When Alan Sepinwall was a college student in the mid-1990s, the internet was still more of an eccentric hobby than an all-consuming entity. Mosaic, the early browser, wasn’t commercially available yet; without mainstream accessibility or organizing institutions, the web was still atomized, a place for obsessives and explorers. It’s unsurprising, then, that one of its earliest communities was centered on Star Trek, the geek staple and decades-old TV franchise. A dabbler in early discussion system Usenet, Sepinwall stumbled on the work of Tim Lynch, a Los Angeles science teacher who spent his free time penning episode-by-episode rundowns of The Next Generation, Deep Space Nine, and Voyager. “I would read these and think, ‘Wow. You can break down TV shows by episode?’” Sepinwall remembers. “I never thought about doing that.”
Over the following decades, Sepinwall, now the TV critic for Rolling Stone, would make a name for himself based on similar writings — first focusing on Steven Bochco and David Milch’s groundbreaking police drama NYPD Blue, and then on The Sopranos, The Shield, and other Golden Age staples. At the time, artistic excellence on television was largely viewed as a happy accident, and scrutinizing it on a chapter-by-chapter basis was essentially unheard of, but so was a world connected at almost every level by an invisible web. The ascendance of television as a medium worth analyzing in detail is inextricable from the rise of the internet, which gave fans the infrastructure to meet and talk to one another in real time. “What I was seeing online was that there were a number of fans out there that were building these websites that were devoted to these amazing theories,” recalls Jeff Jensen, who wrote a series of popular, quasi-Talmudic Lost recaps under the nickname “Doc” as a writer for Entertainment Weekly. “I was like, I’ve never built a website like that, but I think like this!”
More than 20 years later, the practice of methodically working through an episode of television and then posting it online has both a name and a hallowed place in the history of the medium. The recap, as it’s now known, starts from a simple, user-friendly premise: What if, instead of simply telling viewers whether or not they should spend their time on a show before it even airs, a writer tracked a program’s ups and downs for the people who’d already made that commitment? It’s an intuitive idea — deceptively so, given the recap’s enormous impact on how we watch, discuss, and think about television. Before the recap, TV criticism was wedded to the limitations of print: one-sided, wed to production deadlines, with finite real estate. After, recaps took on the character of the platform that hosted them: reactive, expansive, and democratic, collapsing the line between writer and reader, or even critic and artist, into something much blurrier than it was before.
But a product so of its time is especially vulnerable to change, and both television and the internet have changed considerably since the recap’s heyday in the mid-aughts. The streaming model, with its seasons designed to be binged on one’s own schedule rather than watched live as a collective, has made the recap less essential as a place to process a show’s events until the next installment airs. Social media has supplanted comments sections as a meeting site for like-minded enthusiasts. The sheer volume of Peak TV has winnowed the number of shows with a following large and dedicated enough to merit a recap down to a handful of blockbusters and prestige stalwarts.
But if, as the old saying goes, journalism is the first draft of history, recaps are the first draft of an updated understanding of TV. 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,” 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.
In 1998, writers Tara Ariano and Sarah D. Bunting launched a fan site for WB teen drama Dawson’s Creek, titled Dawson’s Wrap, in partnership with tech master David T. Cole; by 2002, they had widened their focus to nearly three dozen shows, from Survivor to The Sopranos, under the name Television Without Pity. (In between, the site briefly went by the name Mighty Big TV.) True to the site’s origins in tracking a broadcast hit about hormonal high-schoolers, Television Without Pity was fundamentally democratic in its sensibility, covering The Apprentice and The West Wing alike. Unlike the near-instant reaction time readers now expect from the form, the site’s posts could run more than a dozen pages long, and would often go up on the site nearly a week after the episode in question initially ran. At the time, there was no competition to pressure them into a race; besides, the recaps were often engaging enough to serve as an attraction in their own right.
