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New Yorker TV critic Emily Nussbaum: 'Social watching just sounds like wishful thinking'

New Yorker TV critic Emily Nussbaum: 'Social watching just sounds like wishful thinking'

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ecosystems emily nussbaum
ecosystems emily nussbaum

Somewhere in the past two decades, TV evolved from a wasteland rotting our minds into the premier medium for truly groundbreaking comedy, drama, and storytelling. Series like Buffy the Vampire Slayer, Oz, and The Sopranos showed that TV could stand on its own against the creativity and vision of movies and novels. Now TV’s experiencing its own golden age with Louie, 30 Rock, Game of Thrones, Breaking Bad, and dozens of other ambitious series competing for our attention. We’ve come a long way since Seinfeld and ER dominated the airwaves, and The New Yorker’s TV critic Emily Nussbaum sat down with us to talk about how Twitter’s affecting live viewing, the massive technological changes of the past decade, and the future of TV.

The business side of TV is changing a lot, but then there’s the cultural side. Television binds people together in way that nothing else does. So I really wanted to talk to you about what the future of TV means for the actual culture of television.

It’s not as though I don’t want to know about the business side. The business side is important — it actually does have a bearing on how you judge things culturally. A network sitcom is operating under extremely different artistic circumstances than a webseries or something on AMC: how it’s marketed, how it’s produced, all that stuff.

"TV was historically a mass media that everyone looked down on — it was there to sell soap."

TV writers have had a really fraught relationship with that. TV was historically a mass media that everyone looked down on — it was there to sell soap, and the stories were in between commercials. It was something that poured into your house to knock you out. In the last 15 years, the common belief — to the point that it’s almost cliche — is that there’s been this massive golden age of TV. But that stuff simply can’t be separated from the technical changes.

My limited knowledge of the business side is that it’s just massive corporations struggling to figure out what the new economic model is, and I have this completely monomaniacal attitude toward it: I don’t care. I just want them to figure out a way to continue producing interesting things, and I’ll try to put them into the context of how they’re made. At the same time I just want creators to be able to make beautiful things and to have this very powerful, direct relationship with their audience. That’s unique to TV — it makes it artistically different.

That’s exactly why I wanted to talk to a TV critic about the future of TV.

One thing — and I’m not alone in this — is that I’m a very online person, and that’s the origins of my TV criticism. I was a poster on Television Without Pity back in the day. I was a Buffy maniac starting in ‘97, in the early inklings of the storm was Buffy and Oz.

"The intensity of the relationship between viewers and creators has gotten more and more powerful and more and more complicated."

Around that time I was really fascinated by the growth of an engaged, very demanding, very powerful online audience that regarded TV in a different way than past audiences. I was also interested in the fact that a lot of creators were getting online — and this was before social networking or being able to show clips online. Every single year the intensity of the relationship between viewers and creators has gotten more and more powerful and more and more complicated.

That relationship with the audience has changed the way TV creators think about their own shows. Part of their obligation to figure out a way to handle direct access to their audience, which is an emotionally complex thing. Different TV creators have handled it in radically different ways. It’s a conundrum people didn’t experience in the 80’s.

What are some highs and lows?

A lot of deep shows already had online fan bases around the time that I started getting super interested in TV around 1997-2000. Anybody who loved Buffy got online. I wrote a piece in 2000 called “Confessions of a Spoiler Whore" for Slate about the very quick change in the audience for a TV show. You could get online and not only see the discussions immediately after a show had aired, but there was also a lot of leaking coming out of Hollywood. Initial scripts would be leaked and you would see lines that were cut. There was this thing called the live feed — I’m not sure if this still exists, but basically when they would stream a show out to the network affiliates somebody would write down every line, so before you watched it the entire transcript was available. People would start discussing it off the bat.

"Because there wasn’t an online fan base you couldn’t have a group of people who were engaged in a complex story."

When the technology becomes available people will use it. 24 was also a fascinating show. I have a bunch of problems with it, but it was a huge breakthrough. Network drama was historically focused on the procedural format — any individual hour could be distributed in any order. You didn’t need to follow the whole story — you couldn’t collect them and then watch them all in order until DVD’s came out. And because there wasn’t an online fan base you couldn’t have a group of people who were engaged in a complex story.

Around 2000 there was this influx of technological changes. People started trying to figure out how to sell things on DVDs. I was an early adopter of TiVo and that changed everything. Several TV creators started figuring out how to do far more ambitious things with serialized drama: the story continued from episode to episode, and they did this in very different ways. 24 is a hyped-up cliffhanger show — every scene is a cliffhanger.

One of my friends refers to 24 as the world’s longest Steven Seagal movie.

It’s just a crazy, crazy show — very structurally impressive. Compare it to The Wire, which is not a cliffhanger show, but a show that specifically took aim at the cliches of a cop and robber series and deliberately created something more novelistic.

Those shows are radically different, but they were both responses to a new technologically empowered audience. The 24 audience was able to buy that whole first season on DVD and watch them one after the other.

We went from DVDs to Netflix. We find a show now and a weekend disappears. Do you see the writers and the creators speaking to that audience and experience?

Yes. Most people watched The Wire after it was on the air. That poses an economically tricky question: you have to have an audience while a show’s on the air or it won’t make it to four seasons. I wrote something about binge watching the first three seasons of Breaking Bad — my conclusion was that it was the superior way to watch the show. But it’s almost a sacrifice we make not to watch it that way — if we don’t watch while it’s on, it won’t make it to the point where other people can watch it while it’s off. Right now, for a certain kind of ambitious show, you rely on the fact that there’s a cable network like HBO that cares more about buzz and acclaim that it does about literal ratings.

