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The Sum and the Parts: In Defense of TV Recaps

What good are TV episode recaps, anyway? Are they just wastes of space? Mere chatter? Why read them? Why write them?

As somebody who has written many individual-episode reviews for Vulture, Salon, and the New Republic — and way back in the dark ages, for the Star-Ledger I have a dog in this hunt. But I still want to offer a defense of the form.

Let’s start with a summary of our story to date. Cue deep-voiced announcer: “Previously on … The Recap Wars ... ”

• Over at Gawker, Rich Juzwiak, who has recapped an array of unscripted series since 2005, said he had been “writing sandcastles” all that time, announced “no more recaps, ever,” and fretted that the oversaturation and commercialization of the form was leaching the fun out of it. “With more recaps comes the demand not just to be faster, but also more distinct,” he wrote. “The impossibility of this is frustrating enough to shut me down.”

• In The Los Angeles Review of Books, Philip Maciak noted that as certain series “become more and more interested in slowing down the pace of their seasons, luxuriating in the time and creative freedom premium cable and its aspirants can afford, the more difficult it becomes for recappers to have anything much to recap week by week.”

• David Simon came out against a lot of new-media coverage of television in a New York Times blog interview — portions of which he ended up sorta, kinda apologizing for. “The number of people blogging television online — it’s ridiculous,” Simon said. “They don’t know what we’re building. And by the way, that’s true for the people who say we’re great. They don’t know. It doesn’t matter whether they love it or they hate it. It doesn’t mean anything until there’s a beginning, middle and an end.”  

Simon later qualified his complaints in a follow-up interview with my old Star-Ledger beat partner Alan Sepinwall, who has done as much as anyone to popularize individual-episode reviewing. “You would never see anyone review a novel in similar fashion,” Simon said. “No one would read three chapters of a novel and go, ‘What so and so's trying to say here.’ No book reviewer would try to assess any work based on the entry point of a piece of a prose. Is television prose? No, but you can't tell me there isn't some correlation between the way certain television shows now are being structured and the way multi-POV novels are being structured.”

• At the blog Just TV, Jason Mittell concluded that while “there is no ‘pure’ way to watch a program,” the “rush to judgment, and the associated critical consensus that can develop around a show from week to week, can be more damaging than illuminating to understanding the larger picture in the moment.”

• At the AV Club, Noel Murray wrote that episode-by-episode reviews “are fundamentally different from record reviews, movie reviews, and other kinds of traditional criticism” because “[t]hey’re conversation-starters,” but goes on to say that much of it is “lousy … Themes, aesthetics, historical context … the elements that make criticism an actual art form are lacking from a lot of the write-ups out there.”

Sons of Anarchy creator Kurt Sutter rebutted the AV Club in fewer than 140 characters. “Don't need your fucking pity @TheAVClub. you're 1 of the biggest offenders of intrusive-cunt-blogging. we don't give a fuck what you think.”  

We now return to our regularly scheduled column, presented in handy numbered point format.

1. Recap and overnight review aren’t synonyms.
A recap is a service-oriented piece, though there might be some jokes and observations thrown in. The once and future masters of the recap are the writers at Television Without Pity, who pore over individual episodes of everything from Breaking Bad to America’s Next Top Model in great detail. A recap has two main purposes: (1) to catch up viewers who might have missed last week’s episode, or maybe watched it without being able to give it their full attention, and (2) to serve as detailed notes or a summary in discussions/arguments about said show. Some people watch TV programs as obsessively as other people watch sporting events or presidential debates; they want to address (and maybe fight about) the tiniest details, and since they can’t remember everything, they might lean on a recap to augment their own memories or impressions.

An overnight review, on the other hand, doesn’t concern itself with describing every single thing that happened. An overnight review is a personal response to the episode. There are many ways to write an overnight review. 