Which isn’t to say the site was undiscerning. Its slogan was “Spare the Snark, Spoil the Networks,” its mascot a television set with devil horns and a pointed tail. Ariano and Bunting themselves were harshly critical of Dawson’s Creek, their original muse. “We’re supposed to identify with a character who, on his best day, is an obnoxious, self-absorbed twit,” Bunting told The New York Times in 2002. (Ariano and Bunting declined an interview for this piece.) “It’s easy to think, ‘They’re getting angry at a fictional character,’” says Linda Holmes, a former Television Without Pity writer who now works for NPR and hosts its popular podcast Pop Culture Happy Hour. “Which seems like an odd thing to get excited about, until you realize that really what they’re [saying] is, ‘Here’s the behavior that this show is coding as romantic or heroic or admirable, and in fact, it’s something else.’ To do that, you wind up going off on how a character is acting like a jerk, but really what you’re doing is, you’re identifying story points in a piece of popular fiction, and how they’re being coded in a way that’s very weird and arguably inappropriate.”
In other words, Television Without Pity took television seriously enough to get mad at it, a deceptively populist approach that led it to become the internet’s first comprehensive home for discussion of all things TV. In hindsight, Holmes credits the site with evangelizing “the very idea of taking seriously the messaging and the quality of things that were popular. In the same way that I enjoyed reading Roger Ebert reviews of Dirty Dancing or whatever, I enjoyed people who looked at [a thing] that, yes, it was popular, and sometimes it was for fun, but you can still break it down and say, ‘Here’s what’s good about it, here’s what’s not so good about it, and here’s the weird underlying ethic of the world that this thing exists in.’”
For Television Without Pity, prestige was the exception, not the norm. Holmes’s first assignment for the site was covering The Amazing Race, the globe-trotting competition show executive-produced by Jerry Bruckheimer. When shows like The West Wing, the brainy, idealistic White House drama written in the unmistakable voice of screenwriter Aaron Sorkin, began to make waves, the site’s editors were initially concerned with how to fold it into Television Without Pity’s ethos. “Originally, a lot of what the recaps were was they were supposed to be fun and funny,” Holmes says. “They were breaking down scenes and tropes and things like that, but they also contained jokes. So the idea that you would write something that contained jokes about a really serious show like The West Wing, or a really earnest show like The West Wing, was a different proposition than making jokes about Dawson’s Creek, for example.” With a bit of recalibration, the site managed to incorporate high-minded Emmy bait alongside pure entertainment.
A few years into the existence of Television Without Pity, Sepinwall launched a recap site of his own, with a single author but similarly expansive ambitions. His Usenet NYPD Blue recaps had helped land him a postcollegiate gig as a critic at the Newark Star-Ledger, where he had initially dabbled with episodic coverage in a column called Sopranos Rewind. Restless after nearly a decade at the paper, housebound with a toddler, and frustrated with the limitations of the newspaper’s rudimentary website, Sepinwall started a site called What’s Alan Watching? using the Blogspot platform in the fall of 2005. Inspired by a procrastination tactic wherein Sepinwall would call other TV critics to discuss what they’d watched the night before, he decided to write his musings down in order to share them more efficiently: “At a certain point, I realized, there’s a written version of that, and it goes back to the stuff I used to do with NYPD Blue, and these things I do periodically with The Sopranos and a couple of other shows.”
The stalwarts of What’s Alan Watching? were a who’s who of weighty dramas, with an occasional personal favorite like Chuck thrown in to remind readers the blog was the result of individual taste. Battlestar Galactica, Breaking Bad, The Wire, Deadwood, and Friday Night Lights all earned weekly reviews, with sitcoms and reality series largely absent — not out of any disdain on Sepinwall’s part, but because lighter shows proved less conducive to his preferred brand of close read. “I definitely had fun doing recaps of every episode of some comedies, but at a certain point, even a great one like 30 Rock, I remember realizing, all I’m doing every week is listing the jokes I liked and the jokes I didn’t, and that’s not really interesting to anybody,” he says. “I realized the audience seemed to like it best when I was really digging in deep. They wanted more of the quality over quantity.”
