Emily Nussbaum: The Watch From Home Episode The New Yorker television critic Emily Nussbaum discusses reality television in the time of social distancing.

Emily Nussbaum: The Watch From Home Episode

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JONATHAN COULTON: This is NPR's ASK ME ANOTHER - sort of. Welcome back to our first work-from-home edition. I'm Jonathan Coulton. Now here's your host Ophira Eisenberg.

OPHIRA EISENBERG, HOST:

Thanks, Jonathan. OK, so now is the part of the episode where we're going to call our next special guest and friend of the show. We couldn't think of anyone better to join us right now. She is a Pulitzer Prize-winner and a TV critic for The New Yorker. Her book is called "I Like To Watch Arguing: My Way Through The TV Revolution," and it's available now. It's Emily Nussbaum. Hello.

EMILY NUSSBAUM: Hello.

EISENBERG: Hi, Emily.

NUSSBAUM: Thanks for having me.

EISENBERG: Oh, thank you for Zooming in from your home. How are you doing?

NUSSBAUM: I'm good. It's been kind of a weird week...

EISENBERG: Yeah.

NUSSBAUM: ...As I'm sure it has been for everybody.

EISENBERG: Emily, I saw on Twitter that you actually had a COVID-19 scare. Are you OK? How are you doing?

NUSSBAUM: Yes. I mean, I'm fine now. I'm feeling well, and I'm home. And I also ended up getting a test and testing negative. But last week I had a fever and a cough. So I...

EISENBERG: Oh, my goodness.

NUSSBAUM: Specifically, the reason I started talking about it online was because I felt like, for New Yorkers, this was particularly a conundrum - how do you quarantine within your own home? And we have a pretty big place, comparably, but it's hard to do in a small apartment. So I was curious how other people were doing it. But also, I wanted to talk publicly about it because I felt like there was this awkward moment that was a little bit early in the process where people were uncomfortable talking publicly about having symptoms and what was going on, and to I wanted to create a conversation...

EISENBERG: Sure. Sure.

NUSSBAUM: ...You know, which is what Twitter is for. So - but I'm not an expert on this; I am a TV critic who had a fever. So...

(LAUGHTER)

EISENBERG: But as a writer, you are right - you're in the situation where you can continue to work. And of course, I mean, you know, not that I would want this situation to exist, but right now everybody is watching a lot of stuff. So I'm pretty happy that you were able to join us. It is extra timely.

NUSSBAUM: It's weird timing for me because I just stopped being the television critic. I'm on a yearlong book leave. And while I'm watching some TV, it's no longer my job to watch all the TV and then produce a column every two weeks. So I timed that for the pandemic, which I think was very savvy. But...

(LAUGHTER)

COULTON: Perfect.

NUSSBAUM: But a lot of people are - a lot of people have been trading advice. I don't - what are you guys watching?

EISENBERG: We finished "The Good Place," which - because we were just behind on that. So that was - yeah, that was beautiful.

NUSSBAUM: Note on our Zoom channel, I just clutched my chest in love for "The Good Place."

(LAUGHTER)

NUSSBAUM: And all of Mike Schur's beautiful, humane sitcoms. It's very funny when - it is such a funny thing when shows suddenly have weirdly relevant elements to them. "The Good Place" seems...

COULTON: (Laughter).

NUSSBAUM: ...Particularly designed to mimic this.

EISENBERG: Jonathan, what were you saying that you were watching the other day?

COULTON: We've been watching "Babylon Berlin" over here, which is a sort of detective story that takes place in the - during the Weimar Republic era in Germany, between the wars. It's subtitled in German (laughter), which sounds like it would be a real deal-breaker, but I enjoy it. It's a nice little detective mystery, and it's also, you know - stylewise it's really - it's just very - it's very cool, the clothes and the bizarre musical numbers and the various people in drag. And it's pretty interesting.

NUSSBAUM: That does seem like good watching for the (laughter) - the combination of wartime Germany and fabulous drag queen dancing seems good.

EISENBERG: (Laughter).

