(Photo by FOX, Walt Disney Pictures, Kyle Kaplan / Amazon / courtesy Everett Collection)
“Know Your Critic” is a column in which we interview Tomatometer-approved critics about their screening and reviewing habits, pet peeves, and personal favorites.
Emily VanDerWerff got started as a critic by covering Battlestar Galactica episodically. She’d created a blog with the intention of writing for and about television, and caught her break when an editor – Matt Zoller Seitz, now Editor-at-Large for RogerEbert.com – invited her to join The House Next Door’s roster. Now, she’s several years into her role as a critic for Vox and continues that legacy of boosting up-and-coming voices. She also wants you to know that she’s currently without a cellphone.
“Emily VanDerWerff doesn’t have a phone,” she told Rotten Tomatoes in an interview. “It makes her life difficult, but she feels compelled to bring it up at every instance.”
In addition to her criticism, Emily has produced several podcasts. She launched TV on the Internet with her wife, IndieWire’s TV Awards Editor Libby Hill; she currently hosts Vox’s What to Watch podcast; and she is the co-creator of Arden, a fictionalized spin on the beloved true crime genre. She says working on Arden has made her ”weirdly gun shy about being a critic.” Not because she’s afraid to be critical – criticism is fundamentally “an act of love” for her – but because writing a fiction series has given her new perspective on narrative decision-making.
“The choices we make are so often deliberate choices that we are making to achieve a certain effect. Maybe you don’t agree with that effect, but that doesn’t mean the choice was wrong,” she said. “Similarly, the choices we’re making are sometimes driven by lack of budget, lack of actor availability, lack of everything and sometimes, I’m disappointed with the way things turned out too, but there was a reason that happened and now I know the reason.”
What was the first movie that you saw when returning to theaters?
Oh, oh, oh, I know this one! They started doing press screenings again and the first movie I saw was A Quiet Place Part II, which I thought was pretty good. The lights dimmed, the movie started and it took me about a half-hour to have a complaint because I was just like, “I’m having a great time.” There are things in that movie that make no sense whatsoever! There’s an attempt to add emotional resonance to stuff that I don’t think entirely works. There’s zombie people living on a boat, but it’s never quite explained, which is fine. I just was like, “It’s so good to be back.”
The actual thing where I feel like maybe I was a little easy on a movie – though, I’m not ever going to apologize for this because I had a blast watching it – was a couple of days later I saw Cruella and it was just like, “I’m having the time of my life just sitting here and watching Emma Stone stomp on people.”
When you’re watching things at home, do you have a screening ritual?
My ritual is I don’t have a ritual. I do have a ritual when I go to the movies. The Alamo Drafthouse here in Downtown LA – I go there and I get a popcorn and I get a Coke Zero and I watch the trailers and, usually, I get chicken strips and that’s about as close as I come.
What is the best thing that you watched in quarantine?
The Underground Railroad. I think this is the best TV show in a long time and I am just blown away by it, and I hope that more people discover it over the years to come. I watched Neon Genesis Evangelion toward the tail end of quarantine, and that is just one of the best things. It’s so weird and complicated and beautiful and strange.
I rewatched all of Star Trek: Deep Space Nine with some friends and … What a fun show? Like, what a good show? It’s always been my favorite Star Trek and this rewatch just kind of solidified that.
(Photo by Hulu)
What are you most proud of in your career so far?
If you were going to ask me one or two pieces, I’d probably point to my Handmaid’s Tale season three review, which I came out as a trans woman. I feel like my recent Underground Railroad review was a really great attempt to wrestle with some stuff within the form.