A third epicenter of what came to be known as “recap culture” — the diverse ecosystem of writers and commenters that flourished across a constellation of sites — arose in 2007, when Chicago-based site The A.V. Club, an offshoot of The Onion focused on arts and culture, started running its own series of recaps collectively branded TV Club. “Their original idea was, We’re only going to recap shows that are worth recapping,” explains Todd VanDerWerff, who ran TV Club from 2010 until his departure for Vox in 2014. Under VanDerWerff’s tenure, TV Club began to expand its purview from such a limiting initial mandate — “worth,” after all, is a highly subjective term. At the same time, reader pressure pushed the site to include fan favorites like The Big Bang Theory and My Name Is Earl, eventually turning TV Club into one of the most comprehensive recap sites around, running reviews of Switched at Birth alongside those of HBO staples like Girls. This combination of omnivorous tastes and quick turnaround times would set the precedent for countless other publications’ entertainment coverage, from competing online hubs like New York’s pop culture vertical Vulture to print stalwarts like Entertainment Weekly and Time to brand-new upstarts like Refinery29. The Television Without Pity model of lovingly roasting trashy weeknight staples and the Sepinwall model of poring over hallowed Sunday shows were no longer mutually exclusive. They had merged, and multiplied.
Before Lost premiered in 2004, Jensen was an avowed fan of what he calls “mystery serials,” the mythology-heavy, deliberately opaque narratives that Lost cocreator J.J. Abrams famously likened to a “mystery box” from his childhood. Jensen’s favorite shows included Twin Peaks, The X-Files, and Abrams’s previous effort Alias, which Jensen would obsess over with his Entertainment Weekly coworkers, sending them lengthy emails with “these really crazy theories about what’s really going on in SD-6, what was really happening with Rambaldi, and all of that.” By the time Lost came on the air, “There was something missing in the pop culture that I always really enjoyed. I was looking for that next X-Files, that next Alias to obsess over. I was the target market for something like Lost, and just really got into it.”
It wasn’t until late in the show’s second season, however, that Jensen started to share his theorizing for public consumption, first as a column dedicated to speculation and then as a recap that combined a functional synopsis with Jensen’s signature style, which blended allusions, infectious enthusiasm, and fine-tooth-comb scrutiny to yield lengthy, discursive dispatches. (A randomly selected sample draws connections between Lost and Harry Potter, the Coen brothers’ A Serious Man, and the biblical parable of Cain and Abel.) “The word I keep coming back to with these things is ‘personal,’” Jensen says now. “I’d get a new episode, and then I would watch it a couple times, and then things would strike me. Some allusion, some references that were obviously made, some things that I was maybe seeing or reading into or projecting upon. Then I would just sit in front of my computer, and this is what would come out.”
Jensen also had little interest in a more straightforward recapping style, which he’d done some of in Lost’s first season — quick, thousand-word posts for EW’s website. “After a long day of work, the idea of coming home, watching TV, and then staying up until the wee hours of the morning writing a recap summary of a TV show that is mostly gonna be read by people who watch that show? I resented that work,” Jensen laughs. “I was like, We all watched the show! Why do you need me to tell you what happened?” So he put his own spin on the template — easy to do at that point, because the template was so new. “One of the reasons why the Lost recaps took the form that they did from me was something perhaps a little petulant,” Jensen says. “Which was, if I’m gonna do this, I’m gonna have to do it in a way that excites me or interests me or is just me. Engaging the text of the show with my personality and my geeky lenses was a way to do that.” It was also a way of drawing a like-minded readership, a textbook case of what became one of the fundamental laws of recapping: The voice of the recapper could be an attraction in and of itself, earning devotees that echoed the recappers’ own interest in their chosen show.
Just as Sepinwall ran What’s Alan Watching? while still working full time at the Star-Ledger, Jensen balanced his recapping duties with writing and reporting industry stories for Entertainment Weekly’s flagship magazine. As an entertainment journalist, he covered Lost as a professional subject, conducting set visits and interviewing its creative team, even as he enthusiastically dissected it as a fan. Mostly, Jensen’s relationship with co-showrunners Damon Lindelof and Carlton Cuse was strictly professional, though his access had its benefits: “I would oftentimes shoot them an email that said, ‘Here’s my latest crazy theory.’ Then they would usually respond, if they responded at all, with something like, ‘That’s really interesting, Jeff. You might be right. You’re probably wrong.’”
Still, creators’ ability to access feedback to their work in real time, not all of it complimentary and much of it from anonymous commenters, could lead to some friction, something Jensen experienced firsthand. After panning “Adrift,” a widely disliked second-season episode, Jensen heard from an unhappy Lindelof, who would years later quit Twitter over persistent backlash to the series finale. The two eventually made their peace; so not-hard are the feelings that Jensen and Lindelof have since formed a professional relationship, collaborating on 2015’s Tomorrowland.
