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Write On

The Episode Recap: Changing How We Watch TV

by Simon Apter

One of my favorite offshoots of the twenty-first-century “prestige drama” genre (which, like so many recent TV trends, began with the debut of The Sopranos in 1999) is the Episode Recap. Made possible by the extraordinary TV writing working its way onto premium–and, eventually, basic–cable, and by the boom of instantly-rendered Internet opinionating, the Episode Recap is an entirely new, entirely modern form of short-form digital journalism. If Facebook digitized the old-fashioned “social” or “mixer,” then the Episode Recap is the latter-day version of water-cooler chatter.

While much of online journalism can be ridiculed as mere echo-chamber bloviating–that is, like-minded writers chasing like-minded readers, Birthers uncovering more fraudulent documents with other Birthers, Hacktivists sharing malware tips with Hacktivists–the episode-recap genre succeeds online because this echo-chamber, dog-chasing-its-tail milieu is actually what it’s all about.

For the episode recap is not written simply to describe the episode for those who haven’t seen it; rather, it’s an imaginative attempt to recast and reimagine the show through incisive, 20/20 hindsight. Even if–especially if–you’ve already seen the episode under dissection, the recap will uncover some aspect, some scene your memory elided, that adds another dimension to your enjoyment of the show.

You didn’t read Star-Ledger critic (and master of the genre) Vicki Hyman’s weekly Jersey Shore recaps because you wanted to find out what new kinds of trouble Snooki and the Sitch had gotten themselves into; rather, you wanted affirmation that the rest of the world–personified here by mainstream legitimacy of a major metropolitan paper–thought that the two were as batshit crazy as you did. Molly Lambert’s Monday-morning exegeses of Mad Men on Grantland gave us pithy instant analyses of characters’, well, character:

  • Megan Draper: Megan is an actressy mix of highly arrogant and very insecure.
  • Megan’s friend: Megan’s ginger friend is an attention slut.
  • Pete Campbell: Pete is an opportunist who sees the potential for exploitation in everything.
  • Roger Sterling and Lane Pryce: Roger is a schmuck, through and through. Lane is a depressive realist.

Yes, these are over-reduced distillations, but–importantly–they aren’t simplifications. A skilled episode-recapper assiduously avoids casting his “re-casted” characters as two-dimensional strawmen; rather, he works tacitly with the show’s writers to add depth and to increase complexity to what has already been developed on screen. These are not mere critiques; they’re postmortem examinations.

A good episode recap actually has more in common with fan-fiction than it does with criticism, and a good recapper will suggest backstories that are only hinted at on-screen; predict fallout from an implied future conflict; imagine and report on a character’s internal monologue that the show’s original writers chose to keep hidden from us. We spend 167 hours each week not watching a particular show; why not enrich and enhance them with intelligence and wit?

The reigning heavyweight champ of the recap is New York Magazine’s Chadwick Matlin, who has managed to make his weekly meditations on The Newsroom as anticipated as the Sunday-night program itself. He has also made himself indispensable: Say what you want about “Sorkinese,” the dialogue of The Newsroom is too lush, too booby-trapped with double- and triple-entendre to absorb in just one sitting, and this is where Matlin’s work becomes necessary.

“If art involves the cultivation of a relationship between creator and audience,” Matlin wrote in the introduction to his first Newsroom recap, “then Sorkin is one of our most intimate artists. His success stems from the oblique feeling that while watching his work, we, the audience, get to observe the obsessions of his mind.”

But it’s tricky to delve, unsolicited, into an artist’s mind; it helps to have a guide, and leading us through the obsessions of a writer’s mind–real or perceived–is what a skilled episode recapper does best. The recapper is a special kind of viewer, an evolved sub-species of Homo technologicus who can read between the frames, can burrow behind the dialogue as-written and as-delivered. And with the prestige drama, he or she is absolutely necessary. The recapper, not the broadcast, becomes the link between between creator and audience, much like an English professor serves as the link between literature and student.

And what about recapping the recaps? It’s only a matter of time before Hyman, Lambert, and Matlin find some enterprising scribe insinuating analysis of an analysis of an analysis.

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