What I’m proudest of is the stable of collaborators I’ve built. This is the thing I feel like if I want people to take anything away from my time in journalism and my time in criticism that they’re not taking away from it. What we did at The A.V. Club, we helped build a team of freelancers. We built a team of writers. We built a team of regular contributors that substantially changed the scope of the …
Someone just came in and threw a salad on the floor! Make that your lead, “Emily VanDerWerff’s wife enters and throws a salad on the floor.” [laughs]
… The thing that we did at The A.V. Club is we built this team of regular collaborators, regular writers and substantially shifted. … It’s been similarly true at Vox. I continue to try to figure out: Who’s new? Who’s up and coming? Whose writing do I really like? Then, I try to work with them whenever I can. That’s the thing I’m proudest of. I say that sometimes and people think of me as a writer because I write a lot, but I am, honestly, proud of some of my editorial managerial achievements and choices.
What is the hardest review or piece you’ve written so far?
That Handmaid’s Tale piece. I went through many drafts. I don’t struggle with reviews, generally. I usually sit down and have a sense of what I want to say. So yeah, I think it’s probably the Handmaid’s Tale review because it was a question of striking exactly the right balance and understanding how much to talk about Handmaid’s Tale and how much to talk about myself, and how to blend those two things together.
If television isn’t some part of a queer person’s coming out, are they really queer?
This is true.
That’s a joke based on my experience.
I spent most of my adolescence watching women on television and really identifying with them. When I was a teenager, I grew my hair like Angela on My So-Called Life and just so wanted that look and wouldn’t tell myself why. I knew why, I just wouldn’t look at it.
One of the times when I almost came out was in 2013. I was watching New Girl, one of my favorite television programs. There’s this moment where Zooey Deschanel is wearing just the cutest dress. I saw that and some part of my brain was like, “Zoey Deschanel and you are around the same age. If you wanted to, you could wear that dress.” She’s significantly shorter than me and significantly in better shape than I was at the time, but just something zinged through my brain and I immediately shut it down because I didn’t come out to myself until 2018 – it was a five-year gap in there.
Television gives us new ways of imagining ourselves and consistent ways of seeing ourselves. It gives us new ways of thinking about what is possible. I think it is not a coincidence that I came out in the midst of TV deciding it was cool to tell stories about trans people, sometimes very poorly, but doing it more and more often. Seeing Laverne Cox in Orange is the New Black was a big moment for me. Transparent was a big moment for me – as many issues as that show has both in front of and behind the camera, it was a huge, huge deal for me.
What’s interesting has been seeing how now that I’m out, I’ve kind of moved past those things and I don’t need them. Hollywood is still very much stuck in, “If we’re going to tell a story about a trans person, we’d better over-explain everything.” I think that’s fine. The cis need to have trans-ness explained to them to some degree because it’s very confusing to them apparently.
Over and over again, apparently.
It’s important to do that, but in my own work – in Arden, we had a character who was trans in our second season. There was an episode where she did a lot of explaining about what it meant to be trans. Then, I talked with the actress about it and she was like, “I don’t know if we need this.” I was like, “I don’t know if we need it either,” so I just took it all out. There are remnants of it in there, but it’s all just stuff that would have come up in normal conversation.
The show assumes that you care about the character on an emotional level. You don’t need to care about them on an intellectual level. You don’t need to sit there and know what their dosage is every day and if they take their estrogen sublingually, or if they do a weekly injection, or if they have patches. The show assumes you don’t care about that because why would you? I’m not saying that we wrote the greatest trans character in history. Other people can and should say that. I am not going to say that, but I feel like we got closer to it than we would have been if we had just gone with my script where I was like, “Here’s how it feels to be a trans woman.” We need some of that. We certainly need some of that in mainstream TV and movies – that’s how we move this conversation – but we also need stuff that is a little bit more specific and weird and interesting.
(Photo by FOX Network. All rights reserved. Courtesy Everett Collection.)
What is your favorite TV series or episode or movie from your childhood?
The first thing that I just fell in love with and was like, “This is my thing,” was The X-Files, which I started watching in high school and just truly invested in, became over-invested in, understood everything about the mythology, eventually got kind of turned off and stopped watching the show. I have since written a book about the show. That was the thing that really got me interested in television production and I don’t know where I would be without that show.