NUSSBAUM: I've been watching the new season of "High Maintenance" and combined it and alternated it with watching "Curb Your Enthusiasm," which I was...

(LAUGHTER)

NUSSBAUM: ...Joking was a combination of, like, humanity and inhumanity. And it's actually weirdly effective as an almost - I like this idea of medicinally combining shows. I used to have this thing where I would watch "The Americans" and then watch "Broad City" afterwards. And I was like, this is like a great cocktail 'cause there's this...

(LAUGHTER)

NUSSBAUM: ...Incredibly moving and bleak show that's devastating. And then it's this kind of, you know, twisted, funny, joyful comedy. So I think that - in the - that's what you should do...

EISENBERG: That's funny.

NUSSBAUM: ...Is sort of not just find the right show, but find the right combination of shows (laughter).

EISENBERG: I have to ask you because you've actually - you saved me. You've saved me many times with your thoughts on television.

(LAUGHTER)

EISENBERG: But...

NUSSBAUM: I am television's savior - very beautiful.

(LAUGHTER)

EISENBERG: But one in particular - so of course, you know, I do stand-up, as you know, and I often perform for Jewish organizations or even at temples for their fundraisers. And of course, every time - is that everyone runs up to me either before or after the gig and says to me...

NUSSBAUM: (Laughter).

EISENBERG: ...Oh, my goodness, do you just love "The Marvelous Miss Maisel" (ph)?

NUSSBAUM: I knew exactly where this was going (laughter). Yeah.

EISENBERG: And I almost want to lie to them now and just say yes (laughter) because saying no makes them so upset.

NUSSBAUM: I have experienced this.

(LAUGHTER)

NUSSBAUM: I wrote a relatively notorious pan of "Mrs. Maisel" in the second season.

(LAUGHTER)

EISENBERG: Yeah. And the main reason I didn't attach to it is because it's about a woman doing stand-up in the past and really just - it's - she has a real easy time.

(LAUGHTER)

NUSSBAUM: Yeah, she kills. She's the best stand-up ever. She loves herself and experiences no internalized misogyny. And everybody's delighted with that because when she gets on stage and does routines about loving herself, people cheer and applaud. And she's beautiful, and she's the most beautiful. I mean, there's a lot of problems with it.

EISENBERG: Yeah, and there's...

NUSSBAUM: And it's like Joan Rivers but without self-hate, which, as we know, was Joan Rivers' incredible magic power - was her ability to be a mirror for women and men's hatred of women.

EISENBERG: Right. Emily, you're writing a new book.

NUSSBAUM: Well, yes, I am. I am trying to. I was up until (laughter) - up until I spiked a fever.

(LAUGHTER)

EISENBERG: Yes, yes.

NUSSBAUM: But I'm working on a book that is about early reality television. It's about reality TV up to 2004. A lot of it goes from around 1992, when the "Real World" came out, through 2004, where I decided to end with "The Apprentice." The book itself is going to be about the creation of what is hard to not acknowledge, whether you like reality or not - this incredibly vibrant, important, unbelievably influential genre in American pop culture and worldwide pop culture.

There are numerous negative things you can say about reality TV, some of which I would agree with, including that, without reality TV, this would not be our president. That's just the case, I think.

EISENBERG: Right.

NUSSBAUM: But when I started writing the book, I was feeling a mild sense of dread, as I think many people do when they go into book projects. And the more I started researching stuff and talking to people, the more excited I got. So I'm hoping that this will be a good distraction.

EISENBERG: So hey, we have a couple games for you. Emily, do you want to play a game about some reality television?

NUSSBAUM: Nothing could be better. Bring it on.

EISENBERG: So we have pulled out a quote from a reality television show. And Jonathan and I are going to read the quote, and then you're just going to tell us what reality show it's from.

NUSSBAUM: OK.

EISENBERG: OK. Let's start easy. "The tribe has spoken."

NUSSBAUM: (Laughter) "Survivor."

EISENBERG: Yeah, Season 40. What? We're on Season 40?

NUSSBAUM: It's wild.

COULTON: How is that even possible?

