Recap by Default: Why Terminology Matters To How We Write About Writing About TV

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In the wake of Brett Martin’s Difficult Men, which itself comes in the wake of Alan Sepinwall’s The Revolution Was Televised, there has been new scrutiny placed on the culture of television criticism. In Ken Tucker and Phillip Maciak’s reviews of Difficult Men—Maciak also covers Sepinwall’s book—they each delve into the culture of “TV recaps” as a rejoinder between the shows being canonized by the authors and the culture with which those shows are being analyzed. It’s an acknowledgement that how we write about television matters, which extends Jaime Weinman’s argument that we are in a “golden age of taking TV seriously.”

In Tucker and Maciak’s reviews we see an interesting crosstalk, where Maciak ably dissects Tucker’s broad dismissal of what Martin refers to as “the strange and telling practice of ‘recapping.’” Tucker picks up Martin’s dismissal and runs with it, expounding on “the challenge of creating diverse aesthetic principles that rise above the Internet’s limited range of extracritical responses, which typically run the gamut from this-is-awesome! blog posts to fitfully edited twelve-thousand-word essays about this or that show’s elaborate ‘mythology.’” While citing a number of—great—critics who are indeed capable of “rising above” the apparent limitations of the form, Tucker largely paints recap culture as the venue for “the adoring gaze of online fanboys and fangirls.”

Maciak picks away at Tucker’s case, not so much disagreeing with his call for more serious television criticism as he is claiming that “the culture of online television commentary has expanded, rather than degraded, our critical culture.” With more space than Tucker to explore the nuances of the current landscape of television criticism, Maciak finds a larger sample of diverse writing about television that ranges in terms of genre, focus, and audience. Rightfully picking away at Tucker’s emphasis on asking “proper artistic questions,” Maciak makes a strong case for how the culture of instant responses to television has proliferated not as a dichotomy of fanboys and obsessives but rather as a spectrum of incredible breadth and depth (even if sometimes in a shorter form than the critics Tucker cites from other media).

It’s a rich conversation, one that reflects some of my own thoughts on the rise of episodic television criticism from a number of years ago. However, it’s also a conversation that bears the mark of our culture’s mass acceptance of “recap” as an acceptable term for this diverse range of ways of writing about television. If Tucker were speaking about the actual practice of night-of “recapping” which manifests as a basic plot rundown with minimal commentary, I agree with his argument; when he extends to the suggestion that most episodic criticism fits under this umbrella term, his argument is reductive. Maciak, meanwhile, goes so far as to acknowledge Matt Zoller Seitz’s use of “overnight review,” but ultimately accepts “recap” as an acceptable term for describing all types of episodic criticism while arguing for the critical capacity of that form.

I have long stood as the standard bearer of drawing a distinction between recaps and reviews, to the point where it’s kind of a joke. I made the distinction initially because I was seeing the work of critics I admired being forcibly labeled as recaps based on the belief from websites that the term was better optimized for search engines. However, over time my concern has grown to pieces like Tucker’s and Maciak’s which beyond the goal of SEO optimization accept the term’s ubiquity (if critically, in Maciak’s case), which was my real concern when considering the web practices of sites like AOL—now Huffington Post—or HitFix. I was the crazy person signaling an alarm bell over something that—while certainly still a first world problem if ever there was one—has had a negative impact on a larger public understanding of television criticism.

While I’d argue Tucker and Maciak’s pieces together represent a productive and ultimately constructive conversation (even if Tucker’s brushstrokes are too broad), today’s Wall Street Journal trend piece from John Jurgensen—entitled “The TV Recappers: From Breaking Bad to Honey Boo Boo”—is more problematic in its claim to be capturing the broader culture of writing about television. While rightfully tracking the lineage of episodic television criticism from its TWoP origins (although oddly addressing neither the fact those recaps are posted days after an episode airs nor the way the site has evolved in a contemporary moment), the article accepts “Recap” and “Recapper” as blanket terms to describe every single form of writing that emerged in what Jurgensen terms a “cottage industry.”

