How Recappers Re-Invented TV Culture
"I hated tonight’s episode of Mad Men, but I’ll probably read something on the Internet tomorrow that will change my mind.”
So IM’d my girlfriend, and she’s not alone. Over the last decade — but especially its latter half — entertainment sites hired scores of writers tasked with the seemingly enviable responsibility of watching TV and writing about it online. TV criticism at a micro, episodic level has exploded, with content ranging from utilitarian descriptions designed to fill in those who missed last night’s episode to fanciful diversions into absurd fan-fiction and searing cultural criticism. We call it “recapping,” and it’s one of the most culturally potent forms of art criticism of our time. The obvious metaphor here is the watercooler, an image that hearkens back to an era when there were only a few channels to choose from, and everyone was watching the same shows. When cable TV fragmented viewership across niche programming, some only viewable depending on which package you bought, we lost some of that cultural connectivity. Recapping brings that sense of community back, without the worry that you might weird out your coworkers with the intensity of your opinions on a Housewife’s haircut.
In 2007, NBC Universal bought Television Without Pity, a site dedicated to the recapping form. That same year, Gawker began hosting recaps of primetime drama Gossip Girl, a show about overprivileged social-climbing Manhattanite teenagers (in other words, a show designed to be deconstructed by Gawker writers). 2007’s SXSW conference introduced thousands of geeks to Twitter; Mark Zuckerberg had opened up his growing social network to non-students a few months prior. The social web was just beginning to gain ground, so sharing someone’s interesting commentary about last night’s episode of Lost was easier than ever. No longer was this sort of conversation relegated to isolated forums and fan communities.
Plus, TV in 2007 was just better than a decade before. With the long-tail success of smart fare like The Wire on Netflix and DVD, TV producers, unlike their Hollywood brethren, were doing more risky programming than ever. Even mainstream fare like Lost, which in some ways was about as inscrutable as a Fellini film, had creators who were granted not only a huge production budget but heaps of creative control. Here was a show that demanded to be recapped.
But even our “dumb” TV is getting better. As Stephen Johnson argued in Everything Bad Is Good For You, the least nuanced reality shows like The Bachelor serve up a more stimulating mental exercise than the lowbrow fare of the 1980s. With dozens of interpersonal relationships and imperceptible social cues, these brilliant shows about stupid people are more interesting than, say,The Love Boat, and are thus way more fun to talk about.
When I first started asking around about the most crucial voices in the recapping world, my friends resounded with a unanimous “OMG RICHARD LAWSON LOL.” Lawson now covers entertainment for the Atlantic Wire, but from 2007-2011 (minus a brief stint in 2009 at TV.com), he was a legendary force among TV junkies as Gawker’s resident Real Housewives recapper.
Good recapping requires a quick mind, since editors pressure writers to get their coverage up before anyone else — sometimes hours or even minutes after a show airs. With little time to punch up one’s copy, jokes and deep thoughts must flow naturally. Readers flock to Lawson’s writing, wherever it is on the web (a friend recently confessed she has a Google alert set up for his name) because he has an ineffable knack for creating outlandish, sometimes fanfic-like scenarios for the characters he covers. He recently introduced a celebrity target accused of casually dropping the N-word as “Gwyneth Paltrow, who a lonely old farmer made out of corn silk one fall afternoon.”
As a kid, Lawson wrote movie reviews for a “newspaper” he and his sister printed off on the family computer. In high school, he’d frantically phone friends on commercial breaks during Buffy the Vampire Slayer and Dawson’s Creek. Celebrating (and bitching about) TV has always been a primal passion for him, and today he makes a living doing it. He reluctantly admits to being turned onto online TV fan culture by way of message boards dedicated to celebrating and dissecting Rent. His first experience seeing TV commentary at the episodic level was Entertainment Weekly’s coverage of Survivor.
It makes sense that the rise of recaps coincided with the expansion of reality television. Real people in front of a camera are absurd in a way that could never be replicated by a writer.
"I just think that with a reality show we are talking about ‘real’ people who have done ‘real’ things, so analyzing motivations and strategies and all that makes more sense, because we are parsing out something that actually exists," says Lawson. "Whereas scripted shows, it’s just … Well, OK, you can write an essay about it, but weekly recapping is putting a lot of energy into analyzing things that were affected by nothing but a writer’s imagination. It can feel a bit pointless."