Julieanne Smolinksi’s Vulture pieces on American Horror Story are not just recaps, they’re stand-up comedy plus satire plus analysis plus performance art (at times it’s almost as if she’s becoming the show, oooo-EEEEE-oooooooo….). Bethlehem Shoals’s pieces on The Wire for Heaven and Here are mini-manifestos that discuss city life, race, crime, and how Simon’s drama depicts bureaucracies or systems that “are impersonal, indifferent, and, in their blank rationality, often uncomfortably irrational.” The overnight reviews at Grantland, Gawker, HitFix, EW, TV Guide, the AV Club, and other outlets run the gamut from academic/Talmudic to light/improvisational, depending on what show a writer is covering and what sort of tone readers expect.

2. Episode reviews can be entertainment in themselves.
The overnight reviewer is not just reporting on the contents of the show. He or she is summarizing the thoughts that he or she had while watching that episode. The piece is, first and foremost, a description of the contents of the writer’s mind. If it’s empty, the writer is basically fucked.

When readers return each week to a certain overnight TV reviewer, they’re not just clicking to learn what happened on Sons of Anarchy, Downton Abbey, Deadliest Catch, or whatever. They’re clicking because they enjoy reading that writer and want to see how he or she does under pressure. Because the circumstances of overnight reviewing are intense, it’s harder for the writers to censor themselves. The results often have a diarylike feel. They chart the writer’s shifting emotions toward a show as well as describe the episode itself.  

My Salon pieces on The Killing are a chronicle of love gone sour. My review of the pilot is very positive, but with each week I become more frustrated and disappointed with the show, and by the end I’m practically leaving it profane voice-mail messages. While recapping Breaking Bad and Homeland, there were a couple of points at which I lost faith in the shows, or at least doubted that they could pull off what they seemed to be attempting; I ultimately realized I was wrong (Oh me of little faith), and the readers dug watching me eat crow in print. Although I’ve occasionally wished I could take back certain pieces, I don’t regret having written them. They’re honest records of what I was thinking and feeling at the time.  

3. Fast writing can be great writing.
Some of the best things I’ve ever read were cobbled together on deadline. I’ve read overnight obituaries of people who died unexpectedly that crystallized their lives more eloquently than pieces written months after the fact. I’ve read editorials about historical tragedies written within hours of their occurrence that fix my tangled feelings like an emotional snapshot.

These pieces are great not in spite of the fact that they were written quickly, but because of it. Writing fast means writing on instinct. When you write on instinct you can’t do much second-guessing or revising. You have to give up your inhibitions and let your fingertips dance on the keys. Sometimes the result is gibberish. But other times it’s better than you would have done if you’d had more time, because it comes from a pure place. The core of your being — the deep self that emerges during sports, dream-sleep, and sex — stands up, cracks its knuckles, and tells the conscious mind, “Move over, kid. I’m driving.”

As a reader, when you stumble on the second kind of piece, you feel a sense of elation. That’s what I felt the first time I read Alan Sepinwall’s review of the Boardwalk Empire episode “To the Lost.” Or Maureen Ryan’s piece on Game of Thrones’Baelor.” Or EW film critic Lisa Schwarzbaum’s instant response to the end of The Sopranos. Or Andrew Johnston’s review of the series finale of The Wire.

4. Overnight reviews are the ideal format for responding to serialized narratives.
David Simon’s not wrong when he says that a lot of overnight reviews miss the forest for the trees. That’s a pitfall of the “athletic challenge” aspect. When you’re in the middle of a season of a series, or fixating on a particular episode or moment, you can develop tunnel vision and fail to give the writers the benefit of the doubt (assuming, of course, that they deserve it, which is a subject for another column).

But let’s be honest: Most scripted series are not designed with architectural rigor, no matter how strenuously the executive producers claim otherwise. I bet that’s true for Simon’s dramas as well. Even though The Wire, Generation Kill, and Treme are among a handful of series that can truly be called novelistic, there are times when Simon and his writers seem to be winging it, like Ella Fitzgerald scatting to “Mack the Knife” after forgetting the lyrics in concert.

