Since I could talk, I have talked back to the television. Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood was great—I loved that segment on how orange crayons are made—but really, he could have tried harder to change up the voices he used for those puppets. King Friday is a man; Henrietta Pussycat is a female and also a cat. They shouldn’t sound the same. Also, why was Mr. McFeely able to exist in both Mr. Rogers’ Neighborhood and the Neighborhood of Make-Believe? And shouldn’t someone have told Mr. Rogers to come up with a less creepy name for his mailman character than “McFeely?” Come on now.
By the time I was nine, my mother was concerned that her daughter was too negative. She offered me a dollar if I could make it through an entire television show saying only positive things. I suspect she was also motivated by the desire to watch just one freaking TV show without her daughter’s snarky running commentary.
I did not win that dollar.
No matter. I’ve earned it thousands of times over writing recaps of television shows for TelevisionWithoutPity.com (known to its fans as “TWoP”). The recap is, essentially, an episode summary—a very detailed one. As in, 7,000-words-for-an-hourlong-show detailed. You can read a recap and feel like you’ve just watched the show it described. But you don’t really read them to catch up on an episode you missed; you read them because of the commentary wrapped around that description. The best recaps are equal parts funny and insightful, as if you were sitting on the couch watching the show with the writer. They appreciate what the show did right—and also what went wrong. There is, deep down (sometimes very, very deep down), a love for the show being recapped—even when the recapper explicitly says he hates it. He comes back next week, doesn’t he? And so do you.
I was a college sophomore when I found TWoP. It was a joyous day—an entire website devoted to mocking/appreciating shows the same way I did! My audience was no longer limited to whoever happened to be in the living room. I emailed one of the site’s co-founders, Sarah D. Bunting, asking for the job for which I was obviously perfect. I was politely rejected. I wrote two recaps and sent them in anyway. Bunting emailed me back that they were “pretty good,” posted them on the site, and sent me a check. Since then, I’ve recapped 13 series. That’s hundreds of recaps and millions of words devoted to shows that were very good, like House; very bad (7th Heaven); both good and bad, somehow at the same time (Survivor); and some I’ve mercifully forgotten about (Rubicon, Men in Trees, that summer reality show on Fox that was The Bachelor except everyone was overweight . . . oh God, I just remembered—it was called More to Love).
What was once one website’s niche product has become a key feature of entertainment news sites, including The Onion’s A. V. Club, The Huffington Post, Gawker, HitFix, TVLine, Entertainment Weekly, TV Guide, New York, Vanity Fair, The Wall Street Journal, E! Online, and CNN. Recaps cover everything from critically acclaimed shows like Breaking Bad to whatever Here Comes Honey Boo Boo is supposed to be (yes, WSJ makes sure its readers are up on all things Honey Boo Boo). There are summaries of shows just hours old and reviews of Star Trek episodes from 45 years ago.
“Every site’s doing recaps,” says Josh Wolk, editorial director of New York magazine’s pop-culture vertical, Vulture.com. (The browser title bar—“Vulture—Entertainment News—Celebrity News, TV Recaps, Movies, Music, Art, Books,
Theater”—gives you an idea of the importance Vulture places on those recaps.) When Bill Simmons’s ESPN-owned sports and pop-culture blog Grantland.com launched last year, recaps were in the mix, alongside features written by a slate of big-name journalists. “It was absolutely part of Bill’s vision to have recaps on the site from the beginning,” says Grantland executive editor Dan Fierman. “They’ve become a staple of any site that really deals with cultural commentary.”
For an up-and-coming writer, recapping can be the online equivalent of breaking into a newsroom as a copyboy. A much more efficient launching pad, actually: You get a byline in a publication with a national (or even international) audience. While small-town papers shrink and fold—taking entry-level positions along with them—recappers have gone on to write for Time, The Washington Post, NPR, and The Atlantic Wire (and, of course, CJR). Some recappers have written books (fiction and nonfiction) and TV series (scripted and reality). Others have created their own profitable websites.