Accusations of pointlessness dog recappers, even from within the churn. Rich Juzwiak, another Gawker TV writer, penned an essay in March titled, “Tune In, Recap, Drop Out: Why I’ll Never Recap a TV Show Again,” in which he announced he was through with the “thankless” form because it wasn’t fun anymore.
The limitless ubiquity of recaps makes writing them a challenge. Competition is stiff and deadlines are brutal, typically requiring just a few hours for turnaround to remain relevant. For this reason, formal and technical advances are few and far between: Typically, the biggest adventure a current recap can take is a shticky template tailored specifically to a show’s format … The most you can hope for is that the blocks of text are broken into smaller blocks. Given the several modes of expression that the Internet affords, the time-crunch limitations are especially frustrating: We cannot use what is at our fingertips — images, gifs, videos, and sound files — because we do not have the time.
Juzwiak felt the push to be faster and the pressure to be different were opposing forces impossible to reconcile, and he might be right. But that hasn’t stopped some recappers from branching way out into unconventional formats and other exciting tangents. Vulture has taken to hiring established comedians like Julie Klausner to differentiate their recaps. Klausner covers Real Housewives, a show she says she’d be dissecting with friends via email if she wasn’t being paid to post her thoughts publicly.
"I know reality shows are often enhanced by people talking about them, since I believe they exist for reaction, and, ideally, interaction. Scripted shows, if they are insanely bad or insanely good, can benefit from recaps because it gives people a chance to either make fun of things that are bananas (the adoption subplot of Smash) or explain stuff that’s super smart (why the last episode of this season’s Mad Men was called ‘The Phantom’),” says Klausner.
Serious shows demand more imaginative recaps. Natasha Vargas-Cooper's Footnotes of Mad Men recaps were an excuse to dive into 1960s culture, where she explored real-world fashion, business, and sexual politics with as much fervor as anything that happened on the show. She eventually parlayed this enthusiasm into a book deal. Mark Lisanti’s Mad Men Power Rankings at Grantland frame the recap as a listing of characters ranked by ever-changing, often ridiculous criteria loosely related to power. Slate’s TV Club employs several recappers to cover the same episodes, so they can banter back and forth throughout the week. They argue and share thoughts across five to seven posts for a single episode, allowing for a discussion much deeper than typical hit-and-run recaps. Since many writers who don’t write for major blogs aren’t necessarily making bank on recaps alone, and aren’t bound by the same standard of timeliness, they’re given free rein to experiment with weird content and freeform structures. The posts will be mostly forgotten in a few days, why not try something out that no one’s done before?
Now sites like The Onion A.V. Club are recapping older shows like The X-Files and, uh, Animaniacs. Clearly these aren’t generating a ton of water cooler conversation — these publishers are in it for long-tail search traffic. So when some 30-something wants a hit of nostalgia, he can find micro-commentary on otherwise forgotten shows, making him feel incrementally more connected to something special.
After all, the heart of recapping is community — the real magic happens in the comment section of a given recap, where we find dozens of amateurs one-upping each other with smarter, funnier commentary, even when they’re talking about shows decades old. It wasn’t just the immediacy of the Internet that made recap culture possible, but its participatory properties.
A current of guilt and redemption runs through the culture of recapping, with the best writers favoring and elevating guilty-pleasure viewing. Many writers are at their best when covering shows that they can’t help but adore, despite their nagging taste. Bad shows are too easy, good shows are too boring. But bad-good shows are the ticket. Richard Lawson says, “The real shitshows are hard to write about in a way because the jokes are already there. But really smart well-written things are sort of dry to write about … Something in the middle, where you can tease out some silliness but it’s not complete trash is ideal.”
Few of these writers are making much money; most are doing it for inherent pleasure in expressing why they love something that other people think frivolous. Therein lies the cultural legacy of the recapper. These writers labor over low culture and find depth in the shallow, and meaning in the minutiae. The relentless pace of media production demands fresh content, so recaps can at times seem ephemeral. But to the Alaskan teen who wants to join the scuttlebutt about last night’s American Idol, or the lonely business traveler who’s catching up on The Sopranos at a Shanghai airport lounge, these otherwise evanescent recaps offer a timelessness all their own.
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