I should acknowledge that it’s not only those writing about TV criticism that have accepted these terms. There are a number of critics I admire who call their episodic criticism recaps; The A.V. Club’s Donna Bowman does it within Jurgensen’s piece, while Andy Greenwald made his own case for using the term on Twitter. Greenwald specifically argues— in a chain of conversation in which Tucker himself drew a distinction between “recapping” and the work of critics he admires—that “I thought it had evolved into signifying just that. No one needs actual recapping.” When Donna or Andy use the term, in other words, they don’t actually mean what Tucker is dismissing in his review of Martin’s book; and yet although Tucker himself would make that distinction, so long as places like The Wall Street Journal are flattening the critical discourse to a legion of recappers the term “recap” does not properly represent the labor of those who are not simply recounting plot details.

The Wall Street Journal piece is frustrating not because it entirely ignores this labor, but rather because it fails to acknowledge that labor in its broader argument. In this paragraph about Donna Bowman’s Breaking Bad coverage, Jurgensen actually never uses the term recap:

A 47-year-old theology professor at the University of Central Arkansas, Ms. Bowman has been dissecting “Breaking Bad” since its debut five years ago on AMC. Her own audience has ballooned with the show’s prestige. During season 1, her weekly reviews garnered a couple of hundred comments each from readers. Her breakdown of last week’s premiere episode (which set a viewership record for the series) received about 3,000 comments the first day. Her posts routinely get more views than anything else on the website paying her to write them, the A.V. Club, a sister publication of the Onion which attracts more than 1 million unique visitors a month.

Instead, we see dissection, and review, and breakdown, and post. All are terms that remove her coverage of the series from the plot-summary driven mode of recapping, and which better reflect the work she is actually doing. And yet Jurgensen’s use of terminology—mirroring Greenwald—implies that these forms of writing all exist within the form of the recap: citing Alex Gansa’s thoughts on episodic criticism, Jurgensen writes that “overall…he says recaps are problematic, like reviewing a novel chapter by chapter,” which acknowledges the potential function of the recap beyond recapping while still encompassing it within the term in the exact same sentence. He even recognizes that “the terminology is divisive,” citing that “though there are plenty of writers who simply run down the events in an episode, often in the style of a snarky stenographer, established critics distance themselves from the word ‘recap.’”

I appreciate Jurgensun acknowledging that this terminological debate exists (Edit: and for expanding on it further on Twitter), as those of us who tilt at windmills occasionally like others to acknowledge those windmills exist, but I reject the suggestion that it exists solely as a way for professional critics to distinguish themselves. I dislike the idea that “recap” is the default term for how people on the Internet write about television, and that writing in a different form is a function of privilege rather than process. The terminological debate does not exist solely so a professional—if part-time—critic like me can distance themselves from plot-based recapping. Yes, part of my issue with the term is seeing sites like The A.V. Club—where I’d argue a diverse range of episodic criticism runs the gamut of critical discourse, with almost all writeups transcending the recap model—lumped in with this mass of episodic criticism; the site’s massive output and its focus on night-of episodic criticism from freelance contributors—rather than “established critics”—place it in the same conversation as factory-based recap culture, and I would argue the mission of the site is very different. It is inevitable that some of my passion for this subject comes from a person belief that what I write is very distinct from a “recap,” and I will not attempt to claim there is not some degree of self-interest in this war of terminology.

