MATILDA DIXON-SMITH

The Saturday Paper - - Front Page -

Emily Nuss­baum re­cently took to Twitter to ask her 200,000-plus fol­low­ers for help. She needed travel tips, for Aus­tralia, for her fam­ily, with the caveat they “don’t ac­tu­ally care about beaches”. The wis­dom of the crowd sent her on a fa­mil­iar, ex­haust­ing traipse – like so many tourists be­fore her – around Syd­ney Har­bour, with two teenagers in tow. At Taronga Zoo, dis­tracted by the dis­plays of platy­puses and pen­guins, they miss their ferry. Now, in the bright af­ter­noon, they are stand­ing on the steps of the Opera House, trying to or­ches­trate a meet-up with Nuss­baum’s hus­band, who sits on a bus bound for Cir­cu­lar Quay. Her son texts di­rec­tions to him. He replies with ex­cited, though per­haps un­help­ful, re­marks about Syd­ney’s “im­pres­sive” buses. By her de­scrip­tion, it plays like a sweet scene from a fam­ily sit­com.

“I al­ways think it’s re­ally fas­ci­nat­ing that it wasn’t that long ago that peo­ple lit­er­ally talked about tele­vi­sion as though it was, like, junk food, re­gard­less of what was on,” she says. “It was in­trin­si­cally not con­sid­ered art.”

Nuss­baum’s writ­ing ca­reer – at New York mag­a­zine, Slate and The New York Times be­fore The New Yorker, where she won the Pulitzer Prize for crit­i­cism – has tracked with enor­mous evo­lu­tions in both TV and crit­i­cism. “That’s what caused me to be in­ter­ested in it,” she says of the work, “be­cause it was trans­form­ing in front of ev­ery­body’s eyes.”

Now hun­dreds of shows pre­miere each year in the United States alone, streamed di­rectly, ac­com­pa­nied by end­less dig­i­tal crit­i­cism that’s al­most as in­stan­ta­neous.

“The in­ter­net has, in many ways, been an in­cred­i­ble boon for hear­ing more var­ied voices about art, which is great. But the eco­nomic model for crit­i­cism, which was never strong, has col­lapsed to such an ex­tent that older peo­ple re­ally shouldn’t give ad­vice to younger peo­ple,” she says.

She is blunt when she tells me “the prob­lem is less with arts crit­i­cism than it is with news­pa­pers and mag­a­zines as the eco­nomic model for sup­port­ing writers”, some­thing any writer could agree with. “As I’ve fre­quently said,” she says, chuck­ling, “if I knew any­thing about eco­nom­ics I would not have gone into arts crit­i­cism.”

I of­fer my con­fes­sion that she’s my writ­ing idol. I love how so of­ten her work cap­tures some­thing oth­ers have missed. So it was with Ryan Murphy, who she pro­filed beau­ti­fully in 2018 as “the most pow­er­ful man in TV”, seem­ingly un­der­stand­ing his grotesque, wheel­soff the­atri­cal­ity in a way many oth­ers didn’t. Con­ced­ing her showrun­ner pro­files –Black-ish’s showrun­ner Kenya Bar­ris, Orange Is the New Black’s Jenji Ko­han – are some of her favourites, she tends to squirm away from praise with charm­ing blus­ter.

I ask whether young crit­ics fawn over her, just as I did. “I–I don’t – feel com­fort­able talk­ing about my­self that way,” she replies. “So that’s my an­swer to that.”

My favourite piece from Nuss­baum is her mea culpa for mis­judg­ing a show by its de­cep­tively ex­cel­lent pi­lot – NBC’s aptly named Broad­way train wreck Smash. It’s a meal, wry and self-dep­re­cat­ing, yet still shrewd in its ex­am­i­na­tion of how ef­fi­ciently art can de­volve.

The open­ing line is an art form in and of it­self: “Be­ing a tele­vi­sion critic of­ten means be­ing wrong – only re­ally, re­ally slowly.”

I ask Nuss­baum about the pi­lot trap when we speak. “I mean, this is just baked into TV,” she says. “One of the weird things about be­ing a TV critic is that peo­ple have to de­cide when to write about the thing.

“It’s hard, as a jour­nal­ist, to fig­ure out when the best time to say some­thing is.”

Nuss­baum says she’s of­ten asked whether she wanted to be a TV critic back in col­lege, which she says is ridicu­lous be­cause she went to col­lege in the ’80s, be­fore tele­vi­sion crit­i­cism in its cur­rent form even ex­isted. She was drawn to the work in the ’90s by her equal ad­mi­ra­tion of two very dif­fer­ent shows that were re­ceiv­ing very dif­fer­ent crit­i­cal re­sponses – The So­pra­nos, frothed over by crit­ics; and the fem­i­nist fire­cracker Buffy the Vam­pire Slayer, which she felt was be­ing crim­i­nally over­looked.

“That’s ac­tu­ally what made me into a TV critic: I was just ar­gu­ing with ev­ery­body about Buffy the Vam­pire Slayer, so I had to turn that into a job.”

We spi­ral into dis­cus­sion about var­i­ous iconic TV shows she’s cov­ered in her time at The New Yorker. There was Sex and the City, which she chron­i­cled in a blis­ter­ingly good col­umn, “Dif­fi­cult Women”. She quips it took her 15 years to write. We both ad­mit to watch­ing Glee, an­other di­vi­sive Ryan Murphy jug­ger­naut, all the way through to the se­ries fi­nale.

“But the thing is, Glee started re­ally well,” Nuss­baum ar­gues, though she doesn’t have to per­suade me. “Glee had one of the best pi­lots; it was amaz­ing. And, also, peo­ple didn’t give the show… I don’t know. I think Ryan Murphy’s shows can be kind of mixed bags at times, but he is an in­cred­i­ble pi­o­neer, and peo­ple al­most don’t re­mem­ber … when Glee came out it was trans­for­ma­tive. It re­ally was this thing where it was like a stylised, arch, funny, queer com­edy teen show. I mean it was re­ally a crazy thing to see.”

We’re in­ter­rupted by her son, who wants to go into

• bat for Glee as well. Clearly, he’s well trained.

MATILDA DIXONSMITH is a jour­nal­ist and cul­tural critic from Mel­bourne.

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