Episode 105: Emily Nussbaum
In Episode 105, Flourish and Elizabeth talk to Emily Nussbaum, television critic for The New Yorker, recipient of the Pulitzer Prize for Criticism, and the author of I Like to Watch: Arguing My Way Through the TV Revolution. The conversation focuses on the technological changes that have shaped television over the past two decades—and how those changes have altered the way we watch, discuss, and talk about it in turn. They then discuss a related listener letter on mismatched expectations between TV creators and audiences.
[00:00:45] Emily Nussbaum’s book is I Like To Watch, which you can buy at your favorite local independent bookstore (and should!) We’ve used the cover for our episode’s cover. Emily won the 2016 Pulitzer Prize in Criticism. And, as Flourish pointed out in the most incoherent way possible, she invented The Approval Matrix.
[00:18:35] “Earshot” was a Buffy episode about a school shooting. Its airing was delayed by several months as a result of the mass shooting at Columbine High School.
[00:33:39] Emily’s review of Maniac.
[00:50:40] We’re talking about Episode 75, “Bad Fans.”
[00:57:12] Go listen to our interview with Javier Grillo-Marxuach!
[01:00:35] We talked about the need for validation in our last episode, “The Fourth Wall Redux.”
[01:03:47] Unfortunately for Flourish, the thesaurus reports that “conflicted” and “ambivalent” are indeed synonyms.
Flourish Klink: Hi, Elizabeth!
Elizabeth Minkel: Hi Flourish!
FK: And welcome to Fansplaining, the podcast by, for, and about fandom!
ELM: [laughs] This is Episode 105, “Emily Nussbaum.”
FK: Yay! And you can guess who our guest is. Based on the title.
ELM: From the enthusiasm in the way I delivered her name. [laughter] Yes.
FK: Tell us all about Emily, Elizabeth, because you brought me Emily, and you brought me her delightful book I Like To Watch, which just came out, and I was very happy about this, but you can sell her better.
ELM: Yes. So Emily Nussbaum is the television critic for The New Yorker. She won the Pulitzer Prize for her criticism at the magazine, I believe it was in 2016.
ELM: I mean, that’s pretty exciting.
FK: It’s fancy!
ELM: No, genuinely! And prior to joining The New Yorker she was an editor and a writer at New York magazine, and prior to that I know she got her start essentially in fandom, doing a fandom version of criticism essentially, on the boards and on Television Without Pity, in like, you know, the late ’90s and into the early 2000s, you know, the kind of message board recapping, deconstructing, arguing spaces that existed online then.
FK: And I read, I read the whole book, and then I realized that she was the person who innovated that, you know, that like—four-quadrant thing? That’s sort of like tired to wired?
ELM: The Approval Matrix. That was Emily Nussbaum.
FK: The Approval Matrix! Yeah!
ELM: Yeah, the Approval Matrix.
FK: I was like “Wow, that’s the person who invented the Approval Matrix!”
ELM: No no no, historically it was not tired-and-wired, it’s highbrow-lowbrow are the quadrants—
FK: I know it’s not, I didn’t remember what the things are! Highbrow-lowbrow.
ELM: [laughing] Tired to wired.
FK: [also laughing] Tired, wired. You know. Broke, woke, bespoke.
ELM: That’s a different meme Flourish! Yes, the Approval Matrix.
FK: They’re related to each other! They’re all related.
ELM: Yes, yes.
ELM: So I’ve long been a fan, an admirer, of Emily’s work, and so then a few weeks ago her book came out. It’s a collection of her criticism. There’s some original writing in it as well, including a long, very thorny—I really enjoyed reading it, but it was a hard read, cause it was so thorny. About #MeToo and trying to reconcile her personal tastes, which include, like, you know, deeply admiring Woody Allen growing up. You know? As a—in an artistic way, right?
FK: Yeah, and also in a fannish way. Like, in a certain sense, you know?
ELM: Yes. Like, those were all wrapped together. Right? So like, trying to like, say, like—you know, can we separate the art from the artist? But actually what does this art say about this person and what does my love of it say about me? And I think, I think that essay, a lot of people—especially we’ve had a lot of conversations about this, just thinking about, we are recording this just before Comic-Con, and I’m about to be on the Harry Potter panel, and I had to bring up Johnny Depp last year. [laughs] Just talking about, you know, fans not sure about how to engage with the franchise and that kind of thing, and I think—I think that people would find that essay really valuable. So. Buy the book. [laughs]
FK: Yeah, yeah genuinely buy the book. There’s also a really great essay in it about Lost and about, like, fan disappointment, and you know, sort of the experience of being a fan and having a thing disappoint you, which I think is really…I don’t know, “corrective” is probably too strong a word to use, but I think that it’s, like, a really nice way of thinking about fandom and stuff that sucks on any level… Right? Like, there’s the #MeToo elements, and there’s also the, like, “well, this ending just sucked” elements. And it’s just an interesting way to—really gets into some of the complexities of those feelings in a way that I feel like a lot of narratives don’t, where it’s like, either “I’m happy!” or “This all sucks forever!” Or… [laughs]
ELM: Right, right, right. Sitting in the ambivalence.
FK: “Can I be a fan if it all sucks?”
ELM: Yeah, exactly. And I think this is something that a lot of people in fandom understand and sometimes can’t articulate. And get frustrated when other people assume that there’s some sort of, like, binary response to things. You know? Like…
FK: Yeah, yeah, yeah.
ELM: So, I think—
FK: Or alternately feel, like, trapped in the binary response of like…
FK: Know that it’s not representing you, but still are like “Ack! What else can I say?!”
ELM: Trapped in the binary. Yes.
FK: Trapped in the binary!
ELM: [laughs] And so those things I think would really appeal to fandom people and amongst other, you know, there’s obviously like, all sorts of her reviews about various shows that are—you know—big in pop culture for the last, like, 15, 20 years.
FK: Yeah, not always like, super fannish shows. Sometimes, but not always, you know.
ELM: Yeah. But, the reason that I really wanted to talk to her is because she writes about—and I’ve heard her in other interviews talking about—the way technology inherently changed television, changed the writing, changed the way it was consumed, that people could engage with it, you know, around turn of the millennium. You know, just being able to hit pause on a show, rewind it, analyze it, record it, talk about it with other people in that way, kind of just—kind of, and that felt so embedded in this fandom. You know? In the way fandom has engaged with television over the last 20 years, and so I really wanted to talk to her more about that. So I, I reached out, and she was up for it! So I’m really excited to talk to her!
FK: I’m excited too! Should we call her?
ELM: Yeah let’s do it right now!
FK: All right! I think it’s time to welcome Emily to the podcast. Welcome Emily!
Emily Nussbaum: Yay! Thank you for having me.
ELM: Thanks so much for coming on! We’re thrilled to have you. So, before we start talking, I would—I would kind of love to know, because I, I met you in the context of a panel about fanfiction, like, do you consider yourself a fan? Or in fandom?
EN: I don’t consider myself a fan or in fandom, but I do think that’s the origins of my criticism. It, I mean, I’m a fan of some things just in my civilian life. In my job I can’t be a fan. But–I write about this in the book, but the origins of me becoming a critic are definitely in pure fanhood, and specifically in Buffy the Vampire Slayer fanhood. When I watched that show, I was completely immersed in the community, I was on The Bronze, I was on Television Without Pity, I was reading the live feed, so this is a while back. But that was fandom. Right now…I don’t know. It just seems like that would be a strange way for me to identify myself when I’m writing about things from a critical perspective, because I think that enthusiasm is one thing but full-on fandom would probably warp or change, at least, the way that I was writing about shows.
I mean, that’s not a negative thing about fandom. I just don’t think it’s my role.
FK: Yeah, you know, it was really funny reading—reading your book, and reading especially your article on Lost and the end of Lost. I thought it was really interesting the way that you sort of construct what fandom is, and the way that that works, and then also, like, what happens when you have critiques of, of…
ELM: When a fan has the critique, yeah.
FK: Of a show that you’ve been a fan of. Right? When a fan has a critique and, like…it was just, it was really striking to me because obviously it’s not the point of this book to, like, dice up the differences between fans and critics, but it felt like you were maybe almost struggling with that and like, that’s sort of part of the thing that was motivating some of your criticism. I don’t know.
EN: The thing is, I love fandom and think it’s crucial to the things that have been going on with TV, especially during the time that I’ve been writing about it.
