Entertainment Weekly's home page trumpets its main coverage subjects directly beneath its logo: TV, TV Recaps, Movies, Music, Books, Video.
The addition of TV Recaps came in late April, and its presence — independent of TV and ahead of Movies and Music — says much about how people currently experience entertainment and its coverage and how mainstream outlets are trying to cater to them.
In the old media world, writers were expected to tell readers what they didn't know. In the current, online-dominated one, writers often gain more traction telling readers what they already do.
Hence: recaps, which exist less for the we-watched-it-so-you-don't-have-to benefits ("Catfish" excluded) than for the pleasures of returning to a landscape you've already visited, albeit often from a fresh perspective and in the company of fellow travelers.
"I can't imagine reading a recap if you haven't watched the show," said Matt Zoller Seitz, who, as New York magazine's television critic, writes recaps for its Vulture website. "What would you possibly get out of it?"
The recap phenomenon is not new; the website Television Without Pity, which folded in April after being bought by Bravo in 2007, generally is credited with launching it after its founders began recapping "Dawson's Creek" episodes under the moniker Dawson's Wrap in 1998 (with the site expanding and changing its name to Mighty Big TV in 1999 and subsequently to Television Without Pity). Or you can go further back to those what's-happened-on-the-soaps recaps that newspapers ran for decades.
But those soap opera summaries tended to occupy one dry paragraph, in contrast to the lengthy, sometimes rambling tomes being inspired by a broad cross-section of today's television shows. The recaps' cultural prominence has risen to the point that they're overshadowing traditional reviews.
The middle column on The New York Times' Television page details Series Recaps: "Watching 'The Americans,'" "Watching 'Fargo,'" "Watching 'Game of Thrones,'" "Watching 'Mad Men,'" "Watching 'Orphan Black,'" "Watching 'Penny Dreadful.'" Recaps have become a staple of other journalism sites as well, including The Washington Post's and Los Angeles Times'.
"Even places you would never expect, like The Wall Street Journal and Rolling Stone, are into the recap game," said Television Without Pity co-founder Tara Ariano, now West Coast editor (and co-founder) of Previously.TV. "If you're into a show, you're interested in reading as much as you can about it."
Then there's this sign of the times: In early April, Entertainment Weekly laid off its original and only remaining dedicated film critic, Owen Gleiberman, along with music critic Nick Catucci and five other staffers. Later that month Kristen Baldwin, who had been recapping "The Bachelor" and "The Bachelorette" for the website while serving as the magazine's executive editor for integrated content, was promoted to deputy editor. About a week later, TV Recaps assumed their prominent spot atop the magazine's home page.
When asked about the Web traffic generated by recaps, Entertainment Weekly senior publicist Mari Dwyer responded: "On average, around 45 percent of our unique visitors in a month interact with TV recaps, according to (the Web analytics business) Omniture."
"Recaps are more and more popular, and more and more people are reading them," said Baldwin, who began writing her cheeky "Bachelor"/"Bachelorette" recaps in 2009.
The Entertainment Weekly site lists recaps for 32 current series covered by various writers. Among those highlighted on the TV Recaps home page last week, the ones generating the most comments were for "Survivor" and "Game of Thrones"; the finale of the latter airs Sunday night and is sure to set off a veritable recapper's delight.
"People have always talked about favorite shows; it's just now they can do it instantly and regularly," said TV historian Walter Podrazik, of Chicago's Museum of Broadcast Communications. "'St. Elsewhere' would have lent itself to this type of discussion because of the ongoing story arc. Friends got on the phone and talked about it."
The shows recapped most often are serialized dramas — shows such as "Mad Men," "Breaking Bad" and "Game of Thrones" that advance the story week after week — and reality series that prompt a playful sort of sports reporting. "Saturday Night Live" recaps serve the utilitarian purpose of letting you know which sketches to skip on your DVR.
You're less likely to see recaps for sitcoms or police procedurals regardless of their popularity, so although the audience for CBS' "NCIS" dwarfed that of AMC's "Breaking Bad," Seitz said a Vulture recap for the former would generate maybe eight comments, while one for "Breaking Bad" would tally 200 to 300.
"I don't think procedurals are very recap-able because they're all about what happened, not what it meant to the characters," Seitz said. "But 'True Detective' was very recap-able because even though it was a mystery show, it was more about the characters."
Yet, Baldwin said, the sitcom "How I Met Your Mother" did become popular for recaps because it was a serialized story leading to the resolution of its title mystery. Writers also enjoy digging into the deeper meanings of "Louie."
