Spare the Snark, Or Why It Matters Who Invented the TV Recap

Roland Barthes lecturing on the enigmas and symbols of Survivor: All Stars
New York Times Magazine article appeared not long ago with this headline: How Roland Barthes Gave Us the TV Recap. Hmmm. How Raymond Williams Gave Us the TV Recap? Maybe. (I will say no more about this appreciation of Barthes, which has very little to do with TV in particular and is concerned with his mode of criticism of popular culture.) I might have left these thoughts behind if not for a tweet I saw a few days ago by Emily Gould, someone I happen to associate with the NYT Mag, saying (not terribly seriously) that Nora Ephron invented the TV recap in her book Scribble Scribble, a collection of columns first published in Esquire in the 1970s. If two is a trend, then identifying the Ur-TV recap is now a thing.

But hey, didn’t the NYT Mag explain, not that long ago, who actually invented the TV recap? Did I not read a longish article about this recently enough that I remember it fairly well? And doesn't everybody already know that it was Television Without Pity aka TWoP, not Barthes or Ephron, that popularized if not invented the TV recap?

As five seconds with Google revealed, the TWoP article I had in mind (“The Remote Controllers,” by Marshall Sella, October 20, 2002) was published practically ten years ago. Evidence, if any was needed, that both the TV recap and I are, you know, old. So I went back and read that piece and it gave me a series of little shocks. 

It also helped me to see that the recap emerged at a particular moment in TV's history, and in the history of TV's cultural legitimation (which you might not need me to tell you is the topic of my book written with Elana Levine, Legitimating Television). Recognizing the distinctness of this moment and the difference between then and now tells us something important about television's place in contemporary culture -- about how TV and the culture of TV have changed. 

Ten years ago in TV and media history is at once of our time and before it. We can see ourselves in that world without having to change too many of the details, but some important things are different. 

Ten years ago online communities were burgeoning and the culture industries were quickly incorporating their efforts as audience feedback, e.g., by paying attention to the discussion boards on TWoP as the NYT Mag discusses at length. There was already a networked, digitally connected culture in which producer and consumer distinctions of old were being renegotiated. Television was being taken more seriously than in the past, and the HBO “Not TV” brand was well established with The Sopranos as its key prestige product. It was not so crazy to think that intelligent people would devote large portions of their leisure time to the explication of television shows. Part of what appealed to me about TWoP when I started to read it was that it confirmed that others like me existed, passionate viewers of Gilmore Girls and other shows I would never miss.

But ten years ago also seems like back in the day: Dawson’s Creek and ER and Friends and NYPD Blue were still on the air, the WB still existed, J.J Abrams was best known for Alias, Joe Millionaire was the reality TV outrage of the fall season. No one outside of tech nerd circles knew about blogs or wikis, "social media" wasn't a phrase on anyone's lips, friend wasn't a verb, and you being Time’s person of the year was still a ways off. iPods were “the perfect thing,” still strictly music players, and shuffle was a notable feature. DVRs were an early adopter technology; the NYT Mag article doesn’t mention TiVo. BitTorrent was brand new and file-sharing of TV wasn’t a widespread practice. Streaming video had not exploded and people were most likely to catch up on old shows by buying or renting DVDs. Convergence Culture and The Wealth of Networks and The Long Tail and Here Comes Everybody and Remix were yet to appear. Film/TV/media studies departments were just realizing that it would be good to have a new media person. 

My most exciting frisson in reading this ten-year-old story about TV recaps came in the passages where unfamiliar terms are placed in quotes and explained: “show runner,” “shout out,” “IRL,” “spoilers.” The meaning of spoilers in this context is a shade different from what people usually mean today: ten years ago TV spoilers were typically plot details learned from sources in TV production, rather than from other viewers watching before you do. I get excited to read straight-faced usage of “the Net” to describe the online experience. Reading articles like these, you get to see today’s common sense, our everyday ways of thinking and behaving and thinking about behaving, spelled out for an uninformed reader. Historians of the recent past really get off on this stuff. 

(In several of my research projects I have found that old NYT Mag articles often offer the best evidence of formations of bourgeois American taste in media and technology. The magazine tells cultural elites what to pay attention to and how to understand it. It captures ideas that are in the air, but also circulates those ideas, marking moments of transition and emergence. It often expresses the place of media in popular imagination almost perfectly - it has more than once been that source I was looking for that crystallizes all the thoughts I hoped to find in the popular discourses of the time. (You think historians go to primary documents without hoping to find specific ideas? Really?) Here are a few examples, all well worth reading today even if you’re not doing research on these topics, all deserving to be remembered as key formulations of popular sentiment in a specific historical moment:

-"The Space-Age Pinball Machine," September, 15 1974 (early video games, which I will quote in my book on video games in progress)

-"TV Rocks with Music," May 8, 1983 (MTV, quoted in my essay on the history of the attention span)

-"The Triumph of the Prime-Time Novel," October 22, 1995 (serialized prime-time TV shows, quoted in Legitimating Television))

