If I could change one element of modern television criticism, it would be the notion that recap and review are synonyms.
To clarify, I have no issue with recaps or the people who write them: there is a place within the online television community for outright plot recaps with a touch of personality, the kind of writing which led to Television Without Pity’s prominence earlier in the decade and which continues as part of the offering of sites like Give Me My Remote. However, as parts of this diverse community have moved in a more critical direction, the term recap has remained predominant despite no longer accurately describing a substantial amount of writing within the field.
While you may argue that this is doing no harm, and I am simply arguing semantics, it’s something that has been bothering me for quite some time. As a result, I want to put in writing why I think this is happening, and why I feel that it obfuscates the contributions being made to the critical community by both critics and bloggers alike.
I think it’s safe to (facetiously) say that this is all the fault of Television Without Pity, who made “Recap” a ubiquitous term at the turn of the century. Earlier this year, I was working on a paper for a conference and asked an open question on Twitter about whether or not TWoP’s recaps should be considered “criticism,” and the majority response was “No.” This wasn’t intended as a slight, but rather as a way to distinguish between the kinds of writing being done about television online. The TWoP recaps are snarky retellings of the episode, operating as an extensive summary of the action with the author’s personality and critical perspective informing their language more than driving their content.* Recaps are about attitude, and while the author’s critical opinion will affect that attitude the recaps are not designed to elaborate on or establish that opinion: first and foremost, they are there to allow the reader to either relive the episode or catch up on the series in question.
*Edit: As Twitter followers may have seen, I had an extended discussion with Linda Holmes and Tara Ariano about their time with TWoP. As Linda notes, TWoP recaps do serve a function similar in criticism, in that links and cultural references and other connections made in the midst of those recaps can expand on a reader’s viewing experience – in other words, they do drive “Content” (in contradiction to part of the above paragraph), but they don’t necessarily drive structure, which I think is the word I was searching for in trying to chart their influence on the semantics of the “Recap.” While I plan to write more about TWoP and its relationship with criticism in the future, I will say that I think the ubiquity of “Recap” to describe far less critical forms of writing than TWoP’s example has retroactively undersold those recaps. Anyways, as noted, more on that in the future.
However, as Jaime Weinman wrote yesterday, we are in “a golden age of taking [television] seriously:” while TWoP did not take television lightly, it focused primarily on appealing to fan communities, while today’s critics are engaging in what Weinman calls “in-depth critical discussion.” Writing about television is more substantive than ever before, as shows like Mad Men almost require analysis which goes beyond the plot itself to its meaning for character and narrative, which in turn pushes writers (both amateur and professional) into territory which goes far beyond any sort of recap. While you could argue that reviews of this nature offer something close to a plot recap, in that writers often contextualize their commentary by recounting the action of the episode as a point of reference, their primary function is to offer an opinion which offers additional context for the reader.
And yet, the term “Recap” has remained tied to these types of posts despite the fact that there is a clear differentiation between actual recaps and this kind of analysis. There are two key reasons for this, the first of which is simply how ubiquitous TWoP and other sites like it were in terms of post-air episodic writing: before Alan Sepinwall (now at HitFix) really shifted his weight in that direction, the recap was the only medium operating within this space, so even as “reviews” become a more prominent discourse they are still strongly associated with the originating term.
The second reason, meanwhile, is a bit of cyclical logic. The term recap remains associated with reviews because websites who are looking to draw search engine users to their website buy into the above logic and continue to use the term despite the growing anachronism. You can see this particular issue at work with Maureen Ryan’s writing at her new home, AOL Television’s TV Squad: no one can argue that Ryan writes recaps, as her analysis is always evaluative, but the site’s Search Engine Optimization (SEO) policy seems to dictate that the title of every post play into what they feel people are searching for. Basically, the argument is that since people search for recaps, and because the site as a whole focuses on recaps as opposed to reviews, Ryan’s pieces should be titled according to those expectations.