Not all creator-recapper interactions went so smoothly. Sorkin was so piqued by online nitpicking that he dedicated an entire third-season episode of The West Wing to lambasting LemonLyman.com, a fictional fan site not-so-loosely based on Television Without Pity. “To be honest, we felt like we had sort of made it,” Holmes recalls. “The episode included all of these comments about women in muumuus smoking Parliaments, and we took a little bit of umbrage at that. But at the same time, there was also this reaction of, This dude burned an entire B plot because he was upset with us!”
Jessica Pressler and Chris Rovzar, meanwhile, got to live out what Pressler calls “every recapper’s dream”: getting a cameo, as themselves, on the show they had dedicated years to covering. Pressler and Rovzar, then bloggers at New York’s news blog Daily Intelligencer, are the creators of the Gossip Girl Reality Index, a highly unscientific system for evaluating the verisimilitude of a show that may have been a patently ridiculous CW teen drama, but also positioned itself as a chronicler of pre-recession New York whose guest stars included the publisher of Simon & Schuster. A representative sample of the Index’s omniscient snark: “‘The New York Times — they’ve chosen me for a Night Out With,’ boasts Blair. This is laughably inaccurate. A moderately prominent Upper East Side teenager? She’s way too famous for that column. Minus 3.”
Even before their appearances in the final season, Pressler and Rovzar enjoyed a symbiotic relationship with the show. “Details were such a part of what [creators Josh Schwartz and Stephanie Savage] were interested in,” Pressler says. “They wanted to create these cultural moments, and a lot of that was embedding these Easter eggs into the show. And we were sitting there cataloging all of them. So it was a really good marriage of things, where we were looking for those details about New York City and they were putting them in there, not really for us, though it eventually sort of became for us.”
“Us,” in this case, means not just Pressler and Rovzar but their vibrant community of commenters, from whom the two would crowdsource a weekly parallel Index composed solely of reader contributions. “What resonated about it, in retrospect, is that, when you’re watching a TV show, you notice all these little details,” Pressler says. “The connection you have with a recap audience is just that you both are noticing those things.” And Index commenters quickly realized this was something they had in common not just with the recappers, but with each other: “It was like Cheers or something. It was a place for like-minded souls to congregate, its own little safe space for people who loved Gossip Girl.” Pressler even heard about relationships that began in the comments section.
Commenter community was also a crucial component of Television Without Pity. Holmes herself began as a poster on the site’s active discussion forums while working full time as an attorney in Minneapolis; as a writer, she was tasked with moderating her own comments, which Television Without Pity acquired a reputation for doing strictly and without hesitation. “We took a lot of pride in really tightly controlling what happened in order to keep people from being nasty to each other, or nasty to us,” Holmes says. “I think because we had a lot of rules, it allowed some people who were comfortable with that to have good discussions it was hard for them to have in other places.” It’s a far cry from comments sections’ current reputation as ungovernable cesspools.
As recaps became increasingly popular, some writers turned to more specific angles than simply tracking a show’s creative ups and downs. Married bloggers Tom Fitzgerald and Lorenzo Marquez have been commenting on pop culture and fashion at their namesake site for more than a decade. By Mad Men’s fourth season, which aired in 2010, the recap-industrial complex was in full effect, with no show more nitpicked than the 1960s workplace drama. “From the earliest days of the show, Mad Men was wildly overwritten [about] and overanalyzed,” Fitzgerald says, including by the blogging duo themselves, who wrote general reviews of the show’s second and third volumes. During an interseason lull, however, Fitzgerald and Marquez decided to follow the enterprising content creator’s credo: Create your own peg, preferably with a perspective that no one else can replicate.
Fitzgerald and Marquez have backgrounds in film as well as fashion and had written prolifically about both, but they had never combined them into a single approach before. First, they considered doing a Top 10 Betty Draper Looks list to kill time until the Season 4 premiere; then, they realized that virtually every character on Mad Men, particularly the female ones, could benefit from a similar approach. “We could see the depth of the work being done there,” Fitzgerald says — thanks to their knowledge of not just fashion design, but even more Mad Men–specific subjects like advertising and midcentury styles. Fitzgerald’s mother was even named Peggy.