EN: And that piece is called “A Disappointed Fan is Still a Fan,” and it’s definitely about fandom. But my relationship with that show was so bizarre, because I was watching it, there was this expanding fandom, I was reading fandom things online—including all sorts of filk and all sorts of things—but I was also recapping it, which was a job.
EN: And I was recapping it for a magazine which is just not a fan task, otherwise it would be a different thing. And, I was being read by an audience of people who were passionate fans of the show. And I slowly started to dislike the show that I had once liked. [all laugh] And so I was in a very weird position. So I was writing these kind of hater’s recaps towards the end of it. I don’t like recapping things. I mean, maybe what I said at the beginning seems too simplistic, because it sort of I guess depends on how you define “fan.”
FK: Yeah, yeah.
EN: Am I a fan of Jane the Virgin? I love Jane the Virgin, I think it’s a great show, I watch it with my kids every week, we’re enthusiastic for it. I think I was just separating it out simply because…I don’t know. I think of myself as a critic and part of that includes the, the role of loving and hating things, I just think it’s different than fanhood, which is…which is a different, a pure role that doesn’t have a job aspect to it.
EN: Maybe that’s wrong, but—criticism, my job is to incorporate whatever part of me is just a pure enthusiast for it into a different task. That’s kind of what I’m saying.
EN: And also…I mean, certainly lots of fans of things write enormously critical stuff online, some of which is better and more engaged with the actual project of the, of the art or whatever than some critics do. You know. Because it, because fans have a…what is the expression? Fans have skin in the game. Fans are devoted and fans have a relationship with the show, whereas critics often engage with something, comment on it, and move on. So. There are definitely some shows that I feel more passionately about than others. It’s funny. I could list them, like, shows that I’ve written about…I don’t think I’m writing about them as a fan, I think I’m writing about them as a critic, but I definitely have a deeply attached emotional relationship with the show, and I will keep watching it after I’ve written about it. So, so I’m trying to just draw a distinction, but I also know that the two roles overlap and have some deep relationship with one another.
In a lot of ways, fanhood—I do think—has been more central to what’s happened on TV than television criticism per se, however you define it.
FK: Yeah, yeah.
ELM: Can you expand on that a little bit more? I’m—that’s interesting to think about.
EN: Well, one of the main things that I think about TV is that—and one of the main points of this book is that it’s about celebrating television as television. Which means detaching it from neurotic comparisons to books and movies and talking about it as an art form in itself. And kind of defining what are the qualities of that art form. And to me one of the most interesting ones is that TV has traditionally taken place over time in episodes that loop with audience response. And TV has a unique relationship with its audience. And the fanhood for a show, and just the audience in general for a show, responds to the show and then the creators of the show often fold that response into what they make next. And I think that that’s just different from other artistic mediums.
That doesn’t happen with—well I mean I guess it happens a little bit if there’s a series. But it doesn’t happen with an individual novel, that readers go out and respond to it and then a novelist goes back and goes “Huh, OK. I’m angry at what the readers said so I will change this chapter,” or “That’s a good point! I think I’ll change this chapter,” or “I am subconsciously affected by people’s bizarre responses…”
FK: Yeah, yeah, yeah.
EN: So warped.
FK: You know, maybe, maybe like, in between serial books, like. I mean, Sherlock—but that’s not how novels exist today. [laughs]
EN: I mean novels came out in a lot of the same way that TV shows did, because they were initially separate and serialized and then they became one big thing. But in the form that they exist today, novels and movies come out, they’re a thing, and then you respond to them. That’s not how TV works. TV is almost like an improvised form, even though it’s recorded and it’s a huge industry. And also, you know, people who make the shows get feedback from [laughs] the ratings, from the networks, I mean, it’s, it’s something that you watch being made. But the role of the audience in changing shows as they go on is really fascinating to me, and I do think it’s unique to TV.
And the passionate fandom for shows and their role in affecting the shows ranging from Lost to, you know, I have an essay about The Sopranos, and my honest feeling is that one of the reasons that The Sopranos is a masterpiece is that the creator of that show was so pissed off by the way that fans were responding that he basically punished them and shut them down. If that—if it had all been made at once, I think The Sopranos would be a different show. I think the first two seasons of the show, a lot of fans of The Sopranos who thought of themselves as passionate Sopranos enthusiasts, worshiped Tony Soprano, found him incredibly hot. Some of them sort of were bloodthirsty and wanted to eliminate the boring therapy scenes and marital stuff and just wanted more killings. And I feel like David Chase looked at that and was like, “I’ll show you!” [laughs] And the show became colder in certain ways, it became more explicit about the sociopathy, the subject of the show became Tony’s inability to change…
Anyway, my point is, you’d think that fans of The Sopranos would just be people who liked The Sopranos, but it was actually a very complicated response to the show from multiple audiences and even though the creator of the show was somebody who probably would say “I don’t listen to that stuff,” I think that that was central to changing the show. And I think that’s true in a lot of shows. Buffy was a show that was definitely…
EN: …affected by audience response. I’m not saying this is universal and true to every show, but I do think it’s one of the most powerful aspects of the medium. And this is sometimes true when people create shows, that they’re responding to fan response to other shows. I mean—I just feel like…
EN: It’s a conversation that goes on in TV that’s a looping conversation between viewers and creators that kind of spreads across the medium. I hope I expressed that well, but it’s like—to me, to me, that is something that is specific to TV and it’s something that I think should be talked about more, because TV isn’t a finished object. TV is an object in process. And obviously that’s changed somewhat, because of the technology, but I still think that it holds true in a lot of ways.
FK: The technology piece is what I wanted to ask about, because I think this has so much to do—and I’m not totally sure how it all connects up, so maybe you can connect some of those dots for me—it was really striking when I was reading the book, I put a sticky, you know, on the part where you’re talking about how people hated TV in the ’90s. Because it just gave this intense flashback to being, like, a teenager and having my, you know, parents calling it the “idiot box” and like, you know?
EN: So true! The “boob tube,” the “idiot box,” the “vast wasteland.”
FK: Yeah! I was like—yeah, the “kill your television” bumper stickers, they were a thing! And then— [laughter] And now, by the way, like, my mother does nothing but watch TV. So like, I won this one. [laughs]
ELM: Blowin’ up her spot right now.
FK: But it’s interesting to think about how, like, the audience response changes when you get to, like, TiVo and also, like, ad response and cutting out ads…I don’t know. You probably have a better question about this, Elizabeth. Go for it.
ELM: No…? [all laugh] Yeah, I mean, I just, I’ve been so struck by the way you’ve talked and written about this, the idea of…you know, because my first fandom was Buffy also, I was 14 at the time [laughs] so I probably had a somewhat similar and different reaction. Flourish and I actually did a special episode on a Buffy episode, and Flourish saw it when they were in college?
ELM: And I saw it when I was like 14 and I was like “Oh, we had different experiences of this.”
FK: Yeah, I was only allowed to watch one show and it was The X-Files, cause my mom thought it was feminist. So. We had a very different…
EN: These are wonderful formative shows though.
FK: Yeah, yeah, yeah! Anyway, so yeah, I haven’t made her watch The X-Files, let’s note.
ELM: Not yet, not yet.
FK: No, never. [laughs] I’ll never make you do it!
EN: I mean The X-Files—if you want—Buffy, Buffy’s very influenced by The X-Files. I think even Joss had said that Buffy was My So-Called Life plus The X-Files.
ELM: But Giles isn’t in The X-Files so I don’t know what there is for me really. I really am only watching for Giles.
EN: You see? This—I’m not saying I don’t have the, but I was, I was trying to think like, “What is the distinction of fanhood and criticism?” And I was like: “Fanhood is the freedom to watch a show just for Giles.” [all laugh]
ELM: Yeah! Giles only! I wrote Giles-only fanfiction.
EN: You know what I mean?
ELM: It was just him.
ELM: In his house.
EN: OK. I will say that you and I have something in common, since one of my first shows that I was into just in a stupid, like, childlike way, was Gilligan’s Island, and I had a crush on the Professor. So. [all laugh] I think that the person who’s into the Professor or Giles is like, there’s a distinct thing goin’ on. So.
ELM: Yes. [laughs] Go on to work for the New Yorker.
EN: Carried through TV history.
