Book Review: Emily Nussbaum and Jia Tolentino Change the Channel

Book Review: Emily Nussbaum and Jia Tolentino Change the Channel

When I was a resident tutor at Harvard College, every two weeks I’d walk into the mailroom to and see about half the boxes containing shiny new copies of The New Yorker. Under the leadership of David Remnick, the wry chronicle of Manhattan culture has become a common denominator among members of the would-be meritocracy.

That still excludes the putative little old lady from Dubuque, but it includes a wide swath of intellectually-inclined global citizens who are utterly appalled at the direction the titular city’s parent nation, and the world generally, have been heading. The magazine’s writer Jia Tolentino captures the experience so many of her peers and readers (including me) shared on the night of November 8, 2016, describing the moment “the dread Times meter swung in the opposite direction.”

Remnick was ready that night, with a post headlined “An American Tragedy.” We all woke up the next morning, though, and went about making our lives in a world where fundamental values would be constantly under siege. It was clear that the first and the worst suffering would be experienced by the most vulnerable, but we would all have our own reckonings to make. All those Harvardian magazine subscribers, whatever their varied personal situations, are deeply invested in the project of the university and yet live under a government that openly maintains “a consensus of peer reviewed literature has nothing to do with the truth.”

In her new book Trick Mirror, Tolentino writes that “one of the most soul-crushing things about the Trump era” is that “to get through it with any psychological stability […] a person’s best strategy is to think mostly of himself, herself.” Our choices are “to be wrecked, or to be functional for reasons that contribute to the wreck.”

TV, anyone? A little escapism sounds great, even if that means contributing to a streaming economy that often puts money into the pockets of Jeff Bezos (Tolentino boycotts Amazon, a corporation she describes as uniquely efficient at juicing the retail economy to bring extraordinary wealth to its investors but utter misery to its employees) and exacerbates climate change to boot.

Once you get over those little moral humps, you of course find an unparalleled golden age of television. Freed to take risks like never before, producers are creating the 21st century’s most indispensable cultural products. The most respected critic chronicling the flickering (or whatever, technically speaking, it does now) screen is another New Yorker writer: Emily Nussbaum, not the first but probably the best-known TV critic to win a Pulitzer.

Nussbaum also has a new book out this summer: the aptly-titled I Like to Watch, which is largely a compilation of her New Yorker features but also includes new material including a lengthy wrestle with how to handle “the art of terrible men.” It’s understandably a less apocalyptic read than Tolentino’s bracing collection of original essays, but it functions, similarly, as an exploration of how to survive (“thrive” may not be an option) as a critical thinker in 2019.

Together, the two books make essential summer reading for those seeking the opposite of escapism. Start with Nussbaum’s, which celebrates its “book birthday,” as publishing Twitter puts it, on June 25. Haven’t seen all the shows she writes about? That’s fine, because while Nussbaum is hardly a traditional critic, she and her editors embrace the traditional critic’s role of curation: she writes about the shows she loves, and the shows she decides she needs to know.

That makes I Like to Watch a handy guide to the era of prestige TV, starting with The Sopranos. That was the show that prompted Nussbaum’s jump into TV criticism, albeit without her knowing that would develop into a full-fledged career. A through-line of I Like to Watch is the writer’s reckoning with the way that career has seen significant changes to some of the things she loved about television: its collaborative nature, its episodic structure, the way it unfolds over weeks and months of time.

Nearly every essay makes a compelling argument about a show or show-runner, and while I was reading it I had to bite my tongue every time a show came up in conversation and I wanted to insert, “You know, Emily Nussbaum says…” I’ll admit to skimming a few sections that got into the weeds regarding shows I didn’t see, but by and large if you don’t mind spoilers, you can save yourself a lot of time by letting Nussbaum explain why Vanderpump rules or how Jessica Jones breaks the superhero mold.

Nussbaum tackles both the production end — going deep with mavericks like Jenji Kohan and Kenya Barris — and reception, grappling with “the rise of the bad fan” in a 2014 essay that takes Archie Bunker as the prototypical fictional figure read the wrong way. “There’s a lot to be said,” writes Nussbaum, “for a show that is potent without being perfect, or maybe simply perfect for its moment, part of a conversation instead of the permanent record: storytelling that alters the audience by demanding that viewers do more than just watch.”

That could also describe Trick Mirror (August 6), a collection that’s squarely of its moment. The title comes from a phrase Tolentino once used to describe “what women seemed to want from feminist websites.” By extension, it applies to the internet generally, through which our experience is inevitably filtered. The rise of Trump and his ilk has been enabled both by television (Nussbaum chillingly describes the dynamic by which a shamelessly aggressive approach leaves any reasonable rival looking like a loser) and by the internet, which allows each consumer to select the version of reality they’d like to see.

In this perilous American experiment, Tolentino is like the subject crying out, “There are four lights!” She refuses to relinquish her tools of discernment, her belief that there is an essential reality that we can approach, at least asymptotically, through critical thinking.

Tolentino, who is fluent in millennial culture without fetishizing it, pegs “scamming” as “the quintessential American ethos.” The book’s central chapter puts Trump at the unseemly apex of a pyramid of fraudsters including Billy McFarland (you may have seen Tolentino on the Fyre Festival documentary from Hulu), Mark Zuckerberg (the author reminds us that Facebook grew out of its founder’s desire to compare his classmates’ faces to those of farm animals), and #GIRLBOSS Sophia Amoruso.

More personal, and delicately nuanced, essays examine religion (Tolentino was raised in a Texas megachurch its teen parishioners called “the Repentagon”) and the culture of her alma mater, the University of Virginia. She matriculated there at age 16, having shot through school at an accelerated pace, and more or less lived the dream. “For four years I cranked out papers at the library; I wrapped myself around a boyfriend; I volunteered and waited tables and sang in an a capella group and pledged a sorority and sat on my rooftop, smoking spliffs and reading, as the kids at the elementary school across the road shrieked.”

Like a trick mirror, the 2014 Rolling Stone report “A Rape on Campus” was both true and false. It was false in its particulars — “Jackie,” the reporter’s central source, proved unreliable — but as Tolentino notes, it was accurate in its portrayal of the university campus as a place where sexual violence was normalized. Her unflinching essay describes just how deep the roots of rape culture grow in Virginia and far beyond.

Neither Trick Mirror nor I Like to Watch is particularly optimistic, but they’re both inspiring. It’s apt that both books’ titles refer to the act of looking, to the importance of keeping our eyes open. We can’t always believe what they see, but we can compare, contrast, think, and communicate. There are four lights. Billy McFarland is a fraud, Archie Bunker is a racist, and so is the President of the United States. Beyond those simple truths, things get a little more complicated.

Jay Gabler