Emily Nussbaum: A Critical Mass Of Good TV The New Yorker TV critic favors Buffy the Vampire Slayer and other shows that aren't afraid to be "off-putting." Plus: What should you be watching right now?
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Emily Nussbaum: A Critical Mass Of Good TV

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Emily Nussbaum: A Critical Mass Of Good TV

Emily Nussbaum: A Critical Mass Of Good TV

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You're listening to ASK ME ANOTHER from NPR and WNYC. Hey, I'm Ophira Eisenberg. And with me is our one-man house band, Jonathan Coulton, and our puzzle guru, John Chaneski. But let's welcome our very important puzzler, Emily Nussbaum.


EISENBERG: So what are you watching now that you're crazy about?

EMILY NUSSBAUM: "The Good Wife."


NUSSBAUM: Let's see, "Broad City," I'm really into right now.


NUSSBAUM: I'm - I came late to "Adventure Time," but I just binge watched "Adventure Time," which is really fantastic.


EISENBERG: When you're reviewing a new series, is there - do you have a specific standard that you hold them up to. Like, you know, Golden Age of Television started with "The Sopranos" or "The Wire?" Like, are you thinking about shows that you're like, this is the top of the pile that I will...

NUSSBAUM: I mean, it's hard to say. I just try to figure out whether I like it. It just sounds stupid, but I mean, I don't have a particular mathematical algorithm for what I'm comparing it to. I mean, I do tend to favor things that are trying to do something new on TV, I hope.

And sometimes those are the shows that feel off-putting and disorienting like "Louie," or shows that do things that haven't been done previously so people don't know how to watch them. So I try to find those kinds of shows. But I've

ged my mind about things a million times. So I don't trust my own judgment.

EISENBERG: No? That's a good way to be for a critic. I like that. Do you ever think, I should write a series?


EISENBERG: You - no, do you think you should write a series?

NUSSBAUM: Oh, I'm sorry.

JONATHAN COULTON, BYLINE: Oh, that's very nice.

NUSSBAUM: I thought it - I thought you were asking me whether you should write a series.

COULTON: Yeah, I'd like to do one, too.

NUSSBAUM: 'Cause I was like...

COULTON: I'd like to do one, too, actually.

JOHN CHANESKI: Hey, I want to write one.

EISENBERG: (Laughing) No. Do you think I should write a series, Emily?


EISENBERG: OK. OK. I know. Since we have you here, here's my idea - so there's this girl, she hosts an NPR show. No. Do you have a - 'cause you have such knowledge?

NUSSBAUM: No. I have no interest in writing a television show.


EISENBERG: All right. All right. So here's my pitch - no. But you are very active on Twitter. And that - it kind of informs some of the stuff that you writer for The New Yorker. Could you just talk a little bit about your relationship?

NUSSBAUM: Yeah, I love it. Yeah. I mean, I find Twitter really fantastic for talking about television specifically. 'Cause I feel like, for one thing, it's a great way to procrastinate while I'm trapped at home and unable to write things.

But then also, I feel like it gives me access globally to people who are excited about a lot of the same shows that I'm interested in but see them from very different perspectives.

I mean, there are people within The New Yorker who are interested in television. But there isn't a huge range of POVs in the same way. And there's this sense where, I talk to people from other countries - just, you know, occasionally I'll throw something on and just say, what should I be watching that I'm not watching? And I feel like I get all sorts of input.

But also, I talk with other critics. It's a way of brainstorming. It's a way of goofing around and being funny. I feel more linked to other people watching. I mean, it makes TV into a social experience in a different way.

EISENBERG: So are you often live tweeting during a show?

NUSSBAUM: I feel really ambivalent about it because I do occasionally do this, and I think it's a terrible thing to do. So I'm not sure how I feel about it. I mean, there are shows that I would never live tweet during that are very visual shows.

But I have to admit that there are shows that are made for live tweeting. Like "Scandal," particularly, is a show that that's the point of watching it. To me, it's like it's a great...

EISENBERG: To have a conversation.

NUSSBAUM: Yeah. It's fun. I mean, it's like hooting in a movie theater or something. And so that one - not that I hoot in movie theaters, but...


NUSSBAUM: Yeah, so I mean, I haven't made up my mind about it. But it seems - it does seem a little bit troubling 'cause it means that you're looking up and looking down, and I try to focus.

EISENBERG: Right. But when you're throwing things out, like, I love this idea that you were starting a conversation about a certain female archetype on television. And you were like, I need a name for this kind of spunky yet unsettling female character that, you know - and what should we call this person? And someone on Twitter actually...

NUSSBAUM: Yeah, the hummingbird. I was talking about characters - I mean, and somebody suggested calling it the Diane Chambers 'cause she was sort of the original...

EISENBERG: The first one.

NUSSBAUM: Yeah, exactly. Sort of - I was excited about "Enlightened," which if it was on right now I'd be evangelizing for it. But unfortunately, it was canceled. But that kind of tense but extremely idealistic female character who made people uncomfortable seemed to be on several different shows.

And so yeah, I brainstormed this name and then I wrote this little mini essay on it. I was thinking of people like Leslie Knope, a little bit Sue Heck on "The Middle," which is another show I love. I can't even remember what I was thinking, 'cause I was on Twitter, so it was that story, yeah,

EISENBERG: Right. Right. A whole bunch of things and then someone - OK, awesome. We are going to put you in the puzzle hotseat just in a little while, and we're going to talk about more of your - your beginnings in your television career, the show that started it all.