ELM: But so, you know, when we were watching those shows in the ’90s, we were like, deep, hardcore fans. I was recording every episode, making a special little label for it. So fans were already doing this. But you talking about, like, the invention of like TiVo in particular, but then you know all the DVR—like, that technology—making the kind of ability to record, easily record and pause and turning TV into, like, a text that was readable and not just something that kind of like hit you or flowed through you—like, I think you’re so eloquent on that. So that’s what I really wanted to dig into a little bit, because I think that’s so integral to the way fans were—you know, that kind of setup the last two decades, of television fandom, too, that easy access to the text. You know what I mean?
EN: Yeah. I, this is to me, it is the—I think I have a line in the thing where I say, you could write a whole essay just in a [laughs] like, praising the pause button. Because it just, it, the text thing is the transformative thing. Because once TV was treated as something that people could take apart, write about critically, share with others, see in its elements, and also just revisit. You could do things with TV that you couldn’t do before that. Because when TV just streamed into your living room, the way people created TV—well first of all they made it in formulaic ways so that you could go into a new episode and always know what was happening. You could never be disoriented. It was important for the manufacturers of TV that people’s attention always be on the TV and that they never just be confused and knocked out and then just turn it off.
Once you had a text that you could rewind, and you could re-see something that was confusing, you could frankly just do denser and more sophisticated things. I mean, there’s so much about, like, I remember when I first got my—I was an early adopter on TiVo. And there were a couple of times in technology where I was like “This changes everything!” And one of them really was with TiVo. I was like, “Oh my God.” You know, I had a pile of VCR disks and—disks. [all laugh] I had like one of those teetery piles…
FK: Oh yeah.
EN: …of VCR things, and because of Buffy I’d actually sent away and somebody had, like, bootlegged for me a bunch of…
EN: Yeah. Especially around “Earshot,” I got somebody from Canada to send me.
ELM: Oh, wow! I’m so impressed.
EN: Cause “Earshot” wasn’t aired on—yeah. Aired in the United States. So. But the thing is, VCRs were genuinely difficult to use. You could argue that they turned TV into a text, but there were a lot of things about it. Like you could not—you had to dig through the pile of them. You would actually mess up, physically mess up the tape. I mean, there’s a lot of—I have a lot of nostalgia of frustration [laughs] about a lot of early TV things. VCR tapes really were one of these terrible technologies where you could only have a small amount, you had to label it, somebody would tape over it, this whole thing.
Anyway, DVRs, you know, TiVo came out and I was like “Are you kidding me?!” Like, hours and hours, it was carefully labeled, I could always revisit it, it would remember when the thing was on…I mean, it was…I know this seems silly, because at this point people download shows onto their phone, but the significance of this in terms of how people could treat it, could treat any individual show as not a throwaway but something permanent and something that was part of their collection, something that they could think about seriously, is—you can’t, you can’t exaggerate that. I mean that was a big deal.
I think I talk about this in the book: TiVo would predict what you wanted to watch, and I was embarrassed because—well first of all it would get things wrong. Cause I watched a lot of Buffy, so it thought I liked kung fu, so it would record kung fu. [all laugh] And then I remembered there was a—this is about TV taste—I liked the show G String Divas on HBO, just this kind of somewhat sordid part of their reality edutainment stuff about the sex industry, which was theoretically a documentary but actually kind of titillating. And I remember I had to make this decision: do I want the TiVo to know that I wanna record this? [all laugh] Cause then it will give me stuff like it. Like—the TiVo was gonna judge me.
FK: Yeah, it was like, the—like Netflix’s predictive algorithm or whatever the heck it is, you know.
FK: Only in the past.
EN: Do you like more cerebral romantic comedies set in Denmark? You know. So yeah. I think there was a moment for TV viewers of self-consciousness related to these things, because you had to figure out what you wanted to watch. I know that’s—you know, it used to be that you just turned the channel. But now that you had a collection you’d look at it and you’d be like “These are the shows that I like.” And then TiVo would choose other shows that you’d like like that. And I just think it was a moment that, as a TV viewer, you became much more conscious of your viewing. But also, the main thing is, yeah. You could, you could rewind it if it was confusing. So they could make The Wire. They couldn’t make a show like that in the past.
FK: I feel like around that time there was also the appearance of—I mean they had done this a little bit before, but, VCR box sets. Or as DVDs came out even more, like, DVD box sets or whatever. And so then you were buying, you know. You were buying things. And I felt like there wasn’t really that very much until the mid-late ’90s.
ELM: I had Buffy box sets!
FK: Yeah yeah!
ELM: Oh, in the late ’90s. Yeah, but a little before.
FK: Mid-late ’90s, right? Like, mid-late ’90s was when that started to happen and then, like, you know, like, going…I guess by the time I was in college you would walk into someone’s room and you’d be like “OK!” It was still before you had streaming video, but you would see the stuff that they had and you’d judge them.
EN: The fact that somebody could display the fact that they had Buffy box sets or whatever was a—you know, it used to be that people’s TV appetite was invisible. Like, they’d watch something, it would disappear and you’d have to ask them and talk to them about it. People wouldn’t put things up. Yeah, HBO provided—I mean, there was, I also had the Buffy box set, although I remember getting, I would rent them.
FK: Yes! At Blockbuster! You would—
FK: And they wouldn’t have all of them, and you would be—for me it was X-Files but you would be pissed off cause I’d seen all of the ones at my local Blockbuster and they couldn’t get—
EN: This is completely true.
ELM: I’m sorry, Flourish.
EN: I mean, it is, it is a strange ’90s nostalgia for these half-assed but satisfying routes to your favorite things. [laughs] There was, the other thing was that HBO put out box sets that made it clear that it was not TV, it was HBO. Because they were these extremely luxurious box sets that were like, black and silky and had a ribbon, and it was this whole thing.
EN: It was like a class distinction in the way they distributed the DVDs to say, “You’re getting something more akin to literature,” essentially.
ELM: That’s interesting.
EN: And I think that that was part of the beginning of this hierarchical sense of TV is transforming, and there’s a lot of sophisticated TV, but some TV counts as adult and some TV still counts as TV. And—
EN: That’s part of the agitation that’s at the center of this book, is the relationship between the critical reception of Buffy and The Sopranos, and this went down to a certain extent to the technology that it was distributed on.
ELM: So this is such a powerful argument, like, woven throughout the book. Obviously it’s embedded in all your criticism. And I like how you take us up to the present day and I’m curious if you could expand a little on that. Because talking about how those models now are completely breaking down after two decades of that, when Netflix can drop full seasons, cancel shows after two seasons because that’s when they see the subscription, you know, the new sign-ups drop off in season three—that whole thing that they were talking about recently, you know.
EN: That’s upsetting.
ELM: And it’s all gonna be the streaming wars, et cetera. I’m curious about how you see that shifting right now in terms of the, the…“content that’s being created” is such a sad way to describe it.
FK: Hey, welcome to my world! [laughs]
ELM: The [laughs] the television that’s being created, and what television means now. You know?
EN: Yeah. I mean—I, as much as anyone else and maybe more so, have been thrown and just destabilized by some of the changes that are really recent. [laughs] People don’t remember, like, just a few years ago you did not get things streaming on your phone that you could… I mean, Netflix was sending out DVDs a few years ago! And then that changed. And then the more recent stuff of having an app on your phone or downloading things onto your phone. And especially the production model that Netflix did that started to dominate things. I think critics are still coming to terms with it, but nobody more than me! [laughs]
Because, because the situation in which somebody produces an entire show and then releases it to the audience changes the way that people talk about TV when it doesn’t come out week-by-week. It also changes the way TV is produced, because that audience loop I’m talking about doesn’t take place within the season. People don’t recalibrate. I mean, they do internally, but they don’t recalibrate two-thirds of the way through the season because people have rejected one of the plots.
But I would argue, I often think about Orange is the New Black on Netflix, because it was one of their breakthrough shows and it’s having its final season now. And I feel like that show genuinely did absorb audience response to it in between seasons. Like, you can see in the second season or the third season things that feel responsive. Not polemically responsive, but really organically, like responses to the kinds of criticism that the show got. Not just political criticism, like—it’s interesting. You can see the show grow and change in response to, to the political atmosphere around it as things changed in the world. But also, basically making an argument back to viewers about power dynamics within the cast. I mean, I could go into more detail about this, but it’s kind of granular. But I do feel like TV still changes in response to the audience, just in a different way.
