Book Review: “I Like to Watch: Arguing My Way Through the TV Revolution” (by Emily Nussbaum)

Note: My thanks to NetGalley for generously providing me a copy of this book to review.

There’s a peculiar joy that comes from reading sound media criticism. A very few people can somehow capture their intellectual passions in a way that makes their work intelligible for mainstream audiences (something that a lot of media scholars struggle to do).

Thankfully, Emily Nussbaum, the TV critic for The New Yorker, has done just this in I Like to Watch: Arguing my Way Through the TV Revolution.

The book is a collection of pieces, most of which Nussbaum wrote for various publications and a few that she wrote especially for the volume. Some are simply short reflections of a particular TV series, while others are more in-depth explorations of a particular series or showrunner (her lengthy piece about Ryan Murphy is one of the best in the collection). Though they vary in subject matter, they are united by Nussbaum’s distinctive voice and intellectual clarity, as well as her deeply personal encounter with the medium.

What I particularly enjoyed about the book as a whole was its willingness to look at television series that fall squarely outside the quality TV designation that seems to be all the rage (or was, at any rate) among those who think and write about television. Indeed, she begins the book with an anecdote about how it was watching Buffy, the Vampire Slayer that drew her into wanting to write about television.

Some of my favourite pieces in the collection focus on these “bad” texts, including Sex and the City, Behind the Candelabra (the HBO film about Liberace), Hannibal, and sundry others. However, she also gives sustained attention to more traditionally quality TV, and her essay on The Sopranos is particularly compelling and insightful. I also loved The Sex and the City essay, which makes the compelling case that this HBO series deserves just as much credit for vaunting HBO into the upper echelons of television production as more male-oriented series.

While most of the essays in the book focus on contemporary television, some also delve deeper into TV’s past, including a particularly erudite exploration of “bad fandom” and All in the Family. Thus, one of the through-lines that runs through the entire book is Nussbaum’s interest in fandom, both her own and that of others. All too often, fandom is something to be confessed to, rather than embraced and celebrated. The fact that Nussbaum, writing for one of the premier intellectual publications in the country, so openly embraces her own identity as a fan is refreshing.

Nussbaum’s style is nuanced and deeply thoughtful yet very accessible. If I have one quibble with her, it’s that I sometimes feel that she (like many mainstream critics) seems to believe that her realizations emerge out of a vacuum, when in fact there are huge bodies of scholarship conducted by television and media scholars that often reach the same conclusions that she does. Since this seems to be a problem with many working for mainstream publications–not just television critics–I won’t be too hard on her.

All in all, I very much enjoyed this foray through Nussbaum’s encounters with television. Highly recommended.

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Reading History: “American Princess: A Novel of First Daughter Alice Roosevelt” (by Stephanie Marie Thornton)

Warning: Full spoilers for the novel follow.

We seem to be living in a golden age of women’s historical fiction. Authors such as Stephanie Dray, Kate Quinn, Michelle Moran, and Stephanie Marie have done a great deal to excavate the experiences of historical women. These include the subject of today’s blog post, Stephanie Marie Thornton’s new novel, American Princess: A Novel of First Daughter Alice Roosevelt.

The novel follows Alice as she negotiates her position as the daughter of President Theodore Roosevelt, particularly her tumultuous relationship with the Ohio Congressman Nicholas Longworth, her affair with Senator Bill Borah of Idaho, and her vexed relationship with her daughter Paulina.

Alice emerges from these pages as a woman determined to claim her own happiness, often in direct opposition to the wishes of the men in her life. Her thoughts crackle with intensity and verve, particularly as she chafes against the restrictions placed on her by society’s expectations. Indeed, one of the novel’s greatest strengths lies in its ability to convey the many ways in which women frequently faced restrictions that their male counterparts did not, particularly those women, like Alice, who occupied the upper echelons of society.

I particularly enjoyed seeing the interactions between and among the various members of the Roosevelt clan. Alice is particularly contemptuous of her distant cousin Franklin, and she is hardly more approving of first cousin Eleanor (the daughter of her father’s brother). Thornton reveals the extent to which the two halves of this American political family were frequently (and often vociferously) at odds and in doing so highlights the conflict between the political and the familial that was all too often a part of the American landscape.