Sometimes the writers make a brilliant plan and almost nothing goes wrong in the execution. Other times the veneer of elegant purposefulness disguises months of near chaos. Still other times the showrunner’s Big Idea for a season — the one that was going to win him an Emmy, a Peabody, and the mother-love he never got as a child — turns out to be a Horrible Idea, and pretty much everyone but the showrunner knows it.    

The dead-end twists, dropped subplots, and continuity issues that dog even the most imaginative and intelligent shows are a testament to the fact that the people who make TV are dancing as fast as they can. If glaring missteps show up in long-form narratives, the show’s writers and producers are often the first people to realize it. If the error stays in, it’s because they didn’t have the time or budget to fix it — or because they didn’t realize their mistake until after they’d turned in their final cut to the network, at which point they had no choice but to live with it.

That’s what episode reviewing is all about: making decisions in the moment, then living with them. 

Which brings me to my last point:

5. Overnight reviews reflect how people actually watch TV.
I’ve been writing about TV and movies for over twenty years, but I don’t think I really started to hit my stride as a TV critic until the Internet became ubiquitous and I didn’t have to justify every single article to an editor on the basis of “news value.” Thanks to the niche mentality of the Internet, if you’re interested in something and other people are interested in it, too, that’s all the news value you need. I tend to think that if they’re interested in what you have to say about a certain subject, it is almost impossible to write too much or too often about it, though I’ve done my best to test that theory over the years. (Star-Ledger editor to me, circa 2005: “I like Deadwood, too, but is it necessary to mention it in every single goddamn thing you write?”)

Holistic, stand-alone reviews of movies and books make sense because the works themselves are stand-alone objects. But a TV show is a more slippery, organic thing, practically a living creature that grows, evolves, and sometimes sickens and dies in front of you over the course of weeks or years. The old way of writing about TV – via newspaper or magazine columns spaced weeks or months apart – was a poor match for the form. Nobody truly understood that because until somewhat recently, we didn’t have any technological/narrative alternative. Now we have professional websites, personal blogs, Facebook, Twitter, even text messaging. We can respond to a show as frequently or as infrequently, thoroughly or tersely, flippantly or academically as we wish.

As a TV critic, you try to keep an open mind and give the showrunners and writers the benefit of the doubt. But you still have to respond to what’s in front of you, because that’s how people watch TV: in the moment. A non-critic watching something in real time doesn’t grade on a curve because she doesn’t know where the story is going, and most of the time that doesn’t matter anyway. A clichéd line is a clichéd line, a lifeless shot is a lifeless shot, a boring character is a boring character no matter how much foresight went into an episode’s production. The idea of giving shows the long-view, wait-and-see treatment is ignorant of what most TV (including the “novelistic” variety) actually is, and how viewers experience it. 

Live-tweeting a response to an episode as it airs is the online equivalent of sitting on a couch with friends watching the same program in real time. You make comments and observations and cheap jokes. Most are mere chatter that evaporates the moment it’s uttered. But every now and then somebody says something that sticks in your mind forever. Overnight reviewing is a slowed-down version of that, with spell-check.

Taken together with their comment threads — which they always should be — such pieces amount to snapshots of the cultural reaction to certain episodes of significant TV shows, taken within hours of their premiere. In the comment threads of overnight reviews, people talk about the episode in question, but that’s not all they talk about. They talk about the show as a whole. They talk about other shows that inspired it, or that are ripping it off. They talk about what this critic or that politician said about the show and why they’re right or wrong. They talk about morality, philosophy, sexual politics, the war, and the economy in relation to the show. They talk about how a particular scene or image reminded them of events in their own lives, and the role of dialogue or performance or camerawork in conjuring the memory. Taken together, the reviews and comments don’t just tell you about what happened on that episode, they tell you what life was like on that particular night. They tell you about life, period.

It’s amazing.

Photo-Illustration: Photo: AMC