down memory lane to read all Nussbaum’s essays that captivated me over the years. There were some that I completely forgot about so it felt like I was reading them for the first time.
The essays are all linked by a common subject of television, but explores the different themes as the medium has changed. She traces the evolution of female protagonists, the role of sexual violence on TV, and my personal favourite: what to do about art when the artist is revealed to be a monster.
“But what unites these essays and profiles is my struggle — and, over time, my growing frustration — with that hidden ladder of status, the unspoken, invisible biases that hobbled TV even as it became culturally dominant.”
There’s no question that Nussbaum is a talented writer. Even if I hadn’t watched the show before, I still loved reading her thoughts about them. I wasn’t part of the insane Lost fandom, but I knew how culturally relevant it was at the time — and still is! It changed the TV landscape.
Like any essay collection, there are some that I liked better than others. At the top tier, I think her profiles on Kenya Barris, Jenji Kohan, and Ryan Murphy are the real highlights of this book. She pinpoints what makes them special as showrunners and how they’ve become trailblazers in the TV world.
Nussbaum’s longer essays, such as the ones on Louis CK and product placement were also really well done. I completely agree with Nussbaum that nobody has done product placement quite like 30 Rock did. It was quick, snappy, and stayed true to the humour of the show.
Because of her essays, I’m more inclined to watch some of the shows she talks about. You know what, I might finally understand the hype around The Sopranos. And maybe I’ll be kinder to Lost now that the rage has somewhat calmed down from fans.
The only reason why this missed the mark to be a 5 bubble tea read because I wish she had included more newer pieces as TV continues to be a medium that changes. I think anyone who’s interested in analyzing TV will love this collection of essays. You’ll start to understand where Nussbaum is coming from.
Peak TV doesn’t seem to be ending any time soon and in the meantime, we have to think past our notions of “prestige television.” Gritty dramas aren’t more culturally relevant than half-hour sitcoms. Let’s keep broadening our view on what “good” is. There are so many types of stories waiting to be told especially by marginalized people.