Another thing reading this article made me think about was: I haven't read recaps in years, if by recap people mean the sarcastic and exhaustingly detailed episode summaries, interspersed with personal asides, that I used to read at TWoP. (There is some controversy about what "recap" should describe, and whether it's appropriate to use the same term for snarky blow-by-blow à la TWoP and for episode reviews in a more analytical style of The A.V. Club -- for more see this post by Myles McNutt.) In the past ten years, writing about last night's TV shows online has become a significant genre of popular critical writing. Google the title of any popular current show + recap and you get page after page of links to summary and commentary of single TV episodes. Much of this writing differs in voice and style from the TWoP recaps of old. Much of it is written by pro critics for mainstream publications. Authors of these recaps are not the outsiders that the meagerly compensated TWoP freelancers were ten years ago. The recap style of today, especially in treating high-end shows like Mad Men, is basically old-fashioned film or lit crit in the casualized voice of internet writing. Authors are unlikely to include tangential asides about personal lives and pet peeves of the kind described in the NYT Mag article.

The big change between ten years ago and today, the most interesting thing to think about as far as I'm concerned, has to do with the attitude assumed in both the writer and reader toward television. TWoP in its heyday generally took a tone of condescension, and the objective was not only to summarize but also to be humorous, to poke fun and impress the reader with not just insight but wit. Some people I respect speak highly of contemporary reality TV recaps at Vulture or Gawker by writers of comical skill. Reality shows get different treatment from Quality TV - some TV is to laugh at, some is to admire. In the passage of time, the balance (among cultural elites anyway) has been shifting away from laughing at TV or thinking of TV as something trivial, and toward taking it seriously.

Another thing evidently happened: recaps became part of mainstream commercial media. Advertising on webpages about episodes of TV became substantial enough to sustain this practice on a much wider scale than ten years ago, and the TV biz welcomed the publicity, sending many critics advance screener discs to facilitate timely publication. These posts can instigate lengthy comments threads, which is good for attracting and keeping attention. It seems like every website that covers entertainment and the arts features morning-after TV writing aiming not only for readers but also participation and community. I'm writing this twelve hours after the Mad Men S5 finale and in my regular RSS and twitter scanning this morning I've seen enough links to postmortems that I could read about last night's episode all day at least. You find these recaps not just at TWoP and The A.V. Club and Vulture and zap2it, not just in the blogs of amateur critics, but in Slate, SalonHuffPo, NYT, WaPoThe New Yorker, Grantland, indieWire, Entertainment WeeklyRolling Stone, WSJ, Ad Age... I am easily driven crazy by talk of TV's new golden age, of TV finally becoming art in the past decade, but there is no question this is the greatest time ever for people who like to read episode-by-episode commentary on Quality TV shows. Not a lot of comedy at television's expense in this stuff.

The tone of the TWoP recap, its stance toward its topic of discussion, would not be typical of most writing online about television today, and never represented my attitude toward TV shows I liked enough to read about online. Its signature mode of snark -- its tagline is still "spare the snark, spoil the networks" -- combined admiration and fandom with a strong dose of contempt and superiority. Some of the shows being recapped were highly prestigious -- the NYT Mag article discusses fan dissatisfaction with storylines on The Sopranos like Carmela's infatuation with Furio -- but many were more like Survivor or Dawson's Creek, the show that inspired the antecedent of the recap site Mighty Big TV, which became TWoP. Today's recaps of reality shows might preserve the smugness of the TWoP recap, but most of the morning-after writing I have seen on episodes of Mad Men, for instance, treats the show with rather more reverence and aesthetic appreciation than I recall encountering in Gilmore Girls recaps ten years ago. 

In his excellent essay on TWoP as a form of audience labor, Mark Andrejevic quotes many members of the site's community to the effect that participation in online discussions often held more value for viewers than the TV shows they were ostensibly there to discuss. One participant told him that TWoP "changes TV from a brain-dead pastime to an art and a science;" another said: "bad TV becomes good TV when combined with TWoP." (35) Although fan discussions might have influenced producers, TWoP participants saw their ultimate goal not as communicating their feedback to the TV industry but rather impressing each other "with wit, insight, and above all, 'snark.'" (36) The superiority of recappers and their readers is a product of the cultural status of television in the late 1990s and early 2000s, as television becomes more legitimated but still carries many of the negative associations it has suffered historically. Performing snark would be a way for "savvy viewers" to demonstrate that they "are not taken in by the transparent forms of manipulation practiced by producers." (37) Community members would contrast their own position as "insiders" with the "clueless losers" who make up the larger TV audience. As one viewer told Andrejevic, "TWoP makes it easier for us to convince ourselves that we are smart, while watching DUMB television." (40) 

The distinction between active, smart, intellectually engaged TV fans and more passive and unintelligent ordinary viewers underscores the cultural values within which TV has been legitimated. As we argue in Legitimating Television, television's rise in status is premised on just this kind of distinction. TV worth valuing appeals to active and intelligent elites, and is routinely contrasted with other kinds of television associated with other viewers and with the medium's past. TWoP, as described in the NYT Mag of ten years ago, is what we call a "technology of agency," a way of making the viewer's experience of television one of active navigation, of assertions of choice and control rather than enslavement to the networks. It is one means of television's redemption by new technology. TV recaps emerge with the participatory internet, but also with the shift in cultural status of television. TV is important enough to give people something to talk about. However, it's still disreputable enough that participants have to show themselves to be smarter than the shows they watch.