NUSSBAUM: It was such a - that show was such a crazy phenomenon. I don't know if you remember, but it was the equivalent of what happened with The Kardashians later on, where, like, every op-ed had to mention "Survivor" as a sign of how degraded the culture was. And so...

COULTON: Right.

NUSSBAUM: ...There were just a million things. And it was always about the bug-eating. And then it was such a big hit that, like, two or three years later - I don't want to exaggerate - but like, at a certain point, everybody was like, that's the beautiful, old-school, athletic traveling show.

EISENBERG: Totally. All right. How about, "that's hot"?

NUSSBAUM: That's "The Simple Life."

EISENBERG: Yeah, Paris Hilton.

NUSSBAUM: I'm actually better at this than - I thought there would be, like, some - I thought I'd have some trouble 'cause it - 'cause I don't remember everything from that period. But that definitely was the beginning of the sort of strange period of having shows about hot but extremely mockable young rich girls. Like, there were just...

EISENBERG: Yeah.

NUSSBAUM: ...A bunch of them, and it led into "The Real Housewives" later. I mean, I'll - I don't have very well-formed thoughts on this, but I think there was a period around the turn of the century that was just - it was just contempt central. It was just a big national up-skirting of privileged young girls...

COULTON: (Laughter).

NUSSBAUM: ...Some of whom leaned into it. Like, it was just a whole thing going on.

COULTON: All right. How about this one?

NUSSBAUM: OK.

COULTON: "I was rooting for you. We were all rooting for you. How dare you?"

NUSSBAUM: Oh, OK. Wait a second. I was rooting for - oh is that - that's "America's Top Model" (ph).

COULTON: Yeah...

EISENBERG: Yeah.

COULTON: ...That's right. "America's Next Top Model."

NUSSBAUM: See, that is a great phrase, though. (Laughter) I will say, the catchphrases from reality shows really...

COULTON: Pretty solid.

NUSSBAUM: ...Come in handy in real life. So - yeah.

(LAUGHTER)

COULTON: All right. Here's your last one. "One day you're in, and the next, you're out."

NUSSBAUM: (Unintelligible) I know this, but - one day you're in, and the...

COULTON: "One day you're in, and the next, you're out."

EISENBERG: (Laughter).

NUSSBAUM: OK. This - is this the auf wiedersehen show, where - is it "Project Runway"?

COULTON: It is "Project Runway."

NUSSBAUM: OK.

EISENBERG: Yes.

NUSSBAUM: 'Cause I - the phrases I know from that are auf wiedersehen and make it work. So I...

EISENBERG: Yeah, that was way back to Heidi.

NUSSBAUM: I was like that's, like, a nice niche catchphrase there.

COULTON: (Laughter).

NUSSBAUM: But you did a great accent for it, so it was hard not to...

COULTON: I was helping out. I was helping out with the delivery.

EISENBERG: All right, Emily. You did great. Do you have a little bit more time? I mean...

NUSSBAUM: Sure, I do.

EISENBERG: ...Do you have nothing but time? (Laughter).

NUSSBAUM: I have nothing but time.

(LAUGHTER)

NUSSBAUM: When has any - when has a person who is simultaneously working on a book and quarantined from a massive disease not been the ideal person to be like, you want to talk some more? Like, I'm simultaneously fleeing reality and procrastinating.

COULTON: (Laughter).

EISENBERG: So - all right, we have a special treat for you. Jonathan Coulton, as you know, is in his home studio (laughter). And he's going to serenade you in the form of a music parody quiz about TV shows.

NUSSBAUM: Amazing.

COULTON: All right. So what we did is we rewrote TV sitcom theme songs to make them about TV dramas.

NUSSBAUM: Great.

COULTON: So you'll get - there's no points. I was going to describe how many points you're going to get, but just consider now that you already have all the points 'cause we like you.

NUSSBAUM: Wonderful. Play me a song, Jonathan Coulton.

COULTON: All right. I'm going to play you several songs. Here we go. Here's your first one.

(Singing) We're married to each other, but it's mostly just our cover. And the truth of it is quite a surprise. We're your Cold War enemy. We're loyal to the KGB. Our kids don't even know our family's made of lies. It's all right - deep-cover Soviet spies.

