Book Review: I Like to Watch: Arguing My Way Through the TV Revolution

Though it’s taken for granted that television has a big seat at the table in the modern entertainment world, journalist and veteran TV critic Emily Nussbaum’s I Like to Watch: Arguing My Way Through the TV Revolution reveals the many limitations the medium had to overcome to earn its current high level of cultural relevance.

Nussbaum’s passionate and thoroughly defended appeal for TV’s importance comes in 32 collected articles, including two never-before-published essays.

Nussbaum begins by tracing her obsession with Buffy the Vampire Slayer’s originality in 1997—a brazenness she says wouldn’t seem out of place in the Game of Thrones era—and how it gave way to a career of critical engagement with episodic TV. The essays examine such shows as True Detective, The Middle, Hannibal, Adventure Time, and The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel as she charts the medium’s evolution from something considered to be time-wasting, low-brow entertainment to a respected and appreciated art form.

Among the anthology’s selections is an analysis of revolutionary HBO series The Sopranos, which explores creator David Chase’s continual testing of his audiences’ willingness to keep watching as the show became darker over its six seasons. In another entry, she argues for a reassessment of glittery and light female-centric shows, arguing that the term “guilty pleasure” is a damaging descriptor that overlooks the profundity to be mined from such shows’ content. (In fact, part of Nussbaum’s motivation to write the book came after hearing a co-worker dismiss Jane the Virgin with that very term.) And despite male domination of the anti-hero trope, Nussbaum asserts the importance of such female anti-heroes as Sex and the City’s Carrie Bradshaw and why storytellers and audiences benefit from allowing women characters to mess up, embrace flashiness and extravagance, and embody a more three-dimensional understanding of femininity.

Creator David Chase (L) directs stars Tony Sirico (C) and James Gandolfini (R) on the set of The Sopranos, one of many groundbreaking TV series covered in Emily Nussbaum’s I Like to Watch. Image courtesy of HBO

What makes Nussbaum’s arguments so effective is her ability to philosophically explore the sweeping role TV plays in contemporary society. The book’s thought-provoking analyses are sure to make TV viewers sharper and more engaged spectators, and make storytellers more conscious of the ideas and techniques that can elevate their craft.

THE TAKEAWAY: Is a collection of TV criticism useful for moviemakers? You may have doubts, but Nussbaum’s authoritative knowledge—from her breakdowns of story development to her defense of the power derived from deeply flawed characters—quickly makes clear that it is. Making the case for how a multitude of genres qualify as so-called “prestige” entertainment and even exploring the role of fandom and its relationship to content creators, I Like to Watch affords moviemakers a wealth of insight that will translate to truly nuanced writing and directing for any screen, silver or small. MM

I Like to Watch: Arguing My Way Through the TV Revolution by Emily Nussbaum was published by Random House on June 25th, 2019.

This article appears in Moviemaker’s Summer 2019 issue.

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