However, my larger issue is that Jurgensen is largely thinking of this as a professional practice, when the vast majority of episodic criticism comes from amateur bloggers. While this criticism is less widely read, it represents the larger impact of critics like Sepinwall or sites like Television Without Pity, and it is there where the ubiquity of the term recap feels more problematic. If you’re starting a blog, and if you’re writing episodic criticism, you are by default writing recaps: SEO pressures—if you want your blog to be successful—will push you to label them as recaps, and even if you’re emulating critics who disassociate with the term you don’t have that privilege. It has long been accepted that episodic criticism is the easiest way to break into writing about TV, a quick format that can serve as a gateway to broader forms of critical writing about TV; however, as long as “recap” remains a pejorative term in some circles (and it does, based on Tucker’s use), it places a burden on young writers to overcome expectations of what bloggers do when they write episodic criticism. It forces them to transcend a term applied to them instead of allowing their writing to define itself, a burden that seems both unfair and unproductive to me.

I am open to arguments there are inherent limits on episodic criticism that necessitate other forms of writing about television, so open that I agree completely. However, I would argue that the limits of episodic criticism are not so extensive that they are only transcended by professional critics, and I would also suggest that there remains incredible variation in how episodic criticism is being deployed across the Internet. The idea that one term could encompass all of these forms of criticism is itself strange, which is why my initial crusade for “review” over “recap” was misguided (I’ve come to largely accept “writeup” as a way to capture the basic process while leaving room for variation). Moreover, though, the idea that the one term in question should be a term that has such a clear meaning that other forms of writing must transcend, and that we should then extend this term to bundle together a range of distinct individuals under the single term of “recappers,” feels antithetical to the celebration of variation and diversity we should be emphasizing (and which of the writers in question Maciak best captures).

The Wall Street Journal piece acknowledges the range of people working in television criticism, highlighting not only those who cover Game of Thrones every week but also those like my A.V. Club colleague Carrie Raisler who cover shows like Switched at Birth. It quotes Alan Sepinwall on wishing that the breadth of people writing about television online could also extend to a breadth of different shows getting coverage. Jurgensen is not ignorant to the depth and challenges of television criticism in the current moment, but yet he’s written an article that in its larger framing makes no efforts to reflect how this depth could change how we talk about this form of writing about television. While anyone who reads enough television criticism to be reading my thinkpiece about discourse surrounding television criticism is likely able to fill in the blanks and read between the lines, the headlines and abstracts—and web video segments and radio segments—of articles like Jurgensen’s perpetuate a belief that the illustrated writers in the image at the top of this post sitting in front of their identical laptops are all writing the same kind of article, a type of article able to circumscribed in a trend piece of this nature.

And that is, respectfully but simply, untrue. I acknowledge that any trend piece will flatten a trend, but there is a difference between flattening through generalization and flattening through reduction: if we call them writers instead of recappers, and if we call them writeups instead of recaps, we leave more room for differentiation and are in a better position to acknowledge the great criticism happening within—rather than outside of—the episodic form. Without trying to claim that any grievous harm is being done by articles like Jurgensen’s, and while admitting to being thrilled to see television criticism being discussed at all in this fashion, I remain firm in my belief that how we write about how we write about television matters to the future of writing about television, and in my belief that there is more we could be doing to improve that discourse.

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5 Comments

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5 responses to “Recap by Default: Why Terminology Matters To How We Write About Writing About TV

  1. Interesting piece Myles. I wrote something last summer about the state of TV criticism in general and recapping/reviews in particular that a lot of critics didn’t like at the time: http://sassone.wordpress.com/2012/07/25/and-now-a-few-words-about-tv-critics/

  2. Diana

    I wish someone would write a piece on the actual purpose of the current crop of online television critics. It seems that most spend their time on Twitter conversing with their peers, trying to one up each other with their snarky comments about TV shows and/or others in the business and the online fans. Then there are those that suck up to show runners so they can get exclusives and thus more hits on their sites. This is the nature of the business, I’m sure, and probably no different than the television critics in times before the web existed. I find most television critics extremely annoying (I wonder sometimes of the credentials that make them television experts) and don’t follow any of them, although I’ll admit I read a few of them. As far as recaps, I find them useful for when I do not catch something while watching an episode of a show. I’m a busy person and don’t have time to rewatch television shows so I definitely find them useful.

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