TV critic Emily Nussbaum fields questions on everything from "Buffy" to "Broad City"

By Georgie Silvarole

November 11, 2015

Goldring Arts Journalism program sponsors her visit

Emily Nussbaum beats around the bush when it comes to disclosing how many hours she spends in front of a TV screen.

“Everybody always asks that, and at some point I think I should get a Fitbit. I really think it depends on the week,” Nussbaum says. “I also like to read and, you know, do other things — eat, sleep.”

Nussbaum, the television critic for The New Yorker magazine, visited the Newhouse School last week to talk more about her job and all its demands. The Goldring Arts Journalism program sponsored her talk and the program’s new director, Eric Grode, moderated the discussion, which attracted a large audience.

“I wanted to start with a bang,” Grode says. “The Goldring Arts Journalism program deals in a visceral way with a lot of different art forms. People like television, and it’s a really good time to like television and talk about television.”

As one would expect of a television critic, Nussbaum’s knowledge of the medium is wide and deep. She had a response for any title thrown at her: “Buffy the Vampire Slayer,” “Broad City,” “True Detective,” “The Sopranos,” “The Walking Dead,” “Parks and Recreation,” “The Good Wife,” “Arrested Development.” You name it, she’s watched it.

Nussbaum says she uses a rule when critiquing shows: for dramas, she watches the first three episodes first, and for comedies it’s the first six. It doesn’t benefit the reader to review something prematurely — sometimes shows drastically improve (or flunk) even between episodes, she says.

“Really brilliant sitcoms often have bad first three episodes, but drama — if the first episode is that phony-baloney and build on clichés, it probably can’t be trusted,” Nussbaum says. “Also, I’m not going to write a critical review of a show unless it becomes a big deal. I don’t want to spend negative energy writing a critical review — I don’t write about everything that goes on TV, so I have to pick and choose.”

Nussbaum’s work consists of a column every two weeks, and a longer, in-depth piece once a month, she estimates. She clarified that she’s not a re-capper, she’s a reviewer, and that there’s a difference between the two.

Once she forms a general project idea, Nussbaum tries to stick to a variety of reviewing guidelines, she says. She focuses on judging shows within the constraints of their creation — she doesn’t write sitcoms off too early, she keeps watching a series after delivering a damaging piece and she hangs on to drama reviews until she knows she has something substantive and relevant to say.

“I’m not trying to write thumbs-up, thumbs-down reviews. I’m trying to write criticism,” Nussbaum says. “It’s a conversation with other people. I like shows that create good conversation about what is valuable and interesting on television.”

Despite virtual arguments in the comments section and handwritten hate mail, Nussbaum’s job is still enviable, says Michael Magana, a senior communication and rhetorical studies major at Syracuse University. When he heard about Nussbaum’s visit, Magana jumped at the opportunity to hear her talk.

“I think she’s pretty thought-provoking,” Magana says. “It’s kind of cool that her job is to wake up in the morning, drop the kids off and watch TV. Would I like her job? Me, personally — yes.”

Georgie Silvarole is a junior newspaper and online journalism major at the Newhouse School.