When I was in sixth grade, my best friend Sarah and I would obsessively watch the Thursday night lineup: first Beverly Hills, 90210, then Party of Five. Since homework often kept us from watching in the same room, we’d dial each other the moment a commercial broke. Our analysis didn’t usually get past "I can’t believe Kelly’s pregnant," or "Julia’s boyfriend is so hot." Frankly, there wasn’t much subtext to the shows, anyway.
Since then, TV shows—even teen soap operas—have gotten far more complex. The freedom of premium cable has led to shows with fewer episodes, better writing, rawer and realer content. There are more cable shows being made than ever, and we have DVR, OnDemand, Hulu, and a million illegal streaming sites to keep up with them. Yet just as our television viewing experience has become more individual, there’s more to talk about than ever.
Enter TV recaps. Good television is incomplete without them.
The word "recap" is misleading; it’s less a play-by-play and more a detailed analysis of a television episode, usually posted within a few hours of the episode’s airing and often followed by hundreds of viewer comments. In the last couple years, there has been a lot of back-and-forth about whether recaps should even exist. David Simon, creator of The Wire, called them "ridiculous," accusing them of undermining the writer’s vision. Former recapper Rich Juzwiak, who confessed he’d been "writing sandcastles," recently called for an end to recaps altogether. In response, Matt Zoller Seitz (among others) wrote an impassioned defense on Vulture—although as a longtime recap writer himself, he admitted he had "a dog in this hunt." Thus far, this has been an insular debate between those who are paid to produce TV shows and those who are paid to write about them. I am neither. This ode goes out to the recap fans, from one of their own.
I’m late to the TV recap game—I only discovered them a couple years ago—but I’ve always been weirdly into review culture. As soon as I came home from the movies, I’d search for reviews from the top critics—Roger Ebert, Wesley Morris, Dana Stevens, Manohla Dargis. If I loved the movie, I’d be thrilled by the minutiae and larger connections proffered by the professional critic; if I disliked the movie, the reviews would help me articulate why. Once I discovered the underworld of TV recaps, though, my movie criticism habit faded. Unlike film reviews frozen in time, recaps are participatory. There’s no authoritative voice, but rather an open-ended conversation that anyone can join. Often, there’s not a "good episode" or a "bad episode" judgment. There’s also something satisfying about recaps' immediacy.
Scrutiny is the only way to do justice to the television shows of the last 10 years. Most recap connoisseurs agree that the godfather of the recap is Alan Sepinwall, who chronicled the details of Sopranos episodes in the Newark Star-Ledger like they were sporting events back in the early 2000s. "Maybe I’m reading too much into this," Sepinwall wrote in a Season 4 recap. He’d hardly need that caveat now. A major refrain nowadays is that next-level television has gotten so layered and well, movie-like, that it needs a bit of unpeeling. Like the film reviews I once spent hours reading, recaps are flush with details I didn’t pick up on. And unlike the mighty critic’s last word, the conversation effortlessly continues beyond the 500-word rundown—from comment sections to Twitter to back-story links. The hazard and thrill of the recap is that there’s always more to uncover. In addition to my standard recap repertoire (A.V. Club, Vulture, Slate, Salon, IndieWire, HitFix, and The Orange Couch, to name a few), I’ve recently discovered Tom and Lorenzo’s "Mad Style," a fashion blog that analyzes Mad Men through the costumes; 118 questions about a single episode of Glee; and recap roundup blogs, an embarrassment of riches that gainfully employed people should approach with caution.
It’s not only the highbrow TV that’s enriched by a good recap. Trashy TV benefits from the treatment, too. When I finally decided to catch up on True Blood (an HBO show, true, but it’s certainly a guilty pleasure), I read recaps to plug myself back into a cultural moment I’d missed in real time. Alyssa Rosenberg’s ThinkProgress recaps were the best; she managed to take the show seriously enough to discuss rape culture, class clash, and Magical Negros, while mercilessly mocking Sookie and her "dorky vampire threesomes."
Sometimes, recaps graduate from bonus feature to main attraction. Recap fan Andrew Cunningham told me on Twitter that Gawker is the only reason he still watches Glee. Alex Mizrahi, curator of a Mad Men recap roundup blog, told me that "the only thing that kept me watching Season 2 of The Walking Dead was the Videogum episode recaps, which were so funny and sarcastic and pointed out all the ridiculous character and plot flaws that they became more entertaining than the show itself." Renee Dillon, another recap devotee, says that even though she was sick of American Idol, she’d read Television Without Pity's recaps and sometimes have startlingly emotional responses to them; Jacob Clifton, one of the blog’s authors, "took this stupid-annoying catchphrase of Randy Jackson's ("In it to win it!") and somehow turned it into a thoughtful way to close out a recap that actually made me cry a little."
Serialized television has always been able to weave itself into people’s everyday lives in a way holistic experiences—movies, books, albums—never could. Recap is a mirror of the form, and thanks to technology, TV has finally met its match. The fans couldn’t be happier.
Note: An earlier version of this piece stated Alan Sepinwall's name as "David Sepinwall."