Decades in the making, this unassuming book represents the central thesis of one of the greatest television critics, Emily Nussbaum. I Like to Watch isn’t just a collection of TV criticism; it’s a defense of TV criticism and television itself, celebrating the medium’s unique power and charting its evolution throughout the post-Sopranos golden age. Five stars.

Book Cover: I Like To Watch

From her creation of the first “Approval Matrix” in New York magazine in 2004 to her Pulitzer Prize–winning columns for The New Yorker, Emily Nussbaum has known all along that what we watch is who we are. In this collection, including two never-before-published essays, Nussbaum writes about her passion for television that began with stumbling upon “Buffy the Vampire Slayer”—a show that was so much more than it appeared—while she was a graduate student studying Victorian literature. What followed was a love affair with television, an education, and a fierce debate about whose work gets to be called “great” that led Nussbaum to a trailblazing career as a critic whose reviews said so much more about our culture than just what’s good on television. Through these pieces, she traces the evolution of female protagonists over the last decade, the complex role of sexual violence on TV, and what to do about art when the artist is revealed to be a monster. And she explores the links between the television antihero and the rise of Donald Trump.

The book is more than a collection of essays. With each piece, Nussbaum recounts her fervent search, over fifteen years, for a new kind of criticism that resists the false hierarchy that elevates one form of culture over another. It traces her own struggle to punch through stifling notions of “prestige television,” searching for a wilder and freer and more varied idea of artistic ambition—one that acknowledges many types of beauty and complexity, and that opens to more varied voices. It’s a book that celebrates television as television, even as each year warps the definition of just what that might mean. 

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Let’s get this out of the way: Emily Nussbaum is a spectacular television critic. She’s earned her acclaim, her place at The New Yorker, her Pulitzer Prize. As I took notes, I had to stop myself from jotting down man, she’s good at this every chapter. She is one of my auto-read writers. Whether or not I’ve watched the show in question, I will read anything she writes about television. Sharp and witty, Nussbaum has a clear and incisive point of view as a critic skeptical of entrenched industry attitudes.

But a strong body of work isn’t enough to justify publishing this kind of collection. Most of these articles are available to anyone online; what’s the point of the book?

In this case, the whole is so much more than the sum of its parts.

It’s fun to take a tour through recent TV history, of course. Looking back, it’s interesting to note what Nussbaum didn’t know at the time, the shows she couldn’t know were just around the corner and world events that were about to change culture. The farther we get, the more fascinating these articles will become as cultural artifacts.

But Nussbaum is doing more than just reminiscing. She’s chosen her pieces carefully to build a central argument about her role as a critic. As the articles chart the evolution of television, they also reveal Nussbaum’s struggle to defend her vision of the value of the medium. To Nussbaum, criticism is an act of love towards television itself. The arguments, the praise, the pans–they all say that TV is worth fighting over. Fighting for.

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As The Sopranos pioneered “prestige television” and viewers started to take the medium seriously as an art form, Nussbaum was falling in love with Buffy the Vampire Slayer. To Nussbaum, both shows were pushing the boundaries of the medium in fresh, exciting ways. Both were bold and smart and entertaining, but only one was receiving breathless comparisons to highbrow film and endless think pieces in national outlets. The gritty, darkly-washed story of a middle-aged white antiheroic man was art; the brash feminist riff on high-school horror was junk food for teen girls.

This tension came to define her critical career. To Nussbaum, criticism is always about what sort of stories get to be “important.” Whose stories are worth telling? Who gets to tell them? How do we value different ways of making televison?

These tensions are at the heart of the job of any critic. Nussbaum’s opening essay, one of the only new pieces written for the collection, lays out these essential questions. That piece should be read by anyone who writes about books. I haven’t stopped thinking about it since I read it, and the essay has gotten me seeing my work as a book blogger in new ways.

Not sure you’re in for the entire book? Begin with that spectacular opening essay, “How Buffy the Vampire Slayer Turned Me Into a TV Critic.” After that, the essays are best read in order, but you can pick out a sampling of what interests you. My don’t-miss picks are the articles on Archie Bunker and the “bad fan,” Sex and the City, Jane the Virgin, black-ish, and Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt.

All these pieces are about the shows, of course, but the shows are only a starting place. Nussbaum is here to dig into the big questions about storytelling and culture. Whether she uses The Sopranos or Adventure Time to get there, you can be assured she’ll end up someplace insightful and surprising. While some articles dive into dark material or feelings of frustration, they always come from a place of curiosity, generosity, and deep love for the ever-evolving medium of television.

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