Do TV recaps make us feel less alone?

Dawson's Creek, surprisingly, was where TV recapping as a genre was started. TBH there is a lot to say about Joey's sandals right there.

Dawson's Creek, surprisingly, was where TV recapping as a genre was started. TBH there is a lot to say about Joey's sandals right there.

If you download, stream, binge on, or actually, you know, watch any TV show these days then you probably enjoy the odd episode recap. But as recaps become as ubiquitous as instagrams of jorts, have we reached saturation point? And, what is the point anyway?

The  TV episode recap slyly began on the website Television Without Pity more than a decade ago. The writers recapped Dawson's Creek - impressive, considering the show, earnest and cheesy though it was, could also be oddly precise about the inner lives of adolescents. TWoP articulated the clash of shame and bittersweet resonance you likely felt after watching an episode. So instead of getting drunk in the shower to deal with your feels, you could simply log on and nod in united pathos.

This is why recaps provide such solace: they explain what we're still too moved or embarrassed, (or, occasionally, confused) in the moment to explain to ourselves. To read a recap is cathartic, to comment on one – divine. If it’s guilty pleasure TV, whether it's The Voice, or My Kitchen Rules, or anything we begin watching ironically but soon fall hard for, the recapper's job is to let us know we're not alone in our ambivalence. Look at how Pedestrian TV’s recap of Celebrity Apprentice back in 2011 executed this perfectly, when writer Ash expressed how Pauline Hanson won us over.

We need recaps to make our way through the layers of <i>Mad Men</i>, and all of our feelings.

We need recaps to make our way through the layers of Mad Men, and all of our feelings.

'Maybe I like Pauline Hanson? you wonder ... All the while you're fist pumping and yelling "you tell 'em babe!" and you have no idea if you're being sarcastic or not.'


The joke is not only funny but it pertains to the show. And this is all a matter of taste but recappers should be translaters before anything else; witty, sure, but only to service the translation. If a recapper wants to trot out a stand-up routine that conflates the series with their personal life, they should try an open mic night. Of course, there are some who love exactly that about recaps, but I ain't one of them. I don't care that Jaime Lannister on Game of Thrones makes your goblet overfloweth, just give me your best approximation of how he justifies his (incestuous, merciless) lifestyle. If you've read the books, so much the better, because I want an expert in GOT not a 'humour' writer who dabbles in TV. Look at how eloquently Grantland's Andy Greenwald does this each week, with his soaring recaps of GoT that match the tone of the sprawling series.

Which brings us to the secondary function of recaps: explaining the subtext, and often, the psychology behind each scene, something that did not really reach a tipping point until The Sopranos in 1999. The series carried a thin membrane of a theme; it was called The Mafia, but the show was not just about the mob. Underpinning the crime and dysfunctional familial relationships were motifs of psychological warfare, class, power, patriarchy, culture, spirituality and existentialism. It demanded crib notes. Because a cigar in the hands of Tony Soprano was never just a cigar.

Breaking Bad ... where recaps often included discussions of morality, the anti-hero and the end of men.

Breaking Bad ... where recaps often included discussions of morality, the anti-hero and the end of men. Photo: AMC

This show and the ones that followed like The Wire, Breaking Bad, Homeland and comedies such as Community and 30 Rock called for analysis as sharp as the series’ writers. One of the greats was Logan Hill who recapped Mad Men over at NYMag. Veteran recapper Matt Zoller Seitz has replaced him and he does a great job but his analysis is more cinematic, less psychological.

In fact it was Seitz who two years ago dismissed his recaps as gossamer - and yet he admitted there is still an art to dissecting the episodes that now resemble the great literary works of our time, stuffed full of these nuanced moments.

And this subtext has never been hotter. For example, it's no accident that men literally stand at the margins of scenes on the deliberately matriarchal Orange is the New Black. It's no accident that above Frank Underwood's head in his office on House of Cards hangs this photo of President Lyndon Johnson, a southern Democrat who knew how to get shit done by bullying – and betraying - his constituents.

A campy photo of the <i>Orange is the New Black</i> cast.

A campy photo of the Orange is the New Black cast.

Mad Men douses itself in so much subtext the underlying themes often threaten to overshadow the show. But that’s exactly what fans love about it as The New Yorker’s TV critic Emily Nussbaum explains, ‘[Mad Men’s] strength is still the way it relishes lingering and withholding, forcing the audience to gaze at endlessly interpretable images.'

Isn’t that the great pleasure of recaps? That each scene is endlessly interpretable, not just by the recapper but by all of us? Except when a recapper simply retells with scant interpretation. And unfortunately I'm looking at you, Lainey Gossip writers.

However, not every show is recappable. We don't need a recap of Veep. We don't need a recap of NCIS because the subtext is thin and the 'ironic viewing' quotient is low.

The Sopranos. Vale James Gandolfini.

The Sopranos. Vale James Gandolfini.

But, recaps will not ever reach saturation point because every story only improves through sharing - it's the basis of ritual, of every ancient tale ever told around a fire and, in the final analysis, what separates us from those goons who say they don’t watch TV.