And thus the series known as Mad Style was born, taking an informed and admiring microscope to the Emmy-nominated work of costume designer Janie Bryant. The column started with a meditation on Don Draper’s fashionable mistress Bobbie Barrett, worked its way through virtually the entire female cast, and when new episodes resumed, examined each individual episode through the lens of what each character was wearing and what it revealed about their state of mind or status in the world. In the process, they shone a light on an underappreciated art and offered a new avenue into an overexposed one. “The work that goes into how people look on screen — it’s not just picking out outfits, or making them look pretty,” Fitzgerald says. “It’s about telling a story that goes alongside the story being told in the script. And there’s a lot of artistry and expression and a hell of a lot of thinking that goes into this sort of thing. And if it’s done really well, it’s invisible, and you don’t notice it.” Mad Style helped readers notice the details, like how Betty Draper wears the same dress multiple times when she goes into the city — and that the dress is just a few years out of style, to reflect the last time Betty regularly spent time in Manhattan. It’s a small character beat that says a great deal about Betty’s discomfort.
Fitzgerald and Marquez have spoken with Bryant several times over the years. While appreciative of their efforts, Fitzgerald says, she did note that not all of what they picked up on was the result of a deliberate choice. “Which wasn’t particularly surprising to us, because that really isn’t what we’re intending to do. It’s more about finding meaning in things instead of, you know, discovering. We still go and pull symbolism and meaning out of all these things, but we don’t attribute it to an intentional thing. When you take a critical analysis of art, sometimes you just skip past the intention of the artist and you go straight to what the audience member is seeing, or what the audience member is feeling.” Like all recaps, Mad Style was fundamentally viewer-oriented, despite any artist attention it may have incidentally received.
The Style template has since been applied to shows like Feud and The Crown, which share Mad Men’s lush midcentury costuming. Mad Style nonetheless remains Fitzgerald and Marquez’s most popular series of posts to date, a phenomenon reflective of Pressler and Rovzar’s own experience with the Reality Index. Both have since graduated from blogging, Rovzar to editing Bloomberg Pursuits and Pressler to writing magazine features, including a profile of grifter Anna Delvey that was recently optioned by Shonda Rhimes for a Netflix series. Still, Pressler says, “It remains the most famous and popular thing I’ve ever done. People still talk to me about it all the time. It’s gonna be in my obituary, probably. If I have an obituary.”
There are many reasons why a recap series begun in the 2010s is unlikely to attain the popularity of some of the biggest recap series from the aughts. They begin with the erosion of consensus that’s come with Peak TV, FX CEO John Landgraf’s term for the avalanche of new series that characterizes the medium’s last five years. “I honestly feel Mad Men was the last show where everyone immediately got online to talk about it after the episode aired, en masse,” says Fitzgerald, with no small amount of nostalgia. “Because the following morning, there was this massive audience hungry for conversations about the TV show, and you just don’t see that anymore.” It’s not that people have stopped paying attention to TV; it’s that they’re no longer paying attention to the same TV, which means there’s less of an imperative to understand and discuss a given episode.
VanDerWerff places the turning point sometime around the fall of 2013 — the same year that Netflix made its splashy entry into original series with the one-two punch of House of Cards and Orange Is the New Black. “What I realized was, we were covering as much as we always were, but we weren’t covering as much as TV demanded,” he says. “I went into a couple meetings and I was like, we are still covering what we were covering two years ago, when we were the most comprehensive site on the internet, [but] the amount of what’s out there has tripled. And it’s gonna quadruple.”
Around the same time, Sepinwall published a piece at HitFix, his home after the Star-Ledger, titled “How much good TV is too much?” In it, he notes that the feeling of overwhelming volume isn’t exclusive to critics, but experienced by viewers — and would-be recap readers — as well. “It’s like Dennis Duffy said: All technology is cyclical,” he notes now. During the recap’s heyday, “It got to the point, literally, where I would tweet out a traditional review of something and one of my followers would reply, Wait, why are you writing about this thing that no one has seen yet? That seems terrible! Now, there’s so much out there that I’ve had to go back to the original role, just to try to curate things, because the thing I tend to hear most from readers is, What should I be watching? I’m tired of watching these 17 crappy things that Netflix or Amazon recommended to me. Help me cut through the clutter here.”