But right now, you're going to help us out with our next game. So hello, caller. You're on ASK ME ANOTHER.

ANNE YOUNG: Hi, this is Anne Young (ph) in Oakland, California.

EISENBERG: And would you describe yourself as a TV fanatic?

YOUNG: Yes. Yes, definitely.

EISENBERG: OK, what's something that you're watching right now that maybe you would be a little hesitant to tell a large group of people?

YOUNG: Oh. Um, oh, gosh. "Squidbillies."


EISENBERG: I don't even know what that is.

YOUNG: It's a ridiculous kind of Adult Swim show. It's animated and there's this - it's set in Georgia. And it's hillbilly squids.


COULTON: Sort of writes itself.

YOUNG: Yeah.

EISENBERG: It's kind of like - I love squid, so I would watch that. Emily, have you watched?

NUSSBAUM: I haven't, and I keep being told to watch more things on Adult Swim.


NUSSBAUM: That sounds great.

EISENBERG: That's amazing. I did not know you were going to say that, Anne, or anything like that. And so thank you. Thank you for that.

YOUNG: Oh, sure.

EISENBERG: Now I'm here with Emily Nussbaum, the television critic for The New Yorker. And this game is called Guilty Pleasures, like the one we just found of yours. So we're going to have Emily read excerpts from her New Yorker reviews of recent television shows, and all you have to do is identify the show in each clue. And if you get enough questions correct, we are going to send you a prize.


EISENBERG: Yeah? So Emily wrote this about a show that debuted in 2012.

NUSSBAUM: Popping with colorful villains, vote-rigging conspiracies, waterboarding, assassinations, montages set to R&B songs, and the best gay couple on television, the president's chief of staff Cyrus and his husband, James, an investigative reporter, the series has become a giddy paranoid fever dream, like "24" crossed with the "West Wing," lit up in neon pink.

YOUNG: "Scandal."


EISENBERG: That is correct.

COULTON: Somehow you made that an eight syllable word. That was fantastic.


EISENBERG: I - so I will admit I have not watched "Scandal." I know, relax everybody. Oh, my god, the letters we're going to get. But I have friends who have become better friends because of their shared love of that show. It is - you talk about this crazy addiction thing. That is a prime example of it, right?

NUSSBAUM: Yeah, just start binge watching starting with season two.

EISENBERG: Starting with season two?

NUSSBAUM: 'Cause that's where it really, like, jumps up. Yeah.

YOUNG: Oh, I disagree.


YOUNG: I mean, I'm not a critic or anything, but you know. I like the first season. The first season was trashier, I feel like.

NUSSBAUM: Trashier? High standard.


YOUNG: Steamier. Steamier.

EISENBERG: All right, here's your next clue.

NUSSBAUM: This sitcom is about a 30-something yuppie who is convinced that she's Sandra Bullock or Meg Ryan. Yet despite her insistence that she is gorgeous and sexy, a petite Asian woman, Dr. is cast out of central casting. She's pugnacious. She's self-centered. She's helplessly shallow. Yet she has the nerve to insist she's the star of her own story anyway.

YOUNG: "The Mindy Show."

COULTON: We'll take it.


COULTON: It's "The Mindy Project."

EISENBERG: Yeah, it's "The Mindy Project."

COULTON: Very good.


EISENBERG: Fair enough.


EISENBERG: Yeah, we'll clap for that.

COULTON: We can clap for that, yes.


EISENBERG: In the fall of 2013, Emily wrote this.

NUSSBAUM: To my surprise, my favorite new network drama is a show that looked like the worst idea ever. It has sexy witches, four white birches that represent the Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse, and dialogue like, belief is sanity, left tenant.

YOUNG: "Sleepy Hollow."



YOUNG: Nice.

EISENBERG: Anne, do you watch that?

YOUNG: Yes. And that would also be a guilty pleasure, I would say. And the female star is dating Michael Fassbender, which I think about a lot when I'm watching it. A little jealousy.


EISENBERG: See, everyone has their own reason for enjoying a show. All right, Anne, this is your last question.


NUSSBAUM: In his HBO series, clever people take turns admiring one another. They sing arias of facts, they aim to remake TV news. This is a new show and there are new rules, a maverick executive producer announces several times in several ways. They're outrageous, so inflamed that it amounts to a form of moral eczema, only it makes the viewer itch.

EISENBERG: Oh, burn. What do you think, Anne?

YOUNG: Is it "The Newsroom?"

EISENBERG: Yes, it is.



EISENBERG: We're going to send you an ASK ME ANOTHER Rubik's Cube, and we'll see if Emily might like to sign it or something like that for you. Thank you so much to Emily.

YOUNG: Oh, awesome.

EISENBERG: We'll see you later in the show for your own challenge. Thank you, Anne.


YOUNG: Thank you.

EISENBERG: Do you maybe have a landline phone sitting right next to your black and white TV? Why not use it to compete on ASK ME ANOTHER. That's right, you can join us from the comfort of your couch. So hit pause on your VCR, boot up that Commodore 64, and send an e-mail to AskMeAnother@NPR.org.


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