NUSSBAUM: "The Americans" - A great show.

COULTON: "The Americans" is correct, yeah.

NUSSBAUM: Oh, I love that show so much. That - if everybody is just sitting there distracting themselves, watch this incredibly bleak show...

(LAUGHTER)

NUSSBAUM: ...That will depress the hell out of you but also make you think very deep thoughts, not just about politics but about human intimacy.

COULTON: Do you know the theme song - do you know the sitcom that that theme song was from?

NUSSBAUM: No, actually, I don't. Like, what is that?

COULTON: That was "Saved By The Bell." All right. Here's your next one.

(Singing) Tell me how I traveled back in time. Tell me if this kind of bigamy's a crime. I hung out with some stones. Now I'm nursing this tall redheaded dude - going to have his Scottish baby.

NUSSBAUM: OK, that's "Doctor Who," although I initially thought it was "Quantum Leap." That - so thank you for the redhead touch.

COULTON: It is not "Doctor Who."

NUSSBAUM: It's not "Doctor Who"? OK, wait a second.

COULTON: No.

NUSSBAUM: Maybe I - it's very hard...

COULTON: Traveling back in time.

NUSSBAUM: Traveling back...

COULTON: We're traveling back in time. There's a little bigamy involved.

NUSSBAUM: OK. Oh, it's "Outlander."

COULTON: "Outlander," yes.

NUSSBAUM: "Outlander" - really good option for people wanting to binge and...

COULTON: (Laughter).

NUSSBAUM: ...Enjoying certain kinds of aspects of "Outlander" which are delightful. "Outlander" is a really well-done show.

COULTON: It's a real bodice-ripper.

NUSSBAUM: There's a lot of - there's a lot of time travel shows that - so let me think. (Singing) Head into the final frontier.

"Mad About You."

COULTON: Yeah. "Mad About You" - that's right.

NUSSBAUM: Yeah. That's a show which just had a truly misbegotten but strangely fascinating reboot. Did you know that?

EISENBERG: Yes.

NUSSBAUM: Oh yeah, they called it...

COULTON: I have not seen it. How is the reboot?

NUSSBAUM: I liked "Mad About You" - the original "Mad About You." I mean, it isn't perfect, but I thought it was a pretty good sitcom. And I'm curious about this sort of "Pet Sematary" approach to old sitcoms...

(LAUGHTER)

NUSSBAUM: ...Where they never quite come back quite the same.

EISENBERG: (Laughter).

NUSSBAUM: So I watched this one. And the first few episodes were really terrible, like kind of fascinatingly so. I mean, I like the performers, but they were really bad in ways I won't get into depth on. But I was a little obsessed with it, and I watched like six or seven episodes nonsensically. I wasn't even going to write about it. I was just curious. But yeah, the bringing back old sitcoms. But that's a lovely song.

COULTON: All right, here's another one.

(Singing) I'm obsessed with you. Villanelle, you're my bae. So obsessed with you - you're a psycho, but that's OK. Still obsessed with you - you're obsessed with me, too.

EISENBERG: (Laughter).

NUSSBAUM: "Friends" theme song - "Killing Eve." I'm getting a little better at this. Like, yeah.

COULTON: Yeah, you nailed it.

NUSSBAUM: This is a great job you guys have. It's cool.

(LAUGHTER)

COULTON: All right. This is your last one.

NUSSBAUM: OK.

COULTON: Here we go.

(Singing) Everywhere you look, there's a face that could win you a trophy. Every time you vote, make it fierce because Pray Tell is the emcee. Don't be lost out there. You don't need to roam. Evangelista's a house; it's a home. Work that ballroom look. Shoo-be-do-bap-ba-da (ph).

NUSSBAUM: Evangelista - is it - God, I got really confused partway through that one.

COULTON: Pray Tell is the emcee.

NUSSBAUM: Oh, it's "Pose."

COULTON: It's "Pose."

EISENBERG: Yeah.

NUSSBAUM: Of course. What was I thinking? It's the House of...

