In this post by Rich Juzwiak at Gawker, called “Tune In, Recap, Drop Out”, he explains why he’s gotten fed up with writing TV episode recaps: “I want to be a normal person who’s watching TV, not some frantic note-taking instant replayer.” He also provides a sort of potted history of TV recap culture on the internet, and explains how it evolved to its current state, where readers expect TV episodes to be reviewed almost as soon as they air.
There’s a lot of argument over what constitutes a “recap” versus a “review,” though in practice these terms are very flexible – most recaps include some element of reviewing the quality of the episode. (In fact, many of my favourite TV episode reviews are, formally, recaps. The writer recounts the events of the episode step by step, but from his or her own perspective, enabling us to see the virtues of the storytelling or laugh at its now-obvious flaws.) Pure recaps, just telling us what happened, only work for reality shows and soap operas, genres where you need to follow the ongoing storyline but don’t necessarily have to watch every episode.
I have nothing to say against same-day reviews, or the practice of reviewing every episode of a TV series. I don’t do that, and so I’m grateful to and impressed by people who do. Finding something fresh and interesting to say about an episode, without just being snarky or rehashing the plot, is a really impressive achievement. I do get the impression that the glut of episode-by-episode reviews has created – not a backlash exactly, just a new awareness of the form’s limitations: it can sometimes diminish both a serialized show (by trying to evaluate it before the direction of the season has become clear) and an episodic show (because there’s only so much to be said about any given episode; since the episodes are all somewhat similar, reviewing each one inevitably makes it seem like the show is repeating itself endlessly, even if it isn’t). This is the normal process of give and take, and it doesn’t really say anything bad about the future of the recap/review format; when a form proliferates, its limits become clearer, but eventually it finds its proper place in the scheme of things. The episode-by-episode review format has plenty of life left in it.
But what has occurred to me is that the purpose of the episodic review is going through a bit of a transitional phase, related to the transitional phase in TV viewing. When the idea of episodic reviewing took hold on the internet, it was by definition aimed at a minority of viewers: fans. People who made a special effort to watch every episode of a show, or tape the ones they missed. You could watch Buffy without watching or taping it every week, but you couldn’t usually follow a review of an episode you missed. So reviews of a scripted prime-time TV episode (as opposed, again, to soap or reality recaps, which are partly about just getting you caught up) were really supposed to be part of an ongoing discussion among people who had seen the episode. This type of television criticism was distinct from the traditional TV criticism practiced in newspapers. Traditional TV critics would look at a pilot or season premiere and tell us if they thought the show was worth watching, or they’d look at the state of a show or a station as a whole, the way Karl Keller does in the clip below. This new internet-based, fan-oriented criticism was a different animal; like the scripted shows it emphasized, it wasn’t aimed at the casual viewer. It assumed that we already were watching the show, and that we wanted to talk about how it was doing.
Now, however, TV episodes are becoming accessible any time we want them, often (theoretically) for free. We don’t have to record a show to keep up with episodes we missed. It used to be that a TV episode would air and then it’d be gone until the network chose to repeat it. Then, in the era of VCRs and DVRs, it was available to the people who had made a prior decision to record it (or trade for it). But increasingly since the ’00s, an episode is available after it airs “live” even to people who aren’t fans. And that means that a TV episode could become something like a movie, a play, or a book. Why do we read reviews of those things? Sometimes it’s because we’ve seen it and want to get someone else’s perspective on it. But sometimes we read reviews of things we haven’t seen, because we want advice on whether we should see it.
That creates a potential new space for TV episodic criticism: TV episode reviews as consumer guides, just like movie reviews or music reviews. Granted, a review of a TV episode can’t be very momentous, because the investment is so small – usually nothing more than time. (The more something costs us to consume, the more we care about the reviews.) But I can see the possibility that more people will want to know whether that particular episode is worth watching or not: if we haven’t seen it yet, should we? In an uneven show where we like some episodes but not others, is this one of the ones we like (let’s say for example that you hate a particular character and love another; you might watch the episode if it gives a lot of time to the character you love)? Did this episode move the story forward in a compelling way, or did it just leave everything more or less where it was last week? If the reviewer is really enthusiastic about an episode, that could inspire us to watch it; if the reviewer is blah on it, maybe we’ll give it a pass.
All these things are available now in some episodic reviews – the ones that make it a point not to recap every plot detail and to avoid spoilers. (I’m not even going to get into the question of when you’re “allowed” to discuss plot twists in an episode that’s already aired. But in a consumer-guide type of review, spoilers are obviously inadvisable. A large part of the target audience consists of readers who don’t want to know exactly what happens, because they still haven’t made up their mind to watch.) But I wouldn’t be surprised to see them become more common. As fan discussion migrates to other areas of the internet, same-day discussion could wind up finding a new audience of casual fans: a same-day TV episode review could fill the same niche as a same-day review of a film, or a theatre review that’s filed on opening night. A spoiler-free review chronicling the instant reactions of the reviewer and telling the readers whether this is worth their time, with more in-depth thoughts following as the season progresses – the way theatre critics will follow up their insta-reviews with broader, longer pieces examining the state of the theatre in-depth.
It won’t work for every show. Just as detailed recaps don’t work for every show, and not every show lends itself to in-depth analysis of every episode. But it is a form I expect to see more often as we turn into episode-by-episode consumers.