Tune In, Recap, Drop Out: Why I'll Never Recap a TV Show Again
Tracie Potochnik has recapped America's Next Top Model for Television Without Pity since its third cycle started airing eight years ago. Over the years, she announced recently, she has written more than 1,350,000 words on the show. That's more than two War and Peaces, but these volumes of work don't so much as have the honor of collecting dust. They are ephemeral by nature, tied to episodes of seasons of whole shows that are forgotten virtually as soon as they air. Recapping television, especially with the detail and craft of Potochnik, ultimately amounts to writing sandcastles—and yet it's become a beloved staple of the blogger's oeuvre.
My time as a recapper stretches back to the summer of 2005, when I decided to write about Being Bobby Brown for my own blog. That led, funnily enough, to one of my first links on Gawker and the audience indication that I could have a voice in this weird online world. It was almost immediately rewarding and something like intoxicating. About a month after Brown's run, I started getting my fix from a show I'd adored from its start: America's Next Top Model. This I stuck with the longest, amassing 12 seasons' worth of write-ups. I also did two seasons of Project Runway, The Real World: Brooklyn and some Jersey Shore. Much of this was done during my free nights while being employed by VH1 from 2006 and 2010 to recap virtually all of its programming.
I was a recapping machine, and this is my rising: No more recaps ever.
No more thankless work that posits the writer as an entertainer while the readers demand accordingly. (The emails come regularly: "Where is it?!") No more being bound to the whims of a show that could at any moment take a turn for the shitty, and will, if nothing else, thwart my social life. I want to be a normal person who's watching TV, not some frantic note-taking instant replayer. No more regularly scheduled forced digestion in a period of time that gives my brain and writing cramps.
It's fatigue, plain and simple, that comes from within but is informed from without. 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 (as Vulture once did in its song-by-song breakdowns of Glee). 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.
The paradox of the medium is that with more recaps comes the demand not just to be faster, but also more distinct. The impossibility of this is frustrating enough to shut me down. I'm not entirely alone. I recently talked to Tara Ariano, a co-founder of the internet's premier recap shop, Television Without Pity, who seemed to suffer the same recapping fatigue as me. TWoP first began as a Dawson's Creek blog, but it quickly grew to cover all kinds of "guilty pleasure" TV and then all kinds of TV, period. Ariano says she's edited "a minimum of a thousand recaps," and they were long ones, sometimes stretching into tens of thousands of words. (Television Without Pity emerged when one could take his or her time on the Internet and still publishes full recaps days after an episode has aired.) She is currently recapping Justified for Grantland (she's filling in for Chris Ryan) in that formatted approach required by a tight turnaround.
Ariano says she doesn't have the patience or work hours to read recaps of the shows she's already seen and doesn't care to read ones about the shows she doesn't watch. And with so many being grinded out, what would be the point, anyway? "If it's an overnight recap, I know the writer can't get too into it, because [he or she] wrote it in two hours, max, because there was a really short deadline to get it in. There's only so much insight you can get. I know because I turn around recaps overnight often."
Mark Lisanti, also of Grantland and formerly Defamer, told me the change he's seen over years is industrial. "[Recapping] used to be a lot more niche, but now every outlet's got a full slate of recaps. They're unavoidable, especially on the big shows. It definitely used to feel like more of a fun thing blogs did."
When did things turn sour? When did labors of love turn into automated grabs for pageviews? The recap already seemed like it was at the saturation point a year and a half ago, when the Observer wrote about the "Rise of Recappers" and reported that New York Magazine's Vulture blog (a blog!) employed 30 recappers. (A glance at the past two weeks of Vulture recaps found 19 unique writers). Twitter's role is crucial, as it has expanded and helped disintegrate the line between recapper and commenter –- anyone tweeting along to a show is essentially recapping it as it's happening. Talking about TV is no longer just for the anointed and employed Internet denizens. While democracy is a beautiful thing, it's also diluting what once looked like a bright new mode of expression.
Tom Shales, TV critic for the Washington Post, dated the inception of the recap back to L.A. Law, NBC's courtroom dramedy that ran from 1986 to 1994. It wasn't covered as meticulously as your average modern-day show, but, Shales told us, critics would return to it repeatedly over the course of its seasons in admiration of its sophisticated storylines and characters, which marked a break from the then standard top-of-the-season, review-it-and-forget-it schedule.