Throughout the novel, Alice also struggles with her friendships with women. Whether that is the duplicitous daughter of the Russian ambassador, her best friend who ultimately has an affair with Nick, or her own cousin Eleanor (who sabotages her brother’s chances at election). she faces betrayal on multiple fronts. She also has trouble with her domestic arrangements, as Nick’s mother is a harridan of the worst type.

As for Nick himself, time and again, she must confront his infidelities, and the strange alchemy of their relationship–and it is clear that they truly love one another, despite all of the messiness of their relationship. Thornton does an excellent job exploring the strange ways in which the mind, and the heart, work when we are in relationships that we know are toxic but which are an essential part of who we are. Likewise, Thornton allows us to understand Alice’s desire for for true fulfillment that leads her to engage in an affair with Bill Borah. While we may not necessarily approve of this decision, we are allowed at least to understand it.

Much as she loved both Nick and Bill, it was undoubtedly her father Teddy (who hated that nickname) who exerted the strongest influence on her life. Throughout the novel, she yearns for his approval (he struggled with the fact that she reminded him so strongly of his first wife. The friction generated by their two competing (and larger-than-life) personalities persists, but eventually they find a way of embracing and expressing their deep, genuine love for one another.

The novel is compulsively readable, and I think it is not exaggeration to say that it is truly one of those books that it is impossible to put down. Thornton allows us to get a glimpse of early 20th Century America, an era of fierce politics, glittering society balls, and larger-than-life personalities. Through all of this, Thornton allows us to see Alice as a woman somewhat ahead of her time. Indeed, reading the book, it’s hard not to shake the feeling that Alice would have made a damned good politician had she turned her hand to actually running for office. As it was, she lived one of the most eventful lives of any woman of her era, beating breast cancer twice and living to the ripe old age of 96. Small wonder that many wits called her the other Washington Monument.

American Princess is my favourite Thornton novel so far (and I’ve loved them all), and I very much look forward to her next book, which will apparently be about Jackie Kennedy. I just know it will be great!

Reading History: “The Impeachers: The Trial of Andrew Johnson and the Dream of a Just Nation” (by Brenda Wineapple)

Note: My thanks to NetGalley for providing an advance copy of this book for review.

Going in to this book, I didn’t know a great deal about the circumstances surrounding the impeachment of Andrew Johnson, and I knew even less about the reasons that drove the era’s legislators to this great length. Having read Brenda Wineapple’s The Impeachers, I’m happy to say that I now know a great deal more.

Wineapple populates her story with the giants of the era, men such as Thaddeus Steves, one of those who lead the charge for impeachment, Salmon Portland Chase, the cunning, Supreme Court justice who had ambitions of his own that coloured his perception of the case, and of course, Andrew Johnson himself. These were men of imposing personalities, and Wineapple does a magnificent job painting them in big, bold colors; they fairly leap off the page.

Ultimately, of course, the measure failed, but Wineapple makes the case that this had less to do with the merits of the impeachment articles (and the evidence for them) than with these personalities and their varied motivations and concerns. Essentially, it was felt that impeaching Johnson would cause irreparable damage to the Republican waiting in the wings to ascend to the presidency: none other than the hero of the Civil War, Ulysses S. Grant (who was also a prominent character in this unfolding drama). Rather than do so, they felt it was a safer bet to acquit Johnson and start over.

Given that the book is about impeachment, it’s hard not to draw comparisons between that time and our own and, especially, between the temperament of Andrew Johnson and our current president. Like Trump, Johnson was a blusterer and a bit of a megalomaniac, convinced that he was the victim of conspiracies and unwilling to acknowledge his own weaknesses and his part in his situation. The portrait that Wineapple paints is a very unflattering one indeed, and there are very good reasons for that. For, as Wineapple points out, Johnson was a a racist who built his appeal on stymying almost all measures that would have contributed to the betterment of people of color in the former slave states. Indeed, there were often times when he went out of his way to ensure that people of color understood that not only were they second-class citizens, but that their president had no interest in changing that.

The Impeachers does a fine job of providing the context that allows us to understand just why it is that this signature event in American history transpired in the way that it did. Despite the end of the Civil, many (including Johnson) felt that the United States was still a white man’s country, and that less effort should be spent in punishing the former Confederacy and more in ensuring that white citizens regained their former amity. The great tragedy of the whole affair is that it would be almost another hundred years before the desire for a better country for all would experience another great leap forward with the Civil Rights Movement on the 1950s and 1960s.

Though subsequent generations of historians painted the impeachment as a partisan affair, Wineapple argues that these arguments were themselves focused on a discrediting of the policies and mindset of the Radical Republicans. Her work allows us to see these men as visionaries committed to the idea that the United States could, in fact, be a more perfect union if only its leaders would have the will to do so.

Stylistically, Wineapple has a masterful command of both her materials and her language. While some books on history can be slow going even for those who love reading about the past, this is certainly not the case with The Impeachers. While reading it, I almost had the feeling that I was there in the moment, swept up in this epochal event, so adeptly does Wineapple capture the tenor of the times and the voices of her subjects.

By this point in 2019, it seems pretty clear that our own Andrew Johnson is not going to be impeached even though, as Yoni Applebaum compellingly argues in a recent issue of The Atlantic, there is very good reason to do so, the case of Andrew Johnson, as Wineapple presents it, serves as a warning of becoming too confident.

Le sigh.

Film Review: “Gloria Bell” and the Sublime Joy of Julianne Moore

Warning: Full spoilers for the film follow.

I have a confession to make: I’m a Julianne Moore fanatic.

I’ve loved her in every film I’ve seen her in: Safe, Far from Heaven, A Single Man, and Game Changer (in which she seemed to embody the spirit of Sarah Palin). Never once have I been disappointed by a Julianne Moore performance. And, having seen Gloria Bell, I’m glad to say that that that record remains intact.

Anyone who reads this blog knows that I love a good, simple story simply told. Sure, I also love big epics and thundering blockbusters, but one can only watch so many of those before starting to feel a bit drained, a bit overwhelmed and frustrated by Hollywood’s seeming resistance to small films. Luckily, that seems to be changing.

Gloria Bell is a tidy little film, and what it lacks in bombast and narrative complexity it more than makes up for with a lean story, solid performances, and genuine heart.

Gloria has started to feel a bit stifled by her life: her ex-husband has remarried, her son seems a bit of a drifter who is clearly distant from his wife, and her daughter is preparing to embark on an international romance with a Norwegian surfer (and is pregnant to boot). Into all of this wanders Arnold (John Turturro), middle-aged man that she meets at a dance club, who has his own issues with his family. Thus starts a contentious relationship that forces Gloria to really think about what she wants from her life.

The film is refreshingly frank about Gloria’s sexuality. It manages to convey sex scenes that are sensual and not prurient, and it allows Gloria to take charge of the narrative in ways that women are (still all too consistently) denied in much Hollywood film. She wants to carve out her own sort of life, though it also seems that everyone in it doesn’t see things the way that she does. Through her understated performance, Julianne absolutely disappears into the role, to such a degree that we almost (but not quite) forget that it’s a star we are watching.

While at first Arnold seems to provide just the sort of escape she’s looking for, it soon becomes apparent that he has his own hang-ups and issues. While he refuses to introduce Gloria to his needy daughters, she makes every effort to include him in her family, an effort that he rejects (he even flees a birthday party without telling her where he’s going). Turturo does an excellent job conveying Arnold’s narcissism, and while we aren’t led to identify with him, we can at least have a bit of sympathy for his unenviable position. Thankfully, it doesn’t take Gloria long to realize that he has far too many issues and is far too controlling, manipulative, and self-centered, and we cheer her along as she reclaims her agency.

There’s no question that it is Moore that elevates the film from being simply ordinary. She is truly one of those actors who has what it takes to be more than a mere performer (though, of course, she brings a genuine warmth and sincerity to the role of Gloria). When she’s on screen you simply cannot take your eyes away; her charisma infects every scene in which she appears. I guess what I’m trying to say is that Moore is one of those rare (these days, anyway) actresses who actually qualifies as a genuine star.

However, the supporting cast is excellent as well, and Holland Taylor makes an understated yet affecting performance as Gloria’s mother. Michael Cera brings his signature blasé attitude and, as already mentioned, Turturro captures middle-aged male angst expertly.

Gloria Bell doesn’t break any of the rules, unless it’s through a refusal to give into the imperative to have a happy ending that would domesticate this free spirit. In fact, when she sprays him with his own paintballs and then goes to a wedding reception, where she begins dancing to her signature song (“Gloria”, obviously). In the end, she reclaims her agency, showing once and for all that she doesn’t need a man to be happy and fulfilled.

All she needs is her sublime, glorious self.

Reading History: Buying Gay: How Physique Entrepreneurs Sparked a Movement (David K. Johnson)

Note: My sincere thanks to NetGalley for providing me a copy of this book for review.

In Buying Gay: How Physique Entrepreneurs Sparked a Movement, noted historian David K. Johnson (known for his research on the Lavender Scare), does a deep dive into the world of physique magazines and the strong connection between capitalism and activism in the fledgling gay rights movement.

Johnson shows the extent to which these magazines provided a site in which gay male desire could have free rein, an important psychic and collective space in a culture and society that relentlessly pathologized and policed gay desire. As a result, these magazines also played a pivotal role in the coalescing of a specifically gay male identity, one that was unequivocally centered on erotic desire. Those who bought these magazines–and who wrote to them–recognized that they were part of something greater than themselves.

As Johnson amply demonstrates, it’s a mistake to keep consumption and politics separated; instead, we should see them as two streams that constantly fed into and reinforced one another in the years preceding Stonewall. Indeed, the owners of these magazines were often at the forefront court cases that were to have a significant impact on the trajectory of gay rights and, indeed, the very legitimacy of gay identity. Several cases went right up to the Supreme Court, which surprisingly frequently decided matters in their favour. One of the great strengths of Johnson’s book is that he brings to light these oft-forgotten cases.

Johnson doesn’t unnecessarily valourize these men and women (because yes, there were women who owned physique magazines). They were often at odds with one another (hardly surprising, considering the large personalities involved), and they were not always allies with one another. Despite their differences, however, they all played a part. Collectively, they forged important sites of resistance that continue to have an effect on our culture today.

The book also makes it clear just how ubiquitous was the condemnation of homosexuality in Cold War America. It’s one of those things that you probably know on a subconscious level, but which you can’t really grasp in its enormity until you read about it from a historian’s perspective. From our standpoint, it seems so silly that so many people in government and in society at large would have such bigoted ideas about people who happen to love differently than they do, but it does explain why it is that there are still far too many Americans who would like nothing more than to chase queer people back into the closet. In the era that Johnson documents, the post office was determined to crack down on what it termed “obscenity,” a ridiculously flexible term that allowed them to subject numerous individuals to state persecution.

It’s important to point out, as Johnson does, that this was very frequently a white gay male community. While some magazines did feature men of color, it was far more common for the era’s segregationist ethos to permeate its magazines. It’s actually rather refreshing to see a writer of queer history acknowledge the implicit (and often explicit) racism that has long plagued the LGBT rights movement.

Those with little familiarity with Cold War history, or with queer history, will learn a great deal from Johnson’s book. Though he primarily focuses on physique magazines, he also demonstrates that there were a variety of other print venues in which gay men found expression. There were even book clubs devoted to distributing gay-oriented books to (surprisingly large) numbers of subscribers. If anyone has ever told you that there weren’t gay people when they were young, you can simply brandish the examples that Johnson documents to show them just how wrong they were. Gay people have always existed in America, and it is important to recognize the many ways in which their experience has taken shape.

Johnson’s work does justice to an all-too-often ignored aspect of gay life in Cold War America. Just as importantly, it shows us the ways in which the the actions of Stonewall in 1969 did not emerge from a vacuum. Instead, it was a logical outcome to a gay community that had slowly been taking shape in the years after the end of the World War II and that, in the wake of Stonewall, would finally come into its own.