What, if anything, do you consider required viewing?
Nothing. Watch what makes you happy. Watch what you’re invested in. The only thing I’d ask is that when you’re watching stuff, think about the voices whose work you’re consuming and try to diversify that. That is not me saying you need to go out and watch these different works of art made by different groups.
My favorite explanation of what to do comes from the critic Angelica Jade Bastién, who works at my sister publication, Vulture. She was just like, “Okay, a better way to think about consuming more work by Black filmmakers: If you’re a horror fan, try and find some horror movies made by Black filmmakers, by trans filmmakers, by Asian-American filmmakers or international filmmakers. Get into horror, yes, but don’t just get into straight, white-guy horror. Get into sci-fi, but getting the sci-fi from other perspectives.” That is a better way to sort of diversify your viewpoint than sitting down and saying, “I need to watch 52 films directed by women, one a week.”
That’s a good thing to do, but you’re going to be much less likely to get anything from it than if you’re a horror fan and you sit down and watch like The Babadook or something.
What were you watching the first time you saw yourself on screen? What about that character or story do you relate to?
I feel like I still haven’t seen myself on screen. That’s why I’m trying to make stuff. I want to see myself on screen and yet, by the nature of what you’re doing, everything becomes an interpretation of it through someone else’s lens.
The character in Arden was a character that was very close to my heart, but she was played by a different actor and the actor had her own thoughts. The other writers on the show had their own thoughts and the directors had their own thoughts and that all came together. But as far as seeing myself on screen, the answer is kind of Angela from My So-Called Life, the answer is kind of Lindsay Weir from Freaks and Geeks.
I do think an interesting example was the character of Dani from Midsommar, which came out a few years ago. That was one of the few times where I was like, “Yes! That is me.” It took me a while to realize why I was so affected by that character, but she was a woman who constantly had to hang out with men and the men did not behave around her like men tend to behave when they know there’s a woman in the room and that was such a trans thing for me.
Trans women, before they come out, are just constantly like, “Why am I hanging out with men and what are they doing?” Nothing wrong with men. There are some things wrong with men. There are some very nice men, but just like you feel so outside and far off and disconnected, and Midsommar captured that in a way I’ve never seen in another movie. So it’s one of my all time faves and people are always surprised when I say that, but it’s my list. I get to decide what’s on it.
What makes a TV series worth talking about?
There’s interesting stuff to say about every TV show. Just find the thing you want to talk about and talk about it, especially, if you’re being a professional writer. I would much rather read your take on some show you deeply love that I’ve never heard of than read your take on WandaVision, which is a show that everyone wrote about. Are you going to be able to sell that weird quirky take? I don’t know, but I’d love to read it.
Who are three people that everyone should follow on Twitter?
My friend, Eve Ettinger (@eve_ettinger; they/she), is consistently one of the most interesting, thoughtful writers about gender, about religious trauma, about all manner of things. They are someone that following is just a wonderful idea.
Let’s see, who makes me laugh a lot? There’s this independent role playing game designer named Jeeyon Shim (@jeeyonshim; she/they). She’s a wonderful game designer and their Twitter feed is just a constant delight, so much just funny stuff and so much weird stuff. I am just fascinated by the way they see the world and quietly fan-girling over them off in the corner.
Finally, I feel like Katelyn Burns (@transscribe; she/her) – who is one of the best people covering politics in the U.S., and especially covering trans issues affecting trans people in the U.S. – is a vital follow if you care about the direction this country is heading in.
Who’s an up-and-coming critic that you want people to check out?
Tamara Fuentes (@tamara_fuentes) is just saying some really interesting things and has a really great perspective.
Is there someone in your life who is not a critic whose opinion you admire?
Everybody’s. Obviously, I disagree with people in my life all the time, but I’m interested in what everybody thinks about everything, sometimes to distraction.