February 23, 2020

A Television of Her Own

““America, this is quite serious,” writes Allen Ginsberg near the end of his famous poem about art, belonging, violence, social crisis, and joy. He goes on: “America this is the impression I get from looking at the television set.”

What, in America, is serious? And what that’s serious can you see in a television set? These questions aren’t just Ginsberg’s, and they aren’t only relevant to the social crisis of his own cold war moment. They’ve motivated whole fields of scholarship; they hum and scratch as the seemingly intensifying background noise in a wide range of cultural criticism. And they’re at the heart of Pulitzer Prize-winning New Yorker critic Emily Nussbaum’s excellent, recently published book, I Like to Watch: Arguing My Way Through the TV Revolution. “Fights about art had always doubled as fights about what the world takes seriously,” writes Nussbaum in the introductory essay to the collection. “They were fights about power.”

Emily Nussbaum has been meaningful to me, personally, not just because she takes television seriously, but because of what within television she has been willing to take seriously. It’s true that she is a striking prose stylist, fierce and chummy by turns, with an illuminating analytic eye — exactly the qualities you want in a critic. It’s been bracing, these last several years, to read her criticize one show as it “happily fellated the corrupt system it pretended to satirize” or praise how another’s mix of the “exploitative and liberating” appeals like a “pastel-tinted chamber of horrors.””

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