Recaps as Art

I’ve made kind of a game out of trying to figure out how much useful information the “Previously on…” recaps can actually tell you.

This impromptu social experiment came to me thanks to a job that had me watching a whole slew of shows that I previously hadn’t cared about, like the CW’s reboot of 90210. After watching twenty seconds of the characters’ anguished yelling, I still had no clue who anybody was, just some vague sense that some people were mad at each other and some other people slept with each other. Which I had already assumed going in.

At their best, this random series of events from yesterweek just tells you what the episode you’re about to watch will be about. At worst, they leave you trying to figure out why everyone was so worked up instead of actually watching the show.

I want to say the recap sequence has jumped the shark, but looking back, I’m not sure they’ve ever been that good. The West Wing used to have weeks where the whole recap just features characters introducing themselves, and my personal favorite comes from an episode of Stargate SG-1 where they spend thirty seconds showing the team shooting bad guys and closing big doors.

What’s different now is that recaps are everywhere, thanks to our world of plot arcs and weekly cliffhangers. Having a recap on every episode is a sign that you’ve got a deep and intricate show, and nobody bothers to ask if we actually need them.

Let’s go back to 90210. Even without a grounding in the characters’ history, I realized I didn’t really need one to follow what was going on; watching the episode itself was a form of discovery. Likewise, I saw about half of Gossip Girl’s first season before abandoning it for abandoning it for three years; when I returned, I was surprised at how easily I slipped back into what was going on. And where I needed a reminder — for instance, I’d completely forgotten who Eric was — I could hop in Wikipedia and get a much more informative answer.

I see two lessons here. One is that technology is making the recap obsolete in the same way it’s made serialized TV easy in the first place. Television is the medium that lets you tell a 100-hour story, because you can break it up into hourlong blocks. It’s taken a good 50 years to realize that potential because even your most devoted followers can’t be in front of the TV every week. But now we’ve left behind the days when missing an episode meant waiting and hoping for a rerun in order to to see what happened, what with DVRs and Hulu and a DVD coming out.

But I think the real problem is in our heads. Characters always have a history that goes back before the program begins, and writers aren’t going to limit themselves to

writing about stuff that’s already been mentioned in the show. We’re never going to know everything that happened to them. I think that’s why some of television’s most hardcore serialized shows, your Mad Men or The Wire, don’t bother with recaps and just drop you into the action.

Television is changing fast, and it’s still learning to deal with all the shiny new ways to get your show in front of people’s eyes. There aren’t many shows out there trying to truly revolutionize storytelling — which is fine, as there’s plenty more looking for ways to perfect the old school. Glee, for instance, actually has a narrator tell you what’s been going on, which at least makes the recap comprehensible and kind of fun. Of course, most of the show’s dialogue is so painfully on the nose that the recap ends up feeling pointless anyway. But I’ll take what I can get.

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