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The golden age of TV recaps

posted by Tim Carmody   Aug 03, 2018

I have mixed feelings about The Ringer’s enormous ranking of the 100 best TV shows of the century (so far), but I’ve enjoyed some of the accompanying material. In particular, I like Alison Herman’s essay on the rise, fall, and metastasis of TV recap culture in the late 90s and early 2000s. Regardless of whether you believe the premise that time was a golden age of television, it was almost certainly the golden age of TV recaps.

Part of the reason now-classic episodes like Mad Men’s “The Suitcase,” Breaking Bad’s “Ozymandias,” or The Sopranos’ finale are remembered as such is because recappers were there to register their amazement and enumerate the reasons why those hours had the power to shock and surprise. “Sopranos and Mad Men are two of the best shows to write recaps of, because they’re so dense and laden with meaning and subtext and symbolism,” [Alan] Sepinwall explains. “You get to really dive in deep with, Well, what does all that mean? What was the show trying to say?” This would prove a common theme of the rise of recapping: More was being written about TV because, in many critics’ minds, there was more to write about. As for viewers, they got the message that neither TV criticism nor TV itself was a one-way street. Television didn’t have to be talked about as an investment to be made or checked in on, but as it was actually experienced: as a regular, consistent part of our lives.

Herman’s genealogy hits some of the usual suspects (Television Without Pity, The Onion’s AV Club, Gossip Girl) while also giving time to some lesser-traveled corners of the recaposphere, like Mad Style, the Mad Men fashion recap series that helped spawn similar specialist takes on other costume-heavy shows.

But the arc in general is pretty familiar: a few pioneers (both TV shows and the people who recap them) help establish the parameters of style, before a glut of content and commentary made the form less coherent and universal. Streaming and social led to a deemphasis of the episode as a unit and the recapper as an authority. Production, distribution, and reception all fundamentally changed. (So did the blogosphere and the broader cultural media universe, which maybe gets shortchanged some in Herman’s account.)

And maybe the Recap Age was all a little too ponderous and self-serious, especially when it came to “jokes.” Some of it doesn’t age well. But it’s a time when a lot of exciting things were happening, not least on the television set, and it’s one I still miss.