The idea that Barthes or Ephron or anyone else invented the TV recap avant-la-lettre draws on a rhetorical trope familiar from the history of new media. Commentators frequently look for evidence that what we think is new is actually not, that novelty is deceptive, that much has been done already. Tom Standage's book The Victorian Internet, for examples, finds antecedents for many of today's "new" communication practices in the 19th Century. This kind of thinking can be a salutary historical corrective. To see that many of our hopes and fears about the internet are actually quite similar to earlier hopes and fears about writing and print, the telephone and telegraph, radio and television, cable and videotape -- these recognitions can be profound and unsettling. They force us out of presentist assumptions and into historical, contextual thinking. This is why I teach new media as the history of new media and disdain the wide-eyed, gee-whiz mode of Wired magazine. (More examples of the kind of new media writing I have in mind: Carolyn Marvin, When Old Technologies Were New; Jay David Bolter & Richard Grusin, Remediation; William Boddy, New Media and Popular Imagination; Lisa Giltelman, Always Already New.)

But I wonder what gets lost in these identifications of now in then. The specificity of the TV recap is of a historical context in which technology, society, and cultural forms are all in flux. The TWoP story from ten years ago expresses many of the key ideas of television's legitimation at a time before we could have formulated that concept, when it was taking shape. The recap is an artifact of this confluence of forces. It fetishizes and reveres television, makes it an object of cult admiration. In offering instant feedback to TV producers, it promises that new technology can improve an old medium. As Sella writes in the NYT Mag:  

"Television began as a one-way street winding from producers to consumers, but that street is new becoming two-way. A man with one machine (a TV) is doomed to isolation, but a man with two machines (TV and a computer) can belong to a community."

This is so clearly the techno-utopian rhetoric of legitimation through the technologies of media convergence.

One more moment in that NYT Mag article is worth noting as a clear indication of the discourses of legitimation, of the recap caught between two valuations of TV. Robert Thompson, the NYT's frequent academic source on pop culture, is quoted complaining about television's low status and celebrating its elevation.

"'If this were happening at any other time in history, we'd celebrate it,' he insists. 'When readers hold parties for Bloomsday and discuss James Joyce, we consider it an apex -- people taking culture seriously. But when viewers discuss the minutiae of a TV show, we call them crazy. One's got to admire it. Essentially what the message boards are is a panel of unpaid experts, with passion, analyzing culture.'''

So television is worthwhile enough that a professor would compare its fans to those of the most admired modernist author, but its place is uncertain enough that the argument must be made in its defense. Today, I'd argue, the battle has largely been won by TV's elite champions.

As for Nora Ephron's writing that marks the invention of the recap: it is a column from July, 1976, on Upstairs Downstairs. It does summarize many plot events, filtered through the author's feelings about characters and her hopes and fears for them. It is not a recap as we know it, because it treats what seem like months or even seasons of drama. Upstairs Downstairs aired in the UK before it did in the US, and I haven't looked to see how it was scheduled here. But Ephron's writing does have much in common with the tone and sensibility of more recent online TV writing. She's passionate and personal, and reveals an intense investment in serial narrative. She is also, much to my excitement and to my absolute approval, staunchly anti-spoiler. This is how her story ends.

"We would all like to know some of the technical details of the show--how the writers are picked, how much of the plot is planned ahead of time--but it is too dangerous to find out. Someone, in the course of giving out information, might let slip a crucial turn of the plot. We would all rather die than know what is going to happen.

"Mostly, we all wish Upstairs Downstairs would last forever." (emphasis mine)

These two parting thoughts capture an ethos of televisual experience of seriality, one prizing the perpetual unfolding of narrative. In some ways they're at odds with the common sense of legitimation, with its emphasis on an aestheticized text and narrative closure. But they also bespeak the value of TV for daily life as well as for elite cultural experience. Caring enough about the story not to want to be spoiled and desiring for the story to continue forever are strong sentiments to attach to a medium so often in the 1970s made into a bogeyman to blame for society's problems. Of course, it would be safest to confess to these feelings in the pages of Esquire when they have been inspired by a British show airing on Masterpiece Theater. Ambivalence about television in discourses of legitimation goes back a long way, as we argue in our book, and certainly pre-dates the invention of the TV recap.

Mark Andrejevic, "Watching Television Without Pity: The Productivity of Online Fans," Television & New Media 9.1 (2008), 24-46.