TV critic Emily Nussbaum thinks shows should only run for five seasons. And she misses “Freaks and Geeks.” That and more, as she chats with columnist Nicole Brodeur.
Unlike legions of HBO-watching women across the land, Emily Nussbaum was ready to let go of “Girls.”
“I’m very attached to the show,” Nussbaum said by phone the other week while walking in her hometown of New York. “But I’m glad it’s ending. I’m happy it’s ending. I think the strongest part of it was the very beginning.
“And, frankly, I find the conversations about the show very exhausting.”
Seattle Arts and Lectures Presents Women You Need To Know: Emily Nussbaum of The New Yorker
7:30 p.m. Thursday, May 4; Town Hall, 1119 Eighth Ave., Seattle; $20; 206-652-4255 or townhallseattle.org
That’s saying something. As the television critic for The New Yorker, Nussbaum lives and breathes the medium. She is known for her strong opinions, the occasional nerd-out (“Buffy the Vampire Slayer” got her started in this line of work) and an ability to connect the cultural, psychological and sexual dots between television and the lives of those who consume it.
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Her writing won her a Pulitzer Prize for Criticism in 2016, and will bring her to Town Hall on May 4 as part of Seattle Arts and Lectures’ Women You Need to Know Series.
Pulitzer judges awarded Nussbaum “For television reviews written with an affection that never blunts the shrewdness of her analysis or the easy authority of her writing.”
But Nussbaum isn’t one of those TV critics who grew up in the glow of the set. She watched and loved shows like “Taxi,” but went to Oberlin and then New York University with a plan to teach literature.
Then she got addicted to “Buffy the Vampire Slayer,” and started writing about it.
“I became frustrated because it was a brilliant and ambitious show,” she said, “but not everybody was talking about Buffy. I felt like I had a mission.”
She started writing for fan sites, Slate and then the witty and sharp website “Television Without Pity.” That led to writing and editing work, most notably at New York Magazine, where she wrote about culture and television for seven years before joining The New Yorker in 2011. (She is married to journalist Clive Thompson and has two children.)
At first, she imagined a structure to her columns, which appear every other week. One week she would write about comedy, another week drama, then the show everyone was talking about, then a critical review.
“But TV has exploded since then,” she said. “There’s no way to keep up with it all. I try my best to keep up with shows that have a relationship to the largest question of what TV can do, what is its relationship to the audience, what’s original.”
TV was initially created to be “this weird experimental thing,” she said. Once televisions became cheaper and advertisers got involved, the goal was ratings — which meant making “the most acceptable and comfortable” shows for people.
Formulas were developed. Sitcoms were set in stone. Then came Norman Lear, whose socially conscious canon included “All in the Family,” which challenged the neat-and-tidy shows viewers had become used to.
It also gave rise to the anti-hero. Think Tony Soprano in “The Sopranos.” Al Swearengen in “Deadwood.” Walter White in “Breaking Bad.” You couldn’t bear their choices, but you had compassion for them anyway.
“Suddenly there was a way to make television that made people uncomfortable,” Nussbaum said, “or they had a weird relationship with the main character. Then it was off to the races.”
Even Carrie Bradshaw of “Sex & The City” was an early, unrecognized version of the anti-hero. (“People had anxious reactions to her,” Nussbaum said.)
Which all made way for Dunham’s Hannah Horvath.
Nussbaum called “Girls” “a pure expression of this indie-film inflected, quasi-drama, quasi-comedy.”
“I always saw it linked with (comedian Louis C.K.’s FX show) ‘Louie,’ because it changed the tone of half-hour television,” she continued. “A kind of TV auteurism that has been radically influential in a medium that has always been collaborative and not so much about an individual voice.”
We saw Hannah for the last time last Sunday with an infant son and a job teaching at a university.
“I would be delighted to see a spinoff,” Nussbaum said. “Hannah as a messed-up, chaotic teacher with a kid. But I have respect for (Dunham) as a creator and I want her to do other things.”
Nussbaum would also like to see a law passed that shows only run for five seasons.
“That’s partially a joke,” she said. “But it’s true that I don’t think all shows need to run forever. The economic model is that they should run as long as they make money. But it’s become this tricky thing. When is it supposed to end? How is it supposed to end?”
That’s one of the things that makes TV different from movies and novels, she said.
“It’s built in front of you. It takes place in front of an audience as it is being made, and in a range of ways,” Nussbaum said, citing “Lost,” “The Sopranos” and “Dexter.”
The newest television model is the anthology, created and perfected by Ryan Murphy, whose “American Horror Story” has a certain aesthetic and uses a recurring cast.
“There’s also a new model where each show is a separate story,” she said, citing “American Crime.” “Each of these things is an attempt to solve a problem.”
For now, she is “obsessed” with “The Leftovers,” had high praise for Donald Glover’s “Atlanta” and loved” “Big Little Lies” not only for its quality, but for its short, potent run.
She loves a good procedural and still misses “Taxi” and “Freaks and Geeks,” which only ran for one season.
“But I can still revisit all of them,” she said. “When I have time.”