The Netflix thing you talked about, about them canceling shows after two seasons, is really upsetting to me, because they’re so non-transparent about their business model that it feels like third seasons of shows, traditionally, are some of the best seasons of shows, so if they’re just gonna cut them off at that point because they don’t wanna raise people’s pay, that’s I don’t think good for TV. The only thing that I care about with technology is I care about whether it makes better shows. So it’s not like the network model is so great and always produces great shows. You can have a terrible business model; if it happens to produce original, great things, I will still be for it. So. You know. Yeah.
ELM: Right. Yeah, and it’s also thinking about the audience too, from this, it’s like: I was trying to describe this to someone with the Marvel films recently, about how it feels more like sports to me now, where they’re like “You gotta see the big game on this day! As quickly as possible! Or it’s gonna be ruined for you!” And I feel like you get a little bit of this with the big Netflix drops, too, where they’ll be like “You need to sit down for eight hours and watch this until you can’t feel your feet, and then if you aren’t doing that at the same exact time, then you can’t be a part of that immediate conversation,” and then no one cares about it four days later who watched, you know what I mean?
EN: That’s an upsetting thing about Netflix. I agree, it changes when people talk about it. And people can’t figure out when to talk about it, because you can spoil things all the time and people are watching things a few years later. And to add to this, it used to be that you couldn’t watch old TV shows—I mean, people, again, it’s hard to remember this, but people had no access to the archives of old TV shows!
EN: You had to catch like an I Love Lucy rerun, you know. But it wasn’t like you could suddenly decide “Huh, I think I’ll watch all of ER.” You couldn’t do that.
FK: Yeah, yeah.
EN: Now you can, so the variety of choices people have from shows that have just come out to shows that came out—like, I’ll catch up on The Americans—to rewatching things from the ’80s and ’90s really has shattered the group-watching experience in the way that you’re talking about. But yeah, I don’t know. Part of that is just Netflix’s marketing, because half the time there’s this sort of fake enthusiasm for a not-great show that they’re showing.
EN: And that is dispiriting for me, because it feels like then everybody scrambles and all the attention goes toward some kind of mediocre kind of Hamburger-Helpered-up thing that’s a little bit too long and has an interesting idea but the pacing’s not that great, and then people scurry on to the next thing. It doesn’t necessarily get people watching the best stuff.
FK: Well, there’s also sort of a question about the communities…I mean you were talking about the group-watching experience, but it’s interesting, I wish I could send this conversation back in time. Because I worked on this show East Los High which came out the same time as the first season of Orange is the New Black, and what I was like, you know, doing sort of fan interactions and stuff. And one of our big stresses was, it dropped all at the same time for people on Hulu, it was one of the first Hulu Originals, if you had Hulu, you know, premiere, and then everyone else got it week-by-week. And it was fascinating because that actually, like, worked to build a community week-by-week, and the people who saw it all at once peaced out.
ELM: Forgot about it, yeah.
FK: Forgot about it. I mean, not that it was—it was not Orange is the New Black, like, love everyone who worked on East Los High, none of us thought we were making great—I mean, we were making good television, but maybe not, you know, for the ages. But you know, the thing that’s interesting to me is thinking about the way that fan communities build up when there is some of those difficulties in getting pieces, and like, week-by-week having missing parts that have to be filled in. You know, when you think about, like, coming into a conversation that’s going on and like, sort of having to work a little bit to find all of the bits, I feel like that forms deeper bonds and also like it—it means that, it has to be something good, because otherwise you don’t want to spend that effort on it, right?
FK: I just sort of wonder about what that’s gonna look like. Maybe it looks like things that have a much longer tail, right? Maybe it’s like, oh well, yeah, I got into it now, and someone else gets into it later, and only the very best things will people still be talking about after they’ve binged them. Right?
EN: I mean, there is some truth to that. I remember, you know, Television Without Pity doesn’t exist anymore, but for a long time that was a big place I would go. It had threads on every show. And I remember sometimes, you know, I would revisit old seasons and just start reading a thread and people continuing to have a conversation about something that was particularly compelling to them, and the great thing about the internet is that bizarre thing where you’d be—somebody would have posted something two years ago, and then somebody would respond to it, and then it would start a fresh conversation about a particular episode of a show that wasn’t on any more. I mean, all of that warping of time I think benefits the passionate perseveration of people who really care about a particular show.
But I agree with you, I mean, that must have been frustrating. And I think everybody making TV, from what I—you know. It’s a sense of how difficult it is to get, harness the attention and then also keep people talking about something. I’m not, you know, I’m not in the industry. I basically I’m always like, “I’m just outside! I watch the show, I say if I think it’s good.” Like, it’s not my job to figure out how the production model works! But I try and understand enough about it to understand how it affects the art. Because, you know, making a network sitcom—I think it’s a miracle when somebody makes a great network sitcom, I’m like, “Oh my God.” [all laugh] Amazing! To produce 22 episodes a year on a yearly schedule, they get all these notes from the network, there’s all this advertising pressure, and there really is this intense need for them to reach a broad audience and not offend anyone. So when they’re able to make something original under those circumstances, I feel like they do deserve a little bit of extra credit. [laughs]
Cause, you know, each way of making something has its own strange, you know, pressures and difficulties and advantages. And it’s, it’s not as though when somebody’s making a small six-episode dramedy that means that it will always come out well, because they’re a little bit off the radar. They also have this odd pressure to participate in the marketing process and think about those things. I mean, I can’t imagine what that feels like from inside, cause on the one hand now technologically there’s more freedom and independence, but there’s also [laughs] there’s this radical increase in the amount of shows. So it’s like, how do you get anyone to pay attention to your tiny show? It’s hard. And I have a lot of sympathy for TV makers.
ELM: Yeah, and then taking it to the next level—thinking about us looking at fans too, like, how do you get anyone to watch it is one thing: how do you get anyone to actually care? Cause I have friends who literally will watch everything on Netflix that comes. And you know, like, which is baffling to me. And I think exactly what you were talking about, the like, the mediocre stuff and then people are like “fine” and they’re like “40 million people watched this!” And you’re like “OK.” And I have friends who are, like, sucked in by this! And they’re like “Sure, it was OK.” You know? [laughs]
FK: Well isn’t that sort of back to, isn’t that a little bit back to the old idea—
FK: —of “I’m gonna turn on FOX, because I tend to like FOX’s programming overall, and I’ll just watch all of it.”
EN: That’s absolutely true that Netflix is akin to channel-surfing. Because you just get on there and it’s so well-designed and so sleek that you’re just like, “Oh, happens to be on so I’ll watch it.” I mean it’s the equivalent of that except into the certain kind of mediocrity, because it’s sleekly made and it’s fine. It’s not terrible.
ELM: Sure, fine.
EN: That frustrates me! And actually I didn’t, I haven’t read it yet but there was a big article about the streaming revolution yesterday that there were a few clips put on Twitter, and I’ve been meaning to read it. But there was one that really agitated me, because it said something about how Netflix was such a great system because when you make a whole season at once, it encourages more creative risk-taking, as on the show Maniac, which was able—they said—to switch from genre to genre without, like, in a way that might have thrown people off if they went weekly. And they said something like that they could do this, you know, if they did it week-to-week it would potentially risk incoherence. And I was like, “Oh, they not only risked incoherence, they achieved it!” [all laugh]
Because Maniac’s a bad show. I’m not saying it’s the worst show around, but its seeming experimentalness, and the way that it shifts from genre to genre, is kind of empty. I actually see a lot of the sort of fingerprints on that show of people shifting gears to try to do something that would be interesting for the director, or responsive to the era, because there were things in it that had a kind of post-#MeToo feeling about it. But they weren’t well-done! And so the fact that it was on Netflix and they had the freedom to construct the whole season didn’t make it a good show. And I wrote a negative review of that show, but that show got a lot of praise, because I think it just fit a category people were—I mean, this sounds condescending towards people who actually liked it. I’m sure there were people who earnestly thought it was good. But I really, it was just one of those Netflix emperor-has-no-clothes situation where I was like “Why are people talking about this this way? It’s not good in the way they’re talking about!” It just looks cool. Like, that’s not the same thing.
So. There’s a, there’s definitely a thing with Netflix. At one point I was talking about the particleboard romcoms of Netflix, cause they were really filling the gap for people wanting to watch romantic comedies, and a lot of them felt really generic. And I mean, a lot of romantic comedies already feel generic, so I guess that’s not that shocking. But I really wanted to watch great romantic comedies, since they knew there was an audience for them. But it felt like they had to be—it felt like they never had to go through a third draft or something. It was good enough to get an audience on that network, because it’s an algorithm. There are people who want that stuff. So.
