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Is Emily the New Pauline?

Television
by David Chute
July 25, 2013 2:56 PM
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Lena Dunham and TV critic Emily Nussbaum

The TV critic Emily Nussbaum, in this week's "New Yorker," talks back to Brett Martin, author of the widely reviewed and excellent new book "Difficult Men: Behind the Scenes of a Creative Revolution: From ‘The Sopranos’ and ‘The Wire’ to ‘Mad Men’ and ‘Breaking Bad.'"

Her argument, in effect, is that Martin re-writes history in order to minimize the role played by one of her favorite shows, "Sex and the City" in jump-starting what Martin calls the Third Golden Age of Television. Along the way she issues a manifesto for the swarms of unembarrassed TV critics the TGA calls for:

"Why is (SatC) so often portrayed as a set of empty, static cartoons, an embarrassment to womankind? It’s a classic misunderstanding, I think, stemming from an unexamined hierarchy: the assumption that anything stylized (or formulaic, or pleasurable, or funny, or feminine, or explicit about sex rather than about violence, or made collaboratively) must be inferior."

There's a ring to this that's instantly recognizable: Nussbaum's sensibility as well as her Philosophy of Criticism, seems distinctly Pauline Kael-esque. In a stand-out column earlier this year ("Shark Week," 02/25/13), Nussbaum defended her preference for for the wild, shameless, campy "Scandal" over David Fincher's often grim and serious "House of Cards."

"…honestly, the more I watched (HoC), the more my mind kept wandering to Shonda Rhimes’s 'Scandal'— an ABC series that’s soapy rather than noirish but much more fun, and that, in its lunatic way, may have more to say about Washington ambition. … Popping with colorful villains, vote-rigging conspiracies, waterboarding, assassinations, montages set to R. & B. songs, and the best gay couple on television (the President's chief of staff, Cyrus, and his husband, James, an investigative reporter), the series has become a giddy, paranoid fever dream, like '24' crossed with 'The West Wing,' lit up in neon pink."

Although, she says, Nussbaum became devoted to the medium under the influence of "My So-Called Life," a canceled early classic of "quality TV," it's her populist streak, her unabashed love of mainstream television that strikes the ideal note for a TV reviewer, even in a Golden Age. The last time I felt an immediate buzz of kinship like that for the work of critic was (at the risk of dating myself) when Kael began writing about movies for (fittingly) the same publication.

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