Television becomes recapper's delight

But is trend toward summarizing shows good for culture or criticism?

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'Mad Men'

Jon Hamm and Jessica Pare in "Mad Men." (Frank Ockenfels/AMC / November 17, 2013)

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?"'"

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