Since VanDerWerff’s departure for Vox, TV Club has scaled down its recap coverage significantly. Sepinwall, too, started cutting back his recap writing in 2015; now, at a magazine, he occupies more of a traditional critic’s role, writing more general reviews than episodic breakdowns. After being acquired by Bravo in 2007, Television Without Pity’s new corporate owners shut the site down in 2014. (Its archives live on under the characteristically cheeky domain brilliantbutcancelled.com.) Even current mainstays of recap coverage are no longer as all-encompassing as they once could be. “We used to be a little more liberal in what we covered, recap-wise,” admits Gazelle Emami. Now deputy editor of Vulture, Emami oversaw the site’s TV coverage from February 2015 until earlier this spring. “But now we have more shows, so we’re still recapping a lot — it’s just that there’s so many more.” Vulture covered six seasons and more than 130 episodes of CBS’s beloved legal drama The Good Wife. The acclaimed second season of its spinoff The Good Fight has gone without week-to-week coverage, possibly due to its home on CBS’s ironically named All Access streaming service, to which most viewers lack, well, access.
But it’s not just the quantity of TV that’s changed. Much of the uptick in television production is due to the rise of streaming services like Netflix, which upload their seasons to the internet in multihour chunks instead of broadcasting them at an appointed time each week. The preferred style of viewing is now the so-called “binge”: inhaling multiple episodes at once, often consuming entire seasons in a single weekend without coming up for air — or pausing to read about what they’ve just watched. When House of Cards first launched, VanDerWerff’s TV Club tried covering it like they would a traditional series, posting one recap a week. “It became very clear, very quickly that it didn’t work,” he says. Readers were mostly finishing the show within a month, but the site was still posting new recaps weeks after they would have proved useful.
Half a decade into the streaming era, recappers have largely adjusted to television’s new normal. Like TV itself, many recaps are now designed to be taken in on demand, whenever a reader feels like looking them up. “We write our television reviews with the idea that it’s sort of an evergreen post,” Fitzgerald says. “People are gonna be reading it a year from now, because they’re gonna discover Lost in Space on Netflix a year from now and they’re gonna Google write-ups and find our post. It’s never a next-day thing anymore.” Recently, Tom+Lorenzo’s review of The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel exploded in popularity on the back of the show’s raft of Emmy nominations, even though it flatlined when it first went up. VanDerWerff observed the same phenomenon at Vox with his recaps of The Handmaid’s Tale’s first season. Naturally, this saps some of the urgency that gave the recap its initial vitality. There’s no day-after scramble to find someone’s take on a particularly juicy plot twist the audience just experienced as a collective, or rush to understand what just happened before a new episode adds to a show’s larger story.
Streaming has also had a trickle-down effect on how television is formatted. There’s less of a need for a self-contained episode when an episode no longer has to serve as a stand-alone unit of entertainment; consequently, many streaming episodes, particularly of dramas, feel like arbitrarily divided units, inseparable from their larger whole. For recappers, that spells trouble. “I think the recap format is sort of on life support because the episodic television format is sort of on life support,” VanDerWerff sighs. “That’s sad to me.” More than a self-interested complaint, VanDerWerff posits that the decline of the episode has been bad for the quality of television as a whole, not just the culture surrounding it: “There are all these studies that people have done [that show] you retain less about a story when you binge-watch. That really lets streaming shows — it lets them get away with a lot of bullshit, you know? The streaming era has made us think about TV less as a series of discrete stories and more as one big story that just kind of happens. I think that’s bad for the art form.”
The trend also has a chicken-and-egg effect on the recap. It’s not just that the streaming format is difficult to analyze; it’s that critics and recappers aren’t interested in applying their energies to something that doesn’t reward their efforts. “The way that [streaming shows are] structured, they don’t really lend themselves well to episodic analysis anyway, because the people making them don’t consider [episodes] as a useful thing,” Sepinwall says. “As a result, if you try to break them down that way, there’s just not enough there. So I’m fine with that.” Sepinwall cites Marvel’s infamously distended Netflix series as an example. “If I had to write about those every week, I’d want to shoot myself. No.”