ELM: Right. And they also, I feel like with those in particular they sit in this weird middle ground between like Hallmark Originals and like something you’d see in a theater, and Hallmark Original I’d much rather watch than anything, any romcom I’ve seen on Netflix! Cause they’re so schlocky, you know? And this, like, the plots are so cheesy, and I’m just like “All right! Here you go.” But something like that middle bit where it just—yeah, it feels empty to me. That, like, really throws me off every time.
FK: I think that there’s a, I think that there’s a budget issue. Honestly. I mean, I think that’s probably what we’re seeing with this.
ELM: Well then make them like Hallmark! Come on.
FK: Yeah, I mean—I think that that might challenge, like, Netflix does have an idea that it is taking these risks and so on, and putting out—I don’t think Netflix would want to say that they were creating mediocre product. I think they would say “Oh! We’re making something that’s,” you know, “it wouldn’t get greenlit in Hollywood because it’s,” you know, “but here it is!” You know? “It wouldn’t get greenlit for a film but here it is and we’re making it and it’s just as good!” And it doesn’t—it’s not always just as good
EN: It’s not just as good. You know, this is the thing: TV economics are so mysterious to me and the example I always pull is of, you know, 30 Rock was basically on the air because NBC was a failing network. Like, the reason it survived was that NBC didn’t have something to replace it. And so they ran it for three seasons. They would definitely have canceled it earlier if they were more economically successful at that time network, and they weren’t struggling. It served their purposes, it was getting good—
EN: —critical reviews and stuff, but it would not have survived the first season. It got very low ratings. So sometimes a messed-up system can end up providing very good art, and sometimes a successful and thriving system can provide schlock, because it has a successful way to hit eyeballs, but there’s no, nothing within the system that guarantees that they’re gonna have high standards as far as the things that I think people who—people should be interested in: originality, you know, real beauty and clarity and force, like, all of the good artistic qualities, rather than just reproducing something that will get eyeballs on it.
But you know, I, again, I don’t understand how the industry works, and for awhile the way good shows came out were that small cable networks came up with a tentpole show and then they rebranded themselves after the show that was a success. So that happened with Buffy, it happened with AMC with a couple of its shows—with Breaking Bad. You know. And for awhile I was thinking “Oh, I guess that’s how TV works!” Like, a small cable network decides that it wants to get some attention for making something good, and so Lifetime creates whatever—what was that? UnREAL.
ELM: UnREAL, UnREAL, yeah!
EN: It was like, “What is even happening? Why is UnREAL on Lifetime?” I mean, I wasn’t the hugest fan of Mr. Robot, but it’s a very interesting show: why was Mr. Robot on USA Network? [all laugh] Just this—this strange thing where a network that you hadn’t really heard of…and FX was my model for just a great network that had a surprisingly, shockingly high hit rate, as what they were doing.
EN: The extent to which I care about these economic things is all about how successful is this model at creating an unusually high amount of good shows. And FX is very good at that, and I think a lot of the economics of things, I mean, now FX is owned by Disney and I don’t even know what’s going on. And I guess Spielberg is coming out with something? It’s very confusing.
FK: No one knows what’s going on. I can tell you officially from an industry perspective: no one knows what’s going on. It’s all a mystery! Hooray!
EN: That’s oddly reassuring. [all laugh]
FK: Even people who work at FOX and Disney don’t know what’s going on, so. It’s fine.
EN: There you go.
ELM: OK. So we’re almost out of time, but just to wrap up, I’m wondering—I’m wondering how to tie this back to audiences and fans. I mean, you’re over here saying that you, you know, you don’t know very much about the television industry, but I feel like you do actually, and in the—
ELM: —Flourish works in it—
EN: I clearly know enough to have a lot of opinions! [laughing]
ELM: Right! And also, like, in a way that I feel like, you know, as you’ve written book criticism and I’m saying as a book critic too I feel like book critics could, could benefit a little more from understanding the models. It’s not like books just exist in a beautiful vacuum, you know, and you write about why you stopped writing poetry criticism, right? Because you, you understood the realities of giving a bad review to a poet! But so I’m just, like, I don’t know, I guess I’m just trying—I’m trying to tie this all together into the way this connects back to audiences and what the future of televisions audiences and television fans are. Cause you’re thinking a lot about how these shifting models and shifting technology are affecting the stuff that gets created, and the way people can watch it? I don’t know. Is that too big of a, like, predict-the-future kind of question?
EN: Yeah, the one thing is I always say I can’t predict the future, and that the only time that I ever had any good judgment was when I was an editor at New York Magazine, they once sent me—at the time they were VCR bricks of Lost and Desperate Housewives, and I said “I think these shows are gonna be hits,” and I was right. [FK laughing] But that’s it. Like, that’s the only time.
I mean, I don’t know what’s happening, what’s gonna happen technologically, I’m literally just surfing the waves like everyone else at this point. So it’s just, I mean, even in my job, I’ve seen the change in the way that screeners get distributed. Like, now I watch a lot of TV on my computer screen. All I want, like anybody else, is for TV to be a place where people can produce something that is beautiful and interesting and also something that’s beautiful and interesting and doesn’t need to reach a mass audience. Because the truth is, I’m interested in large phenomenon that have enormous fanhoods, but there are great shows that have come out that will never reach a big audience. I just want them to reach the people who will love it.
You know, The Leftovers was not gonna have a big audience. Lady Dynamite was not gonna have a big audience. Like, that’s a Netflix show with Maria Bamford. I mean, there are a lot of shows that are just good and interesting shows, but they’re not designed to be mass, and what I always pray for is whatever’s happening to the TV industry, that it, you know…it’s all been a big improvement over just having three networks, but there’s downsides to the intense, wide variety as well. And one of them is just being able to find the good things that are out there. And the good things are not necessarily mass things or things that, you know, they may have a fanhood, but the fanhood is a niche fanhood for that thing.
And the wonderful thing about the internet is it just, like, you can’t separate TV from the internet at this point or for a long time. And the great thing is, if you love a tiny, great show, you can find your group of maniacs who also adore it and talk to them about it for five years. [all laugh] Even if it only had four episodes! Like, I mean, that’s the part of it that makes me feel very encouraged and enthusiastic, and it doesn’t really have to do with these big-picture things. It just has to do with the ability for people’s relationship with small good things to have some kind of meaning and some kind of platform.
ELM: That’s actually a very hopeful note to end on! Like, you should do more future-predicting. That’s really good. [laughs] Well, thank you so much for coming on. This has been a wonderful conversation.
EN: Well thanks, it was really great talking to you guys.
FK: It was genuinely a privilege to have Emily on. That was really great.
ELM: Genuinely a privilege! Yes, agree.
FK: Genuinely a privilege!
FK: It was delightful! I thought it was especially good because we often talk to people who, like, have a sort of fannish relationship to some things and a not-fannish relationship to some things, you know what I mean? Like, they’re professionals and they’re also fans, or they were fans and they became professionals, or they were professionals and they became fans or whatever. But often, it’s really hard to articulate those, those pieces? And I thought she did a really good job when we kinda put her on the spot and were like, “Are you a fan?” She was like “Well, that’s a complicated question!” [laughs] You know?
ELM: Yeah, and I kind of feel like this speaks a little bit to…so you know the kind of common line over the last few years, which makes me apoplectic, which is—oh, you know, like, when a movie gets a bad review they’re like “Well, we didn’t make it for the critics. We made it for the fans.” And then the fans are like, “Critics, you’re all being paid by Disney to trash Batman vs. Superman,” or whatever. You know what I mean?
ELM: It’s always Disney paying critics to say that some other movie was a piece of shit. You know? And this kind of—and you know, I have all these critics on my feed who are in fandom or consider themselves fans, and they get really mad and they’re like, “Of course you can be a critic and a fan!” Right? But I think sometimes—and I strongly endorse that perspective—but I think sometimes that can then, it kind of barrels over the actual sort of, like…functionally different things you’re doing when you’re writing a critical review for your job or for money, you know? You approach it differently in your brain than you might when you’re watching something just for fun, and you know, I don’t watch things in a non-critical way, thinking I’m gonna be caught fannishly, either. You know? It’s not like I’m watching everything as a fan. Right? Like…
ELM: You know what I mean? It’s often, it just takes me by surprise if I do get hit with the fan thing. You know? So…
FK: Yeah, yeah, yeah.
