Tag Archives: Discourse

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


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.”

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Filed under Television Criticism

On Winter’s Doorstep: An Open Letter to the Game of Thrones Fandom

On Winter’s Doorstep: An Open Letter

April 16th, 2011

One of the features I often try to do for highly serialized and widely covered shows is “____ the Morning After,” in which I create a conversation between various reviews of a single episode of a series the morning after it airs.

Given my interest in the response to HBO’s Game of Thrones, I had thought of doing a “Game of Thrones the Day Before” post to try to capture the pre-air response. However, this was a week ago, well before the internet has quite honestly exploded with reviews of this program (and reviews of those reviews). And with fan sites like Winter is Coming collecting those reviews, and with Matt Zoller Seitz doing yeoman’s work in breaking down the problems with Slate and the New York Times’ problematic reviews (the latter of which has already inspired a wide-ranging discussion of women and fantasy that has galvanized a larger fantasy community), the conversation has more or less already happened.

To be entirely honest with you, it’s a conversation that has surprised me in its voraciousness, although I shouldn’t really be surprised. In general, pre-air reviews are growing passe within this industry, replaced with post-air analysis which more readily allows for reader participation – while a pre-air review will draw conversation from those who have predetermined opinions regarding a project, the real discussion can’t really begin until the reader has actually seen the project in question, and things seem to be moving in that direction as a whole.

Of course, Game of Thrones is a unique example given that the most voracious participants in the pre-air conversation clearly have predetermined opinions about the project. This is understandable: Martin’s books have created dedicated fandoms, fostering a deep connection tested by reviews which actively challenge the legitimacy of the source material. As someone who has also read the books, and considers myself a fan of Martin’s writing style, I completely understand where these readers are coming from, and had similar reactions to those reviews.

However, as evidenced by my post last weekend and some of the Twitter conversations I have been having this week, I have found myself interrogating the fandom and their approach to these reviews. I’ve come to realize that this perhaps seems unfairly critical: the worst behavior has been isolated within a small minority, and it is equally important to call attention to those reviewers who have shown contempt for fantasy as a genre or fans in general.

Though this is true, I want to make clear that my criticism comes out of concern, not out of distaste. While the response to pre-air reviews may be understandable, I think the intensity of that response has brushed up against one of the biggest problems with pre-air reviews. Essentially, the reviewer and the commenters are coming from two completely different places: the reviewer has seen the show, and the commenter has not. While this does not mean that commenters are unable to take issue with the nature of the review, one can’t escape the fact that the situation is predicated on a dichotomy between a critic with access and fans following (comparatively) blind devotion to the source material.

I want to take a moment ahead of tomorrow night’s premiere to contextualize my concern, and to emphasize the value of this fan passion in the week ahead – we sit at an important turning point, one that will empower the fans who have been anticipating the show for a very long time, and I do not want my concern to prohibit the kind of discussion that I feel this fandom and this show should inspire.

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Filed under Game of Thrones