The most important early episode-by-episode engagement on the Internet was that of Daniel Drennan, whose message board explorations of the original Beverly Hills 90210 eventually ballooned to thousands of words on his own site, Inquisitor Mediarama. Those 90210 recaps influenced Ariano, Bunting and Cole to engage with Dawson's Creek, and that engagement spawned Television Without Pity, the unparalleled champion of Internet recapping for years.
Any good idea will spread and be coopted, especially if it's occurring on the great facilitator that is the Internet. Other highlights in recapping included:
- Buffy the Vampire Slayer (1997 – 2003) – Using the model Shales described, Stephanie Zacharek followed Buffy the Vampire Slayer closely on Salon, but would write about the show as its topics piqued her interest. She was not a weekly slave to Buffy. The result was filled with perspective and consequently adored.
- The Bachelor (March 2002 - present) – A recent New York Times piece praised comedian Annie Lederman's weekly video recaps for The Daily, as well as Leila Cohan-Miccio and Caitlin Bitzegaio's satirical stage show The Bachelor: Romance, Roses and Romance. While the latter is not a recap, it is a response to the show with creativity far more sophisticated than a knee-jerk.
- American Idol (June 2002 – present) – Formal exercises recapping Idol include Jim Cantielo's "Idol in a Minute" videos for MTV. However, the sheer amount of words shed every week on this show are a marvel, yet unsurprising: Something doesn't get to be a cultural phenomenon without being discussed ad nauseam and participation is written into Idol's format.
- Lost (September 2004 – May 2010) – Parsing out the show's mysteries became something of a sport for viewers. It was the rare show where no detail was too small, and thus made the meticulousness not just warranted but essential.
- The Real Housewives (March 2006 – present) – Richard Lawson's reality warping Gawker recaps are legendary. Bravo's requirement that its on-air talent participate online in the form of episode-response blogs was revolutionary. These talent screeds trumped outsider snark with insider insight (or, even better: further delusion), and extended the participatory experience of reality TV into a full 360 degrees.
- Mad Men (July 2007 – present) – Natasha Vargas-Cooper's Footnotes to Mad Men provided a service well beyond entertainment, exploring real cultural references struck by the fictional, ‘60s-set show.
- Gossip Girl (September 2007 – present) – How would blogs NOT cover the shit out of a show about blogs? This one had the bait written into it, ensuring whatever played out on the web would have the delicious zing of the meta.
Those examples are all of work that dared to go beyond the churn, something risky if not impossible given tight turnaround times. (The aforementioned stuff has spawned its own share of exhaustion, as Cantiello's routine all-nighters can attest.) The immediate payoff that comes from audience response and adoration is gratifying, but there's a greater good, too. It's a beautiful thing in an increasingly audio/visual world wherein TV serials are the new novels that writing can still be considered compulsively entertaining. Not all writers are entertainers, and certainly fewer entertainers are writers, but there is something thrilling about their intersection within the recap medium. It's a haven for stand-up comedians and critics alike.
Despite (or maybe because of) that, recap has not replaced the traditional critique, and it likely never will. That's like saying Dancing with the Stars is going to replace dancing. By virtue of their widened scope, think pieces still get the most play and admiration — Ryan McGhee's sharp essay on The Sopranos's destruction of episodic TV for The A.V. Club is relevant beyond any specialized recap and spawned the smart rebuttals to prove it. For most people, perspective requires time (as does quality, according to the ethos of TWoP, which still posts recaps days after an episode airs). Very few people are capable of the "incisive commentary and wit" in "record time" that the A.V. Club's Steve Heisler credits to Alan Sepinwall, the prolific recapper formerly of the Star-Ledger.
I'll never stop writing about TV. I'll never get over my love of minutiae and I'll never stop attempting to capture and describe the bigger picture. Recapping found me reveling in the former and unable to focus on the latter. It made me an unbalanced writer. The grind's minor rewards do not outweigh its burden.
I cannot deny that my recapping built me an audience and had a hand in career opportunities. I always said that I worked so much on my blog, eschewing socializing on weeknights, because I preferred to have something to show for my time. My archives haven't gone anywhere, and while the idea of them is soothing, the actual contents are not. Those thousands and thousands of words I wrote are largely meaningless, pulled away from whatever significance they had by the tides of time. This is what it feels like from the rocks, beaten by my beat.