ELM: Obviously…but like, I think that what Emily was saying, I think, speaks to me in a sense of like…and also makes me think, I know people often talk about Pauline Kael when they talk about her and, you know, there’s obviously like it’s—there’s somewhat of a lazy, like, “Oh, famous female New Yorker critic,” right? You know. Pauline Kael was the film critic for The New Yorker for a long time. But Pauline Kael writes about this kind of, you know, she could be super harsh with things, but she also writes about, like, being willing to say that you really like something, you know? And like—I feel like especially as female critics, and female fans, that kind of…we can be very protective of the emotional parts, or, you know what I mean? It can be very…
FK: Yeah, yeah yeah.
ELM: Very complicated to kind of separate out. And so when people are saying things like “I’m a critic and a fan,” it’s like “OK but when you went to go see Batman vs. Superman, were you going as a Batman fan?” Like, and maybe—and then maybe you actually had a different response. Because if you asked me to write a review of any of the X-Men films, I would give you a critique that might be a bit different, you know. I wouldn’t put in there, like, “Oh, but I just liked looking at their faces glaring at each other,” you know.
ELM: Cause that’s not a part of my critical review. Like, I can deconstruct these as films even when I have a, you know, a glowing emotional reaction to their stupid faces. You know?
FK: Yeah. Yeah. Or, or like, I mean, I don’t know how it is for you. For me, like, it’s sort of almost like I can approach something in the, like, fanflailing mode, or I can approach it in the, like, critical mode, and I have a hard time doing those two things at once, but it doesn’t mean that I can’t, like, like—watching it, like, if I’m watching a film or something, right, whatever, I’m watching an episode of The X-Files.
ELM: Good ex—oh, whatever, just that one.
FK: Well, I’m saying this because it’s something that I think is like, deeply flawed.
ELM: OK, sure sure.
FK: Right? So like if I’m watching that, I can watch it and just be like “Look at their faces.” And then I could watch it again and be like, “…and there’s many things going on here that I would critique,” it’s hard for me to hold those two at once, but I can do them like one after the other.
FK: You know? Or like, flip between the modes or something like that, right. So it’s, on the one hand it’s true that the emotional thing is totally, like, consuming, I personally don’t think I can do them both at once, but that doesn’t mean that you can’t do them like, in quick succession if you know what I mean.
ELM: Oh Flourish, come on, I did them both at once when we went to go see Dark Phoenix.
FK: Yeah, that was—I was, I was amazed at your ability to do both at once. Because I was just like “I’m gonna turn off my critical brain and I’m just gonna be like, ‘Kill those motherfuckers!’”
ELM: I, I think that I can’t watch—
FK: You can’t do that.
ELM: I can’t watch a movie now without thinking about how the script is flawed. Like, unless I think it’s a good movie. But like, it’s actually kind of troubling to me, and I’ve never even been a film critic, but like, so maybe my perspectives on this aren’t even correct. But like, you know…well, to the point where, I have trouble reading books now where I…it’s really hard to turn that part off.
ELM: And that is something that I actually have been paid many times to criticize, is books, you know. So like…
FK: Well, yeah yeah yeah—
ELM: You know what I mean?
FK: This is, this is funny, because there may be a difference between our jobs, right? Because your job is to, when you do a, when you critique things your job is to critique things, and my job—if I’m doing it—is usually to like get into the mindset of someone who’s a fan of the thing and not critique it. Or to critique it only in the ways that would naturally come up from that kind of emotional engagement with it, right. So maybe, maybe we almost have the opposite—we’re paid to do opposite things.
ELM: Well I mean I guess, even now that I’m thinking about it I’m not even coming at it as a critic, I’m coming at it as an editor, you know? And I’m like…
ELM: “This does not work.” Like, “You made this writing choice, is never, you’re never gonna be able to solve it with the way you set this up,” you know. So that’s fine. Great!
FK: Yeah, I—yeah.
ELM: Great, great. Hollywood: call me. I’ll give you some notes. I’ve got notes. [FK laughing] Dark Phoenix, I have some notes! That was just like, just start over. Also, we like, so I read some review beforehand where they were like, it said something like “Charles Xavier proceeds to drink like 18 glasses of whiskey from a sideboard throughout the rest of the film,” or something, and I was like “I’m going to make sure I drink every time he does.” And so [laughs] and so that really helped me do all the things at once, I think. While we were being pummelled in the face with the 4DX, like, vibrating chair situation.
ELM: And rained on, yeah. So anyway.
FK: Wait wait wait wait wait. We can’t get too far down this Dark Phoenix rabbit hole.
ELM: Yes we can.
FK: We still have one more thing to do.
ELM: Yes we can. No. Yes we can.
FK: No no no, we need to read this listener letter, because it totally relates to what we were just talking about.
ELM: Oh yeah, we do! We do have a listener letter that’s related. OK, do you wanna read it or should I?
FK: I can read it!
ELM: All right, read it!
FK: All right. “Hi Flourish and Elizabeth! Oof, this is a long one, sorry.” It’s OK, Jes. This is from Jes. “Having just finished listening to the episode ‘OOC,’ I’m thinking about the fan response to the final season of Game of Thrones. While my interaction with the GOT fandom is pretty marginal—I can’t really comment on the specifics of that situation—it has reminded me of many of my fandom experiences lately where fan expectations and the media product have become disjointed.
“The Magicians finale and the latest seasons of RuPaul’s Drag Race both elicited, to varying degrees, a fan backlash. While very different types of storytelling, I feel that much of this backlash stems from not delivering on the premise of the narrative or the structure of the show. Drag Race, like any competition show, pivots itself on merit—that the strongest contestant will win and the weakest will leave—and while this isn’t necessarily true, it’s the dominant framing device of these shows. As more and more queens have been left in the competition beyond their perceived merit, presumably because they make better reality TV, the fandom has become increasingly vocally frustrated. The Magicians finale (spoiler alert and content warning), in which they killed off the depressed protagonist via suicide in a way that romanticised and celebrated that act, seemed to betray what was perceived to be a major theme of the show—surviving with mental illness and trauma.
“I certainly think fan entitlement, and the resulting toxic behaviours, shouldn’t be discounted or excused in these situations. Nobody is owed coherent storytelling, or is owed by creators to maintain a specific narrative theme—and, especially in the case of Drag Race, the abuse hurled at those involved is completely inexcusable. However, placing this all on fan entitlement isn’t accurate, when there also seems to be a misunderstanding by media creators on how these texts are being widely read and understood—and enjoyed.
“This is of course complicated by creators who have changed course for the best, namely by introducing more POC and women into their franchises, and have received backlash from angry white male fans (looking at you, Star Wars fanboys). In which case…ignoring fan expectation is probably for the best?
“Anyway, thanks for all the great work. I always look forward to each new episode. Jes.”
ELM: OK. This is a great letter and it is quite, I mean, obviously we chose—we have a few in our letterbox and we chose—I used your word, “letterbox”—and we chose this one because it connected to what we were just talking about. One thing I would say up front is one of the things we didn’t actually talk to Emily about, because we did an entire episode about it like a year ago, was her “bad fan” concept.
ELM: Which, if you haven’t listened to that episode, was basically talking about—the essay, the one I think is really extraordinary and as I reread it in this book I was like “Oh my God this is so good, I could read this like 19 times,” was especially centering on Archie Bunker, the protagonist of All in the Family, who’s like this quote-unquote “lovable bigot,” right? And he said offensive things and he was supposed to be the like, you were supposed to think he was bigoted but he was like your dad if your dad was like that, and how complicated that is, what do you do with this person who’s like that. You know what I mean?
FK: Yeah, yeah.
ELM: Like, that was the original intent of it, it was meant to be, like, mocking bigotry.
ELM: Because he’s supposed to be the kind of, he’s the dumb one. You know? He’s the one who’s saying the stupid things. But then a good portion of the audience was like, “He’s great! He’s just tellin’ it like it is.” They read him directly, like, as he would read himself, you know. Like, not a guy who knows that he’s offending people. Or he knows he’s offending people, but—
FK: He doesn’t care.
ELM: Not a guy who thinks that’s bad. Right. So this is the idea of bad fans, and she originated this idea talking about Walter White and Tony Soprano and the people who watch it to be like “Yeah! Kill him! You’re cool!” You know? That kind of thing. As opposed to the people creating the show are not saying that being a psychopathic murderer or whatever is cool? They’re saying “Look at the emotional cost of this kind of,”
ELM: “This sort of bloodlust or this sort of violence,” or et cetera. Right?