(LAUGHTER)

NUSSBAUM: That's terrible. It's particularly terrible because I was literally on the set of "Pose." Like, I wrote a profile of Ryan Murphy...

COULTON: I know. You wrote a big piece (laughter).

NUSSBAUM: ...While they were making on it - where they were making it. It's shocking that I didn't get that. I got a little confused by trophies and because I've been thinking about reality, I got waylaid. But...

COULTON: Right, right. Of course. You got reality on the brain.

NUSSBAUM: Yeah, exactly.

EISENBERG: This is....

COULTON: How about the theme? Do you remember the...

NUSSBAUM: (Singing) Everywhere you look, everywhere you go.

Yeah, I know so many...

COULTON: You know it, but you don't know the show, right? That's about where I was with this, too.

NUSSBAUM: Yeah, it's familiar.

COULTON: (Laughter).

NUSSBAUM: It's "Full House" or something, right?

COULTON: "Full House." That's right.

EISENBERG: Yeah, yeah, yeah.

NUSSBAUM: That's - this is a great game.

COULTON: Oh, thank you. It's - it was very fun.

EISENBERG: Emily, you did great. I'm glad you're doing great, and you did great. Thank you so much for playing these games with us and being such a good friend to the show - being a part of our show. And of course, all of you out there, you want a great book to read? Emily's book, "I Like To Watch: Arguing My Way Through The TV Revolution," is available now.

NUSSBAUM: Thank you so much for having me. It was wonderful.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

EISENBERG: And that's our show. You know, before I go, obviously, we are not taping in front of a live audience at the Bell House, but we want to know that you're out there. So we set up an Ask Me Another hotline and asked you to call in and tell us how social distancing has changed your behavior. Like, what's the most out-of-character thing that you've done? And we've got some really fun answers, so hit the track.

MATTHEW EVERSOL: My name is Matthew Eversol (ph) from Gloucester, Va.

MEL DAUGHERY: This is Mel Daughery (ph), and I'm in New York City.

MADISON: Madison (ph) from Louisville, Ky.

ALICE SLOUGHBECK: Alice Sloughbeck (ph) from Virginia Beach, Va.

LIZ: Hi, this is Liz calling from Orlando. And the most out-of-character thing that I've done is washing my dish right after I use it.

MADISON: I just swept my front porch, like, with a broom like my great-grandmother.

DAUGHERY: Cleaning my bathroom in between gulping down very hot liquids and blowing a hair dryer up my sinuses.

SLOUGHBECK: My husband studies Brazilian jujitsu. And since he can't go to class, I am his new drilling partner. I've never done martial arts in my life.

MADISON: I have decided every day to floss my teeth - like, all of them.

EVERSOL: I recently sent a selfie to my friends. They said that it must be the end of the world because I'm sharing selfies with them.

SLOUGHBECK: I would say the most out-of-character thing I've done is wanted to hug all of my co-workers. I am not a hugger or a toucher, and I miss them so much. I've planned each and every hug out for when we return. So I really love the show, and I hope this goes away soon - the COVID, not the show. Bye.

EISENBERG: So until next time, we're still here. We're going to keep working from home to help take your mind off things. ASK ME ANOTHER's house musician is Jonathan Coulton.

COULTON: Hey, my name anagrams to thou jolt a cannon.

EISENBERG: Our puzzles are written by Carol Lee, Ruth Morrison, and senior writer Karen Lurie with additional material by Cara Weinberger and Emily Winter. ASK ME ANOTHER is produced by Travis Larchuk, Kiarra Powell, Nancy Sachow (ph), James Farber (ph), Rommel Wood and our intern Nick Garrison. Our senior supervising producer is Rachel Neel.

COULTON: El Ranch Eel.

EISENBERG: And our boss's bosses are Steve Nelson and Anya Grundmann. We'd like to thank our production partner WNYC, and we can't wait to get back to our home at the Bell House.

COULTON: Hot heel blues.

EISENBERG: Lots of love to you guys. I'm her ripe begonias.

COULTON: Ophira Eisenberg.

EISENBERG: And this was ASK ME ANOTHER from NPR.

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