The ever-mysterious "Lost" was one of the first shows that Huffington Post TV critic Maureen Ryan regularly revisited, along with "Battlestar Galactica," when she covered television for the Tribune. (Ryan is still based in the Chicago area.) Her blog/column, The Watcher, strayed from traditional critics' coverage in that instead of writing about a series at the beginning of the season and then devoting her coverage to new TV events/movies/programs, she returned to individual shows throughout the season and tapped into fans' enthusiasm. Her gaudy online numbers demonstrated the benefits.
Even now, Ryan said, "I get far more queries about 'Why aren't you writing about "Game of Thrones" weekly?' than 'Are you writing about (the new) "Gang Related?"'"
Ryan credited Television Without Pity with popularizing recaps and Alan Sepinwall, now HitFix's television critic, with "driving the art form forward, especially with his recaps of 'Deadwood' and 'The Sopranos,' which I was addicted to."
Sepinwall, a self-described "TV junkie," began writing recaps/reviews when he was a University of Pennsylvania undergraduate musing about the previous night's "NYPD Blue" on the campus' Usenet system. Later, when writing about television for the Newark, N.J., newspaper The Star-Ledger, "every time I would write about a show that had already aired, I just noticed the volume of response was so much greater than whenever I wrote an advance review of anything, including a returning popular show," he recalled. "People really wanted to talk about what they already had seen."
Sepinwall doesn't refer to his current work as recaps but "reviews published after the fact" — a point that underscores writers' varying approaches to the form. Sepinwall's work is analytical, usually focusing on key thematic points and then returning for "some other thoughts." Ryan's pieces also include much analysis while feeling conversational, as if she's sharing her personal observations in a lengthy email.
Seitz said of a Vulture recap: "I almost liken it to a performance, like these writers are performers, and they're giving you a performance in print based on the show they're reviewing."
He likened the recapper's role to that of the Japanese benshi, who would offer live narration and interpretation during silent films.
"I'm one kind of benshi, and Alan Sepinwall is another. Maureen Ryan of The Huffington Post is another. Alyssa Rosenberg of The Washington Post is another. You kind of get to choose your benshi."
You also can find plenty of recaps that are strictly that — stultifyingly functional paragraph-by-paragraph recitations of this-happened-then-that-happened. Previously.TV, where Television Without Pity co-founders Ariano and Sarah D. Bunting now toil, has been trying out new recap formats, such as "Particles" (articles broken up into multiple parts using various graphic elements such as screen shots), "Show-O-Matic" (breaking down a particularly formulaic episode in terms of its familiar elements) and "Rankled" (offering rankings and superlatives such as "MVP" and "Best Reaction Shot").
"It's more fun for us to give the reader a more media-saturated experience of the episode than just a narrative write-up, though those are great too," Ariano said.
None of these approaches would work without shows that can spark long conversations from large audiences — as well as the quick ones that take place in real time on Twitter. While Hollywood focuses increasingly on blockbusters and spectacle, networks are producing more serious dramas that tell stories over long arcs, just the kind of series made for lengthy online analyses.
"There's more to engage with (on television)," said Seitz, who also edits the film-related RogerEbert.com site. "Television is no longer something you sort of half watch while you fold your laundry. A lot of it is meant to be watched more than once and discussed and argued about."
Yet are recaps deepening critical thought, or is the purpose more to indulge fans' insatiable appetites for minutiae while traditional criticism wanes?
"To me, it's less critical analysis and more fandom, which is OK," said Steve Jones, communications professor at the University of Illinois at Chicago. "I think it's great that these sites help people get more deeply into stories and be more attentive to what (the shows) are saying. But how much of this goes beyond drilling down into particular episodes and broadens out into larger issues? If you look at the rise of popular criticism since World War II, the trajectory had been an engagement with larger social issues with relation to popular culture. I don't see recappers doing that now."
Ryan acknowledged recaps as "a branding opportunity. It's a way to get people to return to your work, and it's a driver of clicks, and anything that's a driver of clicks online is going to get preferential treatment."
But she said recapping doesn't bring out her best writing, and she has wearied of writing about shows week after week, so she has cut back on the series she recaps.
"My sense from talking to other critics is there's something of a move away from the weekly reviews," she said, noting a growing concern over "seeing the forest through the trees. Sometimes you can lose that ability, and I really like more of a bird's-eye perspective on what's happening on TV."
Said Baldwin: "I don't know that recaps are creating better TV in any way, but they are certainly both benefiting from each other. The television industry benefits when people have to go online and read (recaps). That's a level of engagement (the executives) want. And it's definitely a benefit to us that people want to go somewhere after a show and read theories and talk about it with like-minded fans."
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