FK: Elizabeth, but he’s a white male anti-hero!
ELM: Don’t, don’t, if you’re about to insult my fave Don Draper… [FK laughs] I love him.
FK: You’re a bad fan, Elizabeth.
ELM: No, I think I’m reading him exactly the way the series wanted me to read him. He’s not murdering anyone!
FK: That’s true.
ELM: Except there is that time when he has a fever—
FK: He maybe murdered someone, but… [laughs]
ELM: Do you remember that, when he has the fever and he murders that woman in the, like, in the hallucination, and I was like, “Is this—is this show like this now? Is he just gonna start murdering?” [laughs] And I liked that they had set it up enough that I believe it could go in that direction.
FK: You believed it could go in that direction, yeah.
ELM: I was like “Sure, this is all leading to Don just murdering women. That’s fine.” Anyway.
FK: Sort of in an American Psycho kind of way, yeah?
ELM: Yeah. So good job to Matthew Weiner. Anyway, so one of the interesting things about these bad fan arguments—and as we’ve talked about, cause we were talking about, are they bad fans? Think about shippers, you know, reading a text, reading a television show—
FK: In a way they’re not supposed to be, yeah.
ELM: “Not supposed to be,” whatever. Like, not what the creators intended. They did not create this show so you could only focus on a ship. And does that make you a bad fan? And I think Emily’s writing is really good at talking about the multiple audiences, and I think this letter gets a little bit at some of that, but I think in a way it also rests on the idea that there might be one audience or fan expectation and one creator expectation. Which I think isn’t necessarily true. I think that the people making this stuff are aware that there are multiple audiences. Or maybe they’re not, but there are, you know what I mean?
FK: Yeah, I think that in particular in the case of, like, RuPaul’s Drag Race, there is a question of like, how much are you invested in the competition element of it versus how much are you invested in the drama element of it? And I’m sure that there are different answers to that from different people, and…
ELM: Can I just say, side note, about Drag Race, I feel like having watched some of this past season, I feel like one thing that was happening is I think that reality shows have done things like this literally always, but I think that there’s—
FK: Oh yeah.
ELM: It’s different when it feels foregrounded.
ELM: And when you feel like, like they’re acknowledging that you know that they’re gonna do this.
ELM: And I think it’s hard with something like Drag Race where, you know, like—so I used to watch Top Chef pretty religiously for maybe the first, like, eight seasons. And, which is ironic because I’m a vegetarian, so literally nothing they made was anything I would eat. But for some reason I found it very compelling. And one of those things that everyone always jokes about with Top Chef, or other cooking shows, is like—well, you literally have no idea. Like, you can tell if it’s beautiful, but you have not, you’re just relyin’ on the judges here. So I think it’s harder with something like Drag Race or any sort of physical skill competition that you can see, because then you can say, like, “Oh, her outfit was terrible,” you know. We can all see. She did a bad job. That kind of thing.
ELM: And so I think it is harder when—it’s easier for the producers of reality shows om things that are less tangible to the audience immediately to manipulate.
FK: Yeah, it’s easier to fudge it! Yeah, absolutely. And I think in particular for Drag Race, right, it’s also not like…I mean I guess you can do some stuff with angles and so on, but ultimately there’s just one thing, a thing that you’re judging them on, as opposed to like—
ELM: Oh Flourish, have you watched Drag Race? There’s literally nothing that they could have done to make any of the people seem more or less talented. And like, the one person that people were getting very mad at was just like—
FK: Yeah, no you’re right, I guess I’m just—I’m trying to think of like, I’m just trying to think of is there anything they could do to fudge it? And it’s like there’s not, it’s not that much, right? As compared to other things where it’s like—even things that are visual, where there’s more of an opportunity to make it…I don’t know, whatever. A home makeover show or something. The makeover may or may not be good but you can shoot it in different ways that make it look better or worse, you know what I mean? But with Drag Race it’s not, it’s even harder than that.
ELM: I mean in a non-competition, obviously, it’s like they are literally created around showing exactly the storyline they want. They set up storylines, you know what I mean. So, like.
FK: Yeah yeah yeah.
ELM: We’ve all seen UnREAL. Have you seen UnREAL?
ELM: You never saw it?
FK: We have not all seen UnREAL.
ELM: Oh Flourish! The first season—
FK: I know! I wanna see it.
ELM: I thought the first season was really good, the second season I’m shakin’ my head. Shakin’ my head. Anyway, let’s go back to the question.
FK: Yeah. I mean, I think that you’re right, just that there’s—it’s complex, because there is, on the one hand there’s toxic behavior but on the other hand it does seem like there are mismatches and that it is legitimate to dislike things—you know what I mean? Like, there’s obviously this element that you bring in at the end of the bad fan, but it’s not wrong for an audience to say “Hey, it seemed like The Magicians had these themes, and this is why we were watching, and it didn’t give us this thing that was why we were watching, in fact it betrayed that promise, so we don’t wanna watch it anymore.” That’s legitimate, you know?
FK: That’s a legitimate response to any piece of art, to say that you feel like it didn’t follow through on its promise!
ELM: Yeah, I feel like I’m getting hung up on these individual examples here. There’s a couple things that I would say. One is, and I think that we talked about this with Javi, Javier Grillo-Marxuach when we had him on talking about, you know, he was the one who wrote the episode of The 100 that killed off Lexa, so he became the—he was the writer at the center of the Clexa and Lexa sort of…“backlash” is a diminishing word that I don’t want to use. But you know, the response.
FK: Yeah, the thing, yeah.
ELM: It always struck me after that conversation, it was just like, yeah, there are specifics here—like killing off a queer character, killing off a queer woman or et cetera or a queer character of color et cetera, et cetera—for some of these shows. But at the heart of it to me, when I was talking to him, it just made me think about this mindset of a lot of television writers—especially ones who’ve been around for at least a decade or two—of this sort of, like, literally wanting to, thinking…and I’m not pinning this on Javi at all.
FK: Yeah, it’s not him.
ELM: It just started to make me think of what I’ve heard from television writers about, like, literally writing to upend expectations. Like, “Oh, twist!” Like, “They’re not gonna expect this! Fun!” You know? Like, you know, that kind of thing. Being at the heart of television writing. Upending expectations. And I think that it’s very hard to do that without it seeming like bad writing or seeming like kind of a cheap twist, you know. If it really feels set up. And even when it’s a really earned twist, you know, they laid all the cards and then did something really interesting to subvert your expectations, people still get mad, right? Because they’re like “That wasn’t what I expected!” And that’s the point. They’re trying to make you be like, they’re trying to pull the rug out from under you and make you fall, but like, in a—sometimes in a dumb way and sometimes in a smart way, you know?
FK: I totally hear you about the expectation thing and I also wonder—this has to do with, like, volume of comment, and I think it also has to do with just people’s preferences for what they watch or read or listen to. Right? I mean, like, I think that sometimes people get excited when the rug gets pulled out from under them and everything is changed, and other people are like “That’s not what I, that’s not what I’m watching this for.” And maybe TV writers tend to have been, like, trained to like having the rug pulled out from under them in a certain way, right? I don’t know.
ELM: So you’re saying the writers themselves enjoy that kind of storytelling?
FK: I don’t know, maybe! I mean, do you—I don’t know! I’m not a TV writer so…
ELM: I’m not a TV writer either, man, none of us know about TV writers!
FK: But it can be pleasurable to have the rug pulled out from under you. Like, I’ve had that happen and had it work, so it doesn’t seem weird to me that somebody might be like “Oh yeah! I want to be lulled into, you know…”
ELM: Yeah, but now I’m thinking about these specific examples, in particular The Magicians, and like, you know…I don’t know. It’s fraught.
FK: It’s fraught.
ELM: [laughs] Yeah, it’s just, I think that—I don’t know. Obviously this is an interesting letter to read in light of our conversation with Emily, because we’re thinking of television being this conversation, right? And I think that as she rightly points out, it’s sometimes a sort of a subliminal conversation, it’s not like—I doubt most TV writers are sitting there reading every single comment or every single review, and actually I think they probably shouldn’t, you know? But that being said, like, obviously there’s a broad cultural conversation and especially if something has the mass appeal that at least Drag Race and Game of Thrones do—I think Magicians, I mean, Magicians has a big fandom, but it’s not like everyone you know has seen it. You know, these things kind of just wind up in the ether and affect the kind of decisions that people make.