"'Homeland' would have been a very good one season show."

If a show is successful, it has to survive past a season. Not that they’ll have to, but they’ll want it to. One thing that can’t happen at the end of Homeland would be for Brody to blow himself up. There’s a certain point in which I think that’s a better ending. We see his confession and then in the end he kills himself. It’s this tragedy of memory; there’s intimacy. It would have been a very good one season show. But the show is successful. I’m enjoying the second season, but there’s an artistic choice that you make when you need to keep going with your story.

What are your favorites right now?

My favorite shows right now are Girls, Enlightened, Breaking Bad. It’s so weird to talk about Mad Men because it’s been off the air for so long. Homeland. I share a lot of favorites with other people. I’m a maniacal 30 Rock fan, same with Parks and Recreation. I’m a big fan of a lot of lesser-known but great network sitcoms that operate under different circumstances, like Raising Hope.

This conversation is just making me think I should rent shows or stream them now, after the fact. But how do you make a show popular at the beginning? Is the marketing of shows changing?

"Most of the major hits that have dominated TV — most of them had no idea what the hell they were doing."

Everyone in the industry would argue that there’s absolutely no way to guarantee a hit or people would be doing it. They try all of these different techniques, but they have no idea. Most of the major hits that have dominated TV — most of them had no idea what the hell they were doing.

The network finds a show, it accidentally becomes a big hit and then it becomes the brand of the network. The WB had Buffy and then it became a network of shows like Buffy. All the Must See TV stuff on NBC in the 90’s — Seinfeld had the lowest possible ratings during its initial run. They didn’t do anything in their marketing to make it into anything.

It’s not as though critically acclaimed shows get an audience — otherwise everybody would be watching Enlightened. There are some things that are made for a specific crowd of people. There’s no reason why everybody should be watching Louie. That’s not the kind of show that’s going to appeal to everyone.

The best thing artistically is for the TV industry to find a way for shows like Louie to survive. Find a passionate audience to feed the person that makes them. That’s all you can ask for — not a big hit. A big hit that speaks to everybody in the country is a lovely thing, but I don’t even think that has anything to do with the highest aim of television anymore.

People in the industry have a lot of nostalgia for that. They have nostalgia for every single person watching ER. I don’t think there’s anything superior about that. I want people to be able to make money, and obviously there’s something to be said for a mass hit which creates culture. But focusing on that at the cost of other things is ignoring the past. If you’re the kind of person who cares about art it’s not a given that the show with a bigger audience is more important, let alone better.

"The best thing artistically is for the TV industry to find a way for shows like 'Louie' to survive."

I keep hearing that Twitter in particular has driven a lot of people back to live viewing, and I feel like once you drive people back to live you do end up at one thing we’re all watching.

I’m always struggling with this. I will not tweet while watching Breaking Bad or Mad Men — they’re highly visual shows that require a level of concentration. I’m interested in sitcoms, and I don’t feel like it harms the experience to live tweet them.

People have painted TV as this solo masturbatory experience for lonely people. It might have been more true in the past, but it was never really true. Before the internet I watched TV with people — we would get together and watch Melrose Place.

Social watching just sounds like wishful thinking. They wish people would watch live because they want them to watch commercials. I wish that there was some way for them to come up with a for people to pay for television that didn’t involve watching things live. There’s nothing to be strongly said for watching things live except in the case of a huge occasion. The season finale of Breaking Bad was very very exciting to watch.

So are you creating a perfect 13-episode movie or are you creating what people think of as a weekly event?

You can create both. I don’t think the old categories hold anymore.

One of the most interesting and provocative things about TV criticism is the struggle to talk about these different forms in ways that aren’t neurotically comparative. In the early part of the decade people were like, it’s as good as Shakespeare! It’s more like a novel than a TV show! It’s more like a movie than a TV show! It’s elevated past being television!

"It’s more like a novel than a TV show! It’s more like a movie than a TV show! It’s elevated past being television!"

Everybody knows that TV can be as good as anything at storytelling. There are good shows and there are bad shows. The struggle is to talk about TV as TV, not just comparatively. There’s value in comparison, but I think that more narrow ideas about whether TV is a particle or a wave are besides the point. TV shows are both episodes and seasons and entire series — one thing is not in contradiction with the other. It’s different with comedy and it’s different with drama and it’ll probably be different in the future. And I’m sure that’s a struggle for the industry, because they would prefer to make Law and Order.

It’s a good time to be writing about television and talking about it. It’s artistically thrilling, but it’s also a period of excitement and engagement with everyone involved. I pray that it continues to go along instead of crashing. In such a money-oriented collaborative art form, you need the industry around it to be capable of supporting good work. So far so good.

If you can get people to sit still for 16 hours and watch every piece of something and you can’t figure out a way to make money off that, you’re fucking up.

You should end your piece with that. That’s absolutely true.

Explore the ecosystems

This week we're taking a close look at the future of TV and the living room — the great unclaimed space of the technology world. Check back each day for a close look at all the major players, along with a full range of interviews with industry players and reports on everything from the state of remote controls to the future of gaming. Tune in all week for the rest. Here’s a sampling:

Google, Microsoft, Aereo, Boxee CEO Avner Ronen
Wednesday: Amazon, Sony, live sports, TV apps, Condé Nast’s Dawn Ostroff, NBC's Vivian Schiller
Thursday: Apple, the state of remotes, Vizio CTO Matt McRae
Friday: Independents, New Yorker's Emily Nussbaum, Valve