The final pillar of recap culture to crumble in the face of a changing internet is the comments section, which has been rendered essentially redundant by the rise of social media. What’s the point of navigating to a specific webpage to talk about Scandal when you can simply follow the highly active hashtag on Twitter — not even after an episode’s been broadcast, but as it’s airing? If Gossip Girl aired today, Pressler posits, “Every line of the Reality Index would be a tweet. It wouldn’t even be all in one place.” But even before social media supplanted the comments section, its usefulness as a place to connect with fellow fans had started to deteriorate. “I did start to see, in comment culture, some bad fannishness,” Jensen says, referring to the phenomenon of aggressive, often male true believers who both misconstrue a work of art and act on that misunderstanding, like the Rick and Morty fans who stormed McDonald’s nationwide last year. “It wasn’t so much located on my recaps, but it was there. I started seeing a lot on other people’s recaps, especially those written by women. It did turn me off in general from wanting to participate in comment culture.”
As a grassroots internet phenomenon, recaps were often an entry point for demographics who wouldn’t otherwise find their way into TV criticism, and part of what’s lost along with them is the opportunity to read about television from different perspectives than the default. Holmes notes that Television Without Pity, a site cofounded and often staffed by female writers, “was a place where the presence of women was very powerful.” VanDerWerff, too, valued the relatively meritocratic nature of recaps, which may not have paid well, but offered enough real estate to give aspiring writers a shot: “I think one of the reasons that TV criticism is much more diverse than film criticism is, people of different races, women, LGBTQ folks, people of different religions, etc., etc. – that was a window into TV criticism that held the door open just enough for them to get their foot in. I don’t know what I say to a 22-year-old who really wants to write TV criticism. What’s the window in now? There isn’t one.”
Recaps are past their peak, but they’re also far from dead. No less august an entity than The New York Times now runs recaps of a whole slate of shows, affording a legitimacy it would have been impossible to conceive of in the days of Usenet groups and Dawson’s Wrap. Nor, in 2018, does a recap have to take the form of a written blog post; The Ringer itself runs The Recappables, a podcast dedicated to the kinds of shows that still merit weekly discussion, like Atlanta and Westworld.
“The culture of this extreme dissection of TV that recaps started has grown. There are just so many different formats where you can be doing that,” Emami says. At Vulture, recaps are “still a very big part of what we do, but I also think it’s now just one part of what we do. It’s one part of a coverage plan, and that can include explainers, think pieces, what are the biggest questions asked after this episode of Westworld.” Recaps were just one expression of an idea that still holds sway over the internet, and how audiences talk about TV in general: essentially, that it’s worth talking about — publicly, rigorously, and joyfully. As long as that philosophy remains intact, its execution is both flexible and secondary. Netflix shows may not make for good recaps, but they can still spawn a meme like Barb, a perfect fusion of internet weirdos and the unwitting object of their passion that followed the spirit of recaps, if not their letter. The permission to honor something you love by unpacking it, and the idea that affection itself is reason itself for unpacking, is a difficult dam to unburst.
VanDerWerff, for one, says that reports of the recap’s death may be greatly exaggerated. “I feel like we’re coming back around to an era where recaps could take off again,” he says. “Because I feel like people find the conversation on social media to be increasingly toxic, and want to just read somebody who’s well informed.” Twitter was once an enticing alternative to recaps; now, it’s possible the recap could become a calming refuge from Twitter.
Even if the recap never regains its former glory, there remains a place for them when the occasional Leftovers or Atlanta still manages to channel something like the Mad Men craze, if only a fraction of it. “I don’t think it’s gonna be the dominant form anymore, just because everyone’s watching on their own schedule now,” Sepinwall says. “But at the same time, I love writing about episodes. There’s a satisfaction I feel really nailing a recap that makes me feel better, I guess, than writing a more traditional review.” More than two decades after reading those first Star Trek reviews, there’s still a thrill in sharing a first impression with a bunch of strangers, even if many of them aren’t strangers anymore. When Sepinwall first encountered his writing, Tim Lynch was a fellow geek who could, miraculously, communicate with other Trekkies from across the country. Now, he’s a friend who lives 15 minutes down the road.