Today comes word that The New Yorker’s television critic, Emily Nussbaum, has been awarded this year’s Pulitzer Prize For Criticism. It’s the second year in a row that a TV critic has won the category, suggesting the era of peak TV is also the era of great peak TV criticism. Nussbaum has been with the magazine since 2011, but her storied career has included stints writing for Television Without Pity, The New York Times, and New York magazine.
The award is justly deserved, as anyone who has followed her work can attest. Nussbaum is a perceptive and open-hearted critic, willing to confront her own biases and preferences in print while always grappling with what it means to take TV seriously. Comparisons to Roger Ebert are apt; she writes broadly and accessibly, but never unintelligently. Her work often engages the broader political and social implications of a series, but never avoids taking a show on its own terms. It’s a magnificent balancing act, one that both illuminates and demonstrates how criticism is an art in its own right. The Pulitzer site allows curious readers to check out selected Nussbaum essays from the past year, submitted in consideration for the award. But her talents stretch out long before 2015: Here are five older pieces written by Nussbaum that merit your attention.
1. “Queer Eyes, Full Heart: The Button-Pushing Camp Of Ryan Murphy”—The New Yorker, November 26, 2012
Written back in 2012, this remains the most well-articulated case for the talents of Ryan Murphy, a divisive figure in the television landscape, pilloried for his messy and over-the-top narratives as often as he is lauded for making compulsively watchable TV. Nussbaum argues persuasively that Murphy’s shows can’t be understood outside the context of camp, and after reading it, you’ll never see his work the same way.
2. “Color Commentary: The shape-shifting masterminds of Key & Peele”—The New Yorker, September 30, 2013
This smart and succinct analysis of the Comedy Central sketch series from 2013 wades fearlessly into the thorny knot of racial politics that drives much of the show’s humor, while also making important points about the nature of comedy. “To modern joke critics, the key distinction between a good joke and a bad one is supposed to be between “punching up” and “punching down”—taking a cheap shot at someone who is already weaker than you. But, often enough, that distinction depends on the referee.”
3. “When TV Became Art”—New York Magazine, December 4, 2009
This is Nussbaum’s take on the new golden age of television. Pivoting off David Chase’s game-changing series The Sopranos (and, to a smaller extent, Joss Whedon’s less acclaimed but equally influential Buffy The Vampire Slayer), she makes the case for the aughts as being the decade when television became great art. (The Alpha and Omega of her argument being, of course, The Wire.) She notes almost in passing one of the biggest contributors to the sea change: DVDs and DVRs. “By opening up TV to deeper analysis, these technologies emboldened a community of TV-philes, fans and academics who defended the medium as worthy of critical respect.”
4. “Say Everything”—New York Magazine, February 12, 2007
Fear the walking dead internet connection! In a lengthy and brilliant analyses, Nussbaum investigates the new youth culture of social media, and a world in which the young live their lives in public, online. Reading it almost a decade later, her thoughts remain as sharp and penetrating as they were on the page back then: She nailed the impetus for kids, now essentially public figures in America, to be “doing their own publicity before somebody does it for them.”
5. “In Defense Of Narcissism”—New York Magazine, July 10, 2009
The last entry is the shortest, but also one of my favorite things she’s ever written. Essentially a call to stop overusing the term “narcissist,” it’s a humble request that we all instead return to the fine art of the direct insult. And while I’ve got a feeling Nussbaum has an entirely separate argument about the overuse of cruel invective in American culture, her point here remains unassailable: “Maybe it’s time to stick up for the narcissists themselves! Without them, who would run the country, the corporations, the film sets? Who would start the dancing at parties? Outlaw blinkered, paranoiac egotism and you risk blotting out half of Manhattan and several art forms.”