The Origin of "Previously On...?" -

The Origin of “Previously On…?”


“Duncan Kane… he used to be my boyfriend.”

Here’s a question for those with long TV-viewing memories: what was the first show to use the term “Previously on…” when recapping the events of earlier episodes?

It used to be that when a show did a two-parter, they would say something like “Here are scenes from last week’s episode.” Sometimes they’d even have the actor himself introduce the recap: “This is James Garner, and here are some scenes from last week’s episode of The Rockford Files was a common refrain. Or Rod Roddy on Soap would say “In the last episode of Soap…”

The first time I heard “Previously on” was on the second part of a two-part episode of Newhart in the late ’80s. But that’s not where it started; that’s just the first place I heard it.

“Previously” is a very awkward word to use, even if we’re all used to it by now; but it’s the only word they can use: they can’t say “last week” because that doesn’t work when the show goes into syndication, and they can’t say “in the last episode” because most recaps include material from several episodes, not just the last one. So “previously” it is, and we’re stuck with it.

The other question about “Previously”s is which shows do good recaps. Most recaps are as confusing and unhelpful as what they replaced: the thirty-second collections of clips from the episode we’re about to see. (It used to be that if a show was doing a two-parter, they’d have the “coming attractions” trailer before the credits, and the recap after the credits. They saved a lot of time and money by devoting a good chunk of the episode to clips, and it wasn’t even a clip show.) Sometimes they try too hard to fill us in on exposition and backstory that is, or should be, given in the episode itself, like those early Veronica Mars recaps that informed us every week that Duncan used to be Veronica’s boyfriend. But what are some shows where the recaps do a good job of filling us in on what we need to know, without overlapping with information that is contained in the episode?

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The Origin of “Previously On…?”

  1. “Here’s a question for those with long TV-viewing memories: what was the first show to use the term “Previously on…” when recapping the events of earlier episodes?”

    I don’t know for sure, but I think this was used on MacGyver.

  2. I don’t know how good they are, but Damages and Battlestar Galactica certainly seem to devote an awful lot of time to their recaps at the beginning of the show. I usually skip them.

  3. “Previously on Battlestar Galactica” – Cartman in Imagination Land Part II of III

    This is unrelated about your post but what I find is that the “Previously on” segment tends to give away what plot elements of a serial show will be further developed. For instance on The Wire if the segment has Omar in it, you know that the episode is going to feature Omar.

    • I don’t think that’s unrelated at all; that’s a very good point. Sometimes whoever put together the recap will reach back to remind us about a character or story that hasn’t been heavily featured on the show lately — and that’s a tip-off that it’s going to feature prominently tonight. It can sometimes make a plot twist a little less surprising, because we’ve been primed to expect something to happen involving that person.

  4. Battlestar and 24 use the Previously to good effect. Sometimes I already remember all the details, but I find it primes me, brings me back to the emotional state I was at, at the end of the last showing.

  5. They were definitely using it on St. Elsewhere, even though in the earlier seasons they were mixed with the “Tonight on” clips. They also would use clips relevant for the night’s storylines.

  6. I have no idea what the first use would be and it is hard to google.

    The last episode of season 5 of Buffy the Vampire Slayer (‘the Gift’) was an exceptional use of the technique, and it even blended in with the introductory pre-credit scene that followed.

  7. I’m old enough to throw “Hill Street Blues” into the mix. Anybody care to venture earlier than 1981?