And the right writer doesn’t have to wait around to be discovered. Rich Juzwiak, one of the genre’s better rags-to-riches stories, started by recapping Being Bobby Brown on his personal blog. That led to VH1 offering him full-time recapping work. He’s now a staff writer at Gawker, where one of his early pieces was “Tune In, Recap, Drop Out: Why I’ll Never Recap a TV Show Again” (filed under Gawker’s “Television Without Pretty” category). Juzwiak is quick to credit recaps as being “integral to [his] career,” but he’s not sure if they’re worth much beyond that. “Like, who cares about the seventh episode of the eighth cycle of America’s Next Top Model?” he asks. “Well, I did, so much that I spent, like, 10 hours writing about it. But now, who cares?”
Even The New Yorker feels the recap’s influence. Its site does not (yet) offer recaps, but its television critic is Emily Nussbaum, previously of New York. She recapped Lost for Vulture, a process she says she found “brutal.” In one of her earliest Slate pieces, 2002’s “Confessions of a Spoiler Whore,” Nussbaum detailed her obsession with the show Buffy the Vampire Slayer and drew parallels between “plugged-in” TV fans’ discussions on the Internet and literary criticism. Nussbaum read TWoP’s Buffy recaps and posted on the site’s forums. A few years later, she ran afoul of TWoP’s strict comment-posting rules and was banned after defending the show Firefly from its recapper’s criticism (Nussbaum: “Je ne regette rien!”). She credits TWoP and immersive TV sites like it with starting her career as a cultural critic, and for helping her realize television’s place in the culture today.
But Nussbaum has mixed feelings about the value of recaps these days, with good reason. In the last five years, the Internet has become saturated with them. Whoever posts a recap first has a competitive edge. Television producer and writer Garrett Lerner discovered TWoP about 10 years ago and says he felt like he was reading the work of “a new brand of critic” who was “younger, hipper, edgier, meaner, and snarkier”—but just as legitimate as the old guard. (Lerner knows what it feels like to get the recap treatment, including from me—he was a co-executive producer on House.) A decade later, he finds that other sites’ recaps seem “slapdash”—just a few paragraphs and a request for comments. “It’s kind of turned me off to it,” he says. Nussbaum agrees: “I don’t think the entire environment should consist of people’s first drafts.” More and more, though, it does.
That kind of recap is probably here to stay. Even TWoP, which still offers recaps posted (and written) several days after an episode airs, has given in to its readers’ demand for speed, and now offers “weecaps”—shorter versions of the recap, posted a day or two after the episode airs—as well as blogs and video content. All of these were introduced after NBC Universal bought the site from its three founders in 2007. Ariano, Bunting, and Cole stayed with TWoP for a year after the purchase, then moved on.
In their wake, the recap has become such an established form that there is a second wave of practitioners, who have studied and appreciate the medium and wish to refine it further. Consider EW’s Darren Franich, who came to EW.com as a production intern in 2009 and is now a staff writer. He says he had always wanted to recap for EW.com; when Jon & Kate Plus 8’s usual recapper needed a substitute, he got his chance. Franich believes he hit his stride while recapping Jersey Shore. His approach was to give the show “much more respect than it deserves”—to treat it as seriously as he would a fine piece of literature. Franich can recap an episode of a show, complete with overarching themes, in just a few hours. If I’m the Beverly Hills, 90210 of recappers, Franich is the savvier, more self-aware Dawson’s Creek.
With the increasing emphasis on speed and quantity over quality, I wonder how the recap will keep up. “You’ll have to predict what’s going to happen next,” Juzwiak jokes. He might not be far off. Ariano recapped Saturday Night Live for Vulture last season by writing a “Saturday Night Live Sketch Predictor” the day before each episode aired. Some sites get recaps up so quickly that West Coast readers can read the recap before the show airs in their homes.
And then there’s Twitter. Jezebel recently pronounced Parks and Recreation actress Retta “the best TV recapper on the Internet” for her 140-character-long live-tweets that have no context unless you’re watching the same show at the same time. Ariano and Cole will soon launch Previously.TV, which already has its own “live event” Twitter account called “Previously.TV Now.” Recapitulation, meet reaction.