I understand the desire for unity, with “Show Title/Season #/Episode #/ Recap” being standard across the board, but I can’t help but feel that this undersells the work that Ryan and other critics are doing. This isn’t limited to AOL, just to be clear: HitFix, who I’ve written for in the past, has a similar policy which categorized Todd VanDerWerff’s Breaking Bad criticism or Ryan McGee’s Mad Men criticism (from the pre-Sepinwall era) as recaps alongside coverage of Big Brother (which, just to be clear, constitutes true recaps). What bothers me about the blanket use of “Recap” is that it creates the impression that examples of complex television criticism are simply elaborate recaps, that the primary function of any post-air analysis is to tell readers what happened and that anything else is just “extra.” Readers know that some posts go far beyond this title, as would first-time readers who stumble across these posts looking for a recap, so the decision to maintain a misleading title is indicative of the level of entrenchment that the term “recap” has within this industry rather than the content itself.
I think there is skill to writing an entertaining recap, as TWoP proved quite clearly, but I think that it takes a different set of skills to write engaging television criticism, which is why I am so resistant to the term “Recap” being applied to this kind of work. While it is true that many sites are (thankfully) allowing “recap” authors to engage in more substantial critical discourse, expanding far beyond recapping the episode in question, the fact remains that they are labeling that work with a title which limits the appearance of their contribution to that discourse – I will readily admit that I am less likely, as a reader, to click on something labeled as a recap than that which is labeled as a review. Ideally, writers’ work will be evaluated on its content, which would imply that labels don’t matter, but if content is what truly matters why is their writing labeled with a term which undersells that content and potentially keeps away the people who would be most interested in reading it?
If the argument is based on SEO, forgive me if I’m a little bit disappointed: considering how far television criticism has come as an art form, I hate the idea that we are avoiding reflecting that growing complexity in order to pull in more stats from Google. I understand that drawing in readers is important, but if the content you’re offering is a review as opposed to a recap, pull in those readers who want to read reviews instead of tricking those who want something more akin to what TWoP has to offer. Be honest to the people reading your content, and fair to the people writing it, and I think the critical community will be better for it.
And so, in a perfect world, big sites like TV Squad and HitFix, along with smaller sites influenced by their example, would allow the labels of their television coverage to be mandated first and foremost by content – call it a recap if the author in question has written one, by all means, but if someone is going beyond the recap to offer something different it should be reflected in how that piece is sold to readers. This isn’t some sort of demand, nor would I ever stop reading these sites or any others for such an issue, but it’s nonetheless something that I feel could quite easily be changed in order to better reflect the strength of today’s critical community.
- This issue technically bleeds into the whole question of pre-air reviews, which in some cases are considered the only “Review” one should do for a series (the ones counted on Metacritic, the ones which turn up in Google, etc.); that’s a rant for another day (although there’s a preview in my post about the whole Mad Men screener issue).
- There was some discussion on Twitter regarding analysis which has no evaluative element but which goes beyond plot description: in those instances, I think “Criticism” is a nice blanket term for that writing, in that it may not review the content but it certainly offers a critical perspective.
- This is somewhat of a tangent, but I’ve seen some argue that some shows simply don’t lend themselves to reviews. It seems like that decision (generally speaking) comes down to the series’ genre as well as its fanbase, which seems inadequate since it would discount a show like Huge which is trapped in the teen drama genre with a fanbase not often associated with critical conversations. For more insight into this process, check out The A.V. Club’s list of series being covered this fall, which is expansive and presents unique insight into their selection process (Weinman’s piece also has more on this process, with his discussion of NCIS).
- Along those lines, Monsters of Television (a fledgling site) makes a distinction between recaps and reviews, although Noel Kirkpatrick (one of their writers) acknowledges that the distinction between them is pretty slippery at times – I applaud them for making the distinction, which is what I’m really asking for here, and will readily admit that this isn’t a black and white issue (which is why I’m writing this post in the first place).
- I’ll be talking a lot more about criticism later this month, as I’ll share my Position Paper from the FlowTV Conference and offer some context for the roundtable discussion I will be participating in surrounding this subject, so stay tuned.