It also just kind of brings me back to our last episode, and thinking about validation, too. Because it’s interesting reading Jes’s letter and thinking about fans versus thinking about the audience. Right? You know? And like, I don’t know. I’ve just been thinking a ton about this, because Neil Gaiman has annoyed me significantly more than when we recorded the last one! [laughs] Cause he just keeps going, and it’s like, [sighs] you know? Stop! So, you know, this kind of idea of fans expecting things and then not getting what they’re expecting. And the, like, thinking about Neil Gaiman’s situation in particular now, that’s a—that is a six episode miniseries that, that’s it. There’s no more. It’s not like fans can predict what happens next. So the way this is sublimating is like, “Now validate the way I’m reading it, the thing that already happened,” whereas I feel like in most television you say “I think this will happen next week.”
FK: Because it’s based on my reading, yeah.
ELM: And then it doesn’t happen and you say, “Why didn’t you validate my reading.” And just like going—you know, Jes was responding to our “OOC” episode, I think some of that is, it’s really hard for people to separate out, like, what they thought versus—not everyone is particularly good at saying “This is the reason, these are the textual reasons why the thing I think is gonna happen will happen,” or should happen, you know? Like: sometimes it’s just what you want! And sometimes you can’t tell the difference. You know what I mean?
FK: Yeah yeah yeah—and yet at the same time there is a, like, there is the ability, as a critic, it seems to me like you would say like: “Well, TV has a tendency to kill people off for drama, and it’s cheap, and a lot of times you didn’t need to do that, and I have critiques.” Right? That aren’t related to “I didn’t want Lexa to die,” or “I didn’t want this character to die, that character to die,” right? I mean, it’s more like “Well no, this is like—cheap narrative storytelling and here’s why.” And so it can be really hard to separate those things from each other. I don’t know.
ELM: Yeah, and there have been times when, you know, my decades of being in multiple television fandoms, where I’ve understood why something that made me emotionally devastated actually was good writing. And then there have been times where I was like “This is…” I think it’s really hard for, you know, it’s hard for everyone to tell. But like when I’m emotionally wrapped up in it, sometimes it’s hard, but if I can look back with a little bit of distance and say “That was good writing” and look at another one and be like “That was bad. That was just really, really lazy writing.” Looking back with some distance, it’s like, easier to kind of remove the emotional layer of it when you’re so deep in it. And sometimes I’ll look back and I’ll be like, “That was good storytelling,” if I rewatch something with a little bit of detachment or whatever. “They really set that up and I really feel like that’s a payout,” and like, I couldn’t‚ couldn’t see it at the time because I was so sad about it, you know? And there are other times when I’ll look back and I’ll be like “No. They didn’t earn any of this. This is so cheap.” You know what I mean? But it’s really hard to separate that out in the moment, especially when you’re feeling this like, deep-down fandom and this sense of ownership, you know?
FK: Yeah, yeah. Well I think we have to wrap up on that very, like, we-don’t-know note. We always wrap up on a we-don’t-know note, but that’s because we’re, like, wrestling with big problems. Big questions.
ELM: Fansplaining: We’re Ambivalent.
FK: I wouldn’t say “ambivalent”! I would say…“conflicted.”
ELM: Are those not…
ELM: Those are—now you’re naming synonyms.
FK: No that’s not true! Ambivalent is like “meh” and conflicted is like “this, but this!”
ELM: These all kind of exist in the same cluster.
FK: They’re all in the same cluster, but they’re slightly different tonally.
ELM: All right, all right, OK, we’re unsure.
FK: Great. Well, what I am sure about is that I really enjoyed talking to Emily and this was a good episode and I’m glad we did it.
ELM: Ooh, smooth transition.
FK: Smooth transition. All right. Do you want to do wrapping-up business?
ELM: Let’s trade it off.
FK: Or start it? OK.
ELM: Let’s trade it off. OK. First and foremost: As Flourish always says, Fansplaining is made possible by patrons like you. Is that what you say?
FK: Yeah, patrons like you—uh, listeners and readers like you.
ELM: Yes. OK. So we do need help to pay for us making this with Patreon, that’s patreon.com/fansplaining, as little as $1 a month, as much as as many dollars as you have per month. Don’t give us that. You should pay your rent and maybe your health insurance. But if you have any cash to spare, even if it’s $1, you can get rewards at all sorts of levels. We have special episodes at $3 a month, we have tiny zines, we’ve been doing a collaboration with our favorite artist Maia Kobabe, and we’re gonna have one more collaborative tiny zine coming out some time this summer—after we get back from Comic-Con, actually, specifically. And yeah, we really appreciate any financial support anyone is able to give, but…
FK: Yeah, if you don’t want to or can’t give financial support you can still help us out by spreading the word about Fansplaining! Rating us on iTunes with as many stars as you believe we deserve…
FK: Or whatever your podcast…
ELM: Five stars.
FK: [laughs] Whatever your podcast listening program is…
ELM: Five stars on those too, as long as it’s out of five stars. Ten stars if it can give you ten stars.
FK: Stop it.
ELM: I just derail you the entire time you do your part.
FK: Tweeting about us, you know…
ELM: A hundred stars.
FK: Spreading the word, telling…Elizabeth. Telling your friends about this scintillating dialogue that we’re having right now. Really really helps to get the word out, because the more listeners we have, you know, basically the better for us.
FK: It helps support us. And, you can also write in. You can send emails to fansplaining at gmail dot com. You can leave an anonymous ask in our Tumblr ask box—or a non-anonymous one. You can send us a voice mail which we love at 1-401-526-FANS. Yeah! Any of those ways. Just don’t leave your name if you wanna be anonymous. We’d never share anything you didn’t want us to share.
ELM: And most, most importantly, for this episode, go to your local independent bookseller—
FK: Oh yeah!
ELM: If you can, pay cash—you’re about to hold up the book or something, and this is a podcast.
FK: It is a podcast. I, like, reached for the book to hold it up and then I was like “Wait no! They can’t see me.”
ELM: As a reminder, it is called I Like To Watch, which is a glorious title. It’s by Emily Nussbaum, the cover is absolutely beautiful. I hand-sold it by leaving it out when I was at a table for one at a fancy Los Angeles vegan restaurant next to my glass of rosé, and the waitress was like “What’s that book?” And I was like “Oh, it’s the New Yorker television critic!” [FK laughs] It was a good exchange. I appreciated it.
So if you do not have the money to buy it though, as a reminder, as we say about all the people we have on with books, request it from your local library and they will buy a copy! Or your academic library, they will definitely buy a copy. So yeah, I just wanna make sure that when we say “you should go buy the book,” only if you have the means! But it’s just as important to get it into libraries. So just get your hands on a copy, because it’s a great book and she’s a wonderful writer.
FK: All right! Well I think that might be it.
ELM: Yeah, I think that’s it!
FK: All right, well, I will, uh, talk to you next time, Elizabeth.
ELM: Aw, I’ll see you soon Flourish!
FK: All right, bye-bye!
ELM: OK bye!
FK & ELM: Thank you to all of our Patreon subscribers, and especially Amelia Harvey, Anne Jamison, Bluella, boxish, Bradlea Raga-Barone, Bryan Shields, Christine Hoxmeier, Christopher Dwyer, Clare Mulligan, Clare Muston, Cynsa Bonorris, Desiree Longoria, Fabrisse, Diana Williams, Dr. Mary C. Crowell, earlgreytea68, Felar, froggy, Georgie Carroll, Goodwin, heidi tandy, Helena, Javier Grillo-Marxuaach, Jay Bushman, Jennifer Brady, Jennifer Doherty, Jennifer Lackey, Jennifer McKernan—that’s a Jennifer streak—Josh Stenger, Jules Chatelain, Julianna, JungleJelly, Katherine Lynn, Kathleen Parham, Lucas Medeiros, Maria Temming, Meghan McCusker, Menlo Steve, Michael Andersen, Molly Kernan, Sara, Secret Fandom Stories, sekrit, Stephanie Burt, StHoltzmann, Tablesaw Tablesawsen, Tara Stuart, veritasera, Willa, and in honor of One Direction and Captain James McGraw Flint-Hamilton. [ELM laughs]
Our intro music is “Awel,” by Stefsax. Our interstitial music is by Lee Rosevere. Both are used under a Creative Commons BY license. Check the show notes for more details.
The opinions expressed in this podcast are not our clients’ or our employers’ or anyone’s except our own.