Why Are We Obsessed with TV Recaps?

It’s 1am. My husband is asleep next to me, snoring gently as a person with a clean conscience is wont to do. I turn my iPhone away from his face, so the guilty glow of the screen doesn’t wake him. Google beckons.

Search: “scandal.”

Refine search: “scandal season 2 finale recap.”

A torrent of reviews floods the screen, courtesy of predatory-sounding sites like Vulture and Buzzfeed. I click, and click, and click, reading them all with the hopes that somewhere out there, another TV viewer heard Olivia Pope say “Dad?” and responded the same way I did: by repeating the word “Dad” like a deranged parrot going through the five stages of grief. “Dad?! DAD! Dad?” Who saw that coming?

scandal cosby show
Like a teenage girl reading a Judy Blume novel by flashlight, I dove greedily into the world of television recaps—a subculture born of fanboy obsession that’s since been legitimized as the new standard of TV criticism. Ever since half-hour sitcoms with laugh tracks gave way to serialized dramas with troubled anti-heroes—enter the new Golden Age of Television—entertainment writers have responded by breaking down seasons, episode by episode, with exacting detail.

Some blogs offer a play-by-play of plot points; others trade theories about smoking guns (or, in Lost’s case, smoke monsters). Still others offer character analysis that falls somewhere on the spectrum between “gossiping about your friends” to “graduate-level English seminar.”

Alan Sepinwall, the HitFix critic whom Slate calls “the acknowledged king” of TV recaps, started redefining the genre in the 1990s as a writer for The Star-Ledger of Newark alongside Matt Zoller Seitz, who’s now New York magazine’s chief TV critic. (I was an intern in their department back in the day.) Driven by the passion of someone who had an NYPD Blue blog in college, Sepinwall set the standard for present-day TV recaps: delivering witty, thoughtful commentary with a Sherlockian ability to recall details, and doing it quicker than anyone else.

And we, the TV-viewing public, read every last sentence, offering our opinions IN CAPS LOCK in the comments section below. But why? Why do we feel the need to rehash every detail of something we just watched? And to do it in the middle of the night?

Is it because the pathos of The Sopranos, The Wire, and Homeland prompts water-cooler moments that last well past an episode’s airdate? Sure, that. But remember, I was talking earlier about Scandal, a Shonda Rhimes political sexcapