My best early memory of TV is of prancing around the sunny living room in school uniform, to ‚ÄòOctupus‚Äô Garden‚Äô, played from the TV. It was MNet‚Äôs hold music before open time, and the first open time programming, Ktv, would start each afternoon.
I also remember being home from school and watching ‚ÄòDays of Our Lives‚Äô with Linah while she ironed my school uniform, startled and blushing when one day my mom arrived home and accused me of paying close attention to all the making out going on.
Linah and I watched Mandela‚Äôs first inauguration on TV. As I watched I knew that my mom was one of the thousands of people in the crowd at the Union Buildings. A few years later, she would look into the camera, beautiful and stern, signing off her story for the nightly news with an authoritative ‚ÄúThis is Claire Robertson, reporting for SABC News, Johannesburg‚Äù.
Seeing my mom reporting stories on the news was an intersection between real life and TV that allowed me to see behind the curtain — to see TV as a product of many things. My sister and I knew, while we watched each evening, that our mom was hiding secret, defiant, armpit hairs as she held the microphone. The unshaven armpits of women were strictly not allowed to terrorise people in their living rooms.
Later, and with the arrival of DSTV, I got lost in the shows themselves, ignoring all warnings from my dad of getting square eyes, glued to the set and unaware of the world around me.
Skip some episodes to last week, when Emily Nussbaum, the TV critic for the New Yorker, won the Pulitzer for criticism, the first in the category to be awarded for magazine writing. It‚Äôs wonderful news for everyone, not just because I get to feel, as a person who has brought her up less often only than Elena Ferrante in recent conversations, and as her one true Twitter follower of one-hundred thousand, that I was right. Emily Nussbaum is a star.
At the New Yorker‚Äôs office party to celebrate Nussbaum, David Remnick, the editor, as Willing Davis writes of the celebrations, said of Nussbaum‚Äôs work that ‚Äúwe see television growing up at the same moment that it has a critic worthy of it.‚Äù
TV is growing up, in more ways than one. Not only do we have fantastic shows, but we also watch a million episodes in one go and talk about them all the time. And, as Nussbaum illustrates in her piece on advertising and television, (and the only piece I‚Äôll discuss here as it‚Äôs her best piece on TV as a whole), The Price is Right, the way we watch them is changing constantly: ‚ÄúOceanic flat screens give way to palm-size iPhones. A cheap writer-dominated medium absorbs pricey Hollywood directors. You can steal TV; you can buy TV; you can get it free. Netflix, a distributor, becomes a producer. On Amazon, customers vote for which pilots will survive. Shows cancelled by NBC jump to Yahoo, which used to be a failing search engine.‚Äù
Nussbaum‚Äôs award is a recognition that TV critics matter at a time when criticism, or at least the criticism we use most, has changed too. Rotten Tomatoes aggregates thousands of ratings to give you one. No more, the turning to the movie page and seeing what Barry Ronge has to say. We choose AirBnb reviews over the Lonely Planet, Zomato over food critics.
An anthropologist and a robotics engineer have even invented a critic robot, the basis of whose art criticism (it is named after and dressed like 19th Century art critic Bernard Berenson) is the reactions of other people in an art gallery. It‚Äôs cool, sure, and the robot comes with its own outfit, but you feel that Berenson would have been appalled. The best criticism is not regurgitated popular opinion.
This is why Nussbaum‚Äôs being recognized by the Pulitzer committee is wonderful. We still really need critics, especially for TV. Because TV shows, unlike (with the odd exception) theatre, restaurants, works of art, cameras, do still get really famous. Game of Thrones, Mad Men, Breaking Bad. In Remnick‚Äôs¬†cover letter for the entry to the prize, he calls TV ‚Äúthe dominant cultural product of our age‚Äù. This is perhaps why last year‚Äôs Pulitzer for criticism was also for a TV critic, this time for Mary McNamara in the LA Times.
TV is influential. Faces lit up by screens, watching episode after episode in bed, are trusting the shows they give so much time, and emotion to. We learn things from them. Sometimes we learn Bad Things. Someone learning about sex from Game of Thrones like I learned about kissing from Days of Our Lives, for example, might have a tough time figuring out why any woman would want to do it at all.
Luckily, one of the defining things about the nature of TV is that it is reactive. More than other artforms, TV shows want to please their audiences. Want to keep us there. They can change to reflect our likes, dislikes, tastes, wishes.¬† Episode by episode, season by season.
We have a responsibility to be more elaborate in our criticism than a mark out of ten. Which is why critics matter — we give them that power, and they help us to see shows as a product that can be made better, that we can demand more from. TV is influential, and we need to influence it back.
In the Pulitzer cover letter, Remnick pinpoints what we look for in a good critic, ‚ÄúIn Nussbaum, we finally have a critic who approaches television with a love both passionate and cerebral, free of condescension but unwilling to cheerlead for an industry that often goes awry.‚Äù
Hopefully, as critics, in the New Yorker and on blogs far and wide, articulate their thoughts on what is bothering them about something popular, and what they love about something deemed less good, our Rotten Tomato ratings will start to reflect an audience that is more critical, diverse and vocal. Berenson the robot is all very well, but good critics, and ever-better television, must ask more than he does if they are to use their power for good over evil. Lest we all get square eyes.
Helen Sullivan is the co-founder and editor of Prufrock, a multilingual print quarterly of African fiction, nonfiction and poetry. To submit, subscribe, find stockists or get in touch, visit prufrock.co.za. Follow her monthly column on Casimir.
This column is moving in a new direction. It will now be about new technologies and how they interact with, or replace the things they aim to improve upon. It‚Äôs not a chance to be a luddite, but rather a chance to reflect on what we might miss, or want to keep, from the old.
Illustrations by Emma Philip