Recapping The Recappers

Maybe you’ve heard this already, but a new season of “Mad Men” is returning to television Sunday night.  But it’s not just the TV show that’s back; this will also mean the return of the “Mad Men” recappers.

All next week, the Internet will be flooded with people summarizing, analyzing, obsessing about and trying to make sense of the show.  Mad Blog will return here to MediaPost, but if history is a guide, there will also be lengthy recaps on the website of The New York Times, The Wall Street Journal and an uncountable number of other mainstream websites.

Recapping long predates “Mad Men,” although nothing seems to bring out the inner recapper in so many writers as Matt Weiner’s blend of sharp writing, superb characterization and unexpected plot twists.

From the beginning of the Internet, viewers have gone online to discuss their favorite TV shows.  First there were chat rooms, message boards and blogs.  Then in 1998 a handful of wise guys started recapping episodes of “Dawson’s Creek” on a site that became known as Television Without Pity, or TWoP.



TWoP operates under the motto “spare the snark, spoil the network” (which Wikipedia helpfully explains is “a takeoff on ‘spare the rod, spoil the child.’” Got it.)  It provides detailed, sometimes excruciatingly detailed, scene-by-scene summaries of series episodes.  These summaries are laced with sarcastic observations that point out the logical inconsistencies, lame character motivations and other plot absurdities in a show.

You would think there’d be no bigger waste of time than going onto the Internet to read a blow-by-blow recapitulation of a television show you’ve already watched, but what makes TWoP so popular is the humor.  The recappers have the rare ability to articulate a thought that existed in your head as a vague observation that you couldn’t quite put your finger on. And of course recapping also helps you get a better understanding of a show by picking up bits of dialogue you might have missed and offering context and insight. 

TWoP is the granddaddy of recap sites, but it is hardly the only one.  There’s also HitFix, The Huffington Post, and Grantland, which recaps NBC’s Thursday night line-up  And if “Mad Men” is your particular thing, just go to Google and search for “Mad Men recaps.”  There are dozens of sites to choose from.

There may be innumerable summaries of Mad Men, but not every television series should be recapped.  Not by a long shot. I’d rather watch four hours of C-SPAN than read a recap of something like “Hawaii 5-0.”   The best candidates for recapping are quality shows with passionate loyalists -- or what Adam Sternbergh in The New York Times calls “superviewers.”These are shows like “Lost,” “The Office,” “The Good Wife,” and “Community.”  But it’s also fun to read recaps of entertainments that are already self-parodies -- reality shows like “The Jersey Shore” and “Survivor” and over-the-top dramas like “Glee” and “Downton Abbey.”

Recapping would seem to go against today’s cultural ethos, which is to dumb things down and make them shorter, given our miniscule attention spans.  But just as the trend in TV sets is to make them both bigger and smaller, so too is the trend in TV commentary to be both shorter (e.g., Twitter) and longer (recaps.)  People will not only read 18-page recaps of “Mad Men,” they will then comment about those recaps in return.

In the end, this is all about community.  This is a subject that’s been chewed over ad nauseum, especially by me, but the rise of the Internet has created opportunities for people to fill in the social voids in their lives with digital connections. 

The fact is that most people watch television by themselves.  And some of the most passionately followed shows are viewed by just 1% or 2% of the population, so you can go to work the next day and not find anyone to talk to about the show.  Just as live tweeting is the online equivalent of wisecracking with your friends when you’re watching TV together, recapping is the digital substitute for chatting around the water cooler the next day.

As we head into Sunday, Matt Weiner has promised at least one major surprise in the “Mad Man” season opener.  I can’t wait to see what it is, but I also can’t wait to see what my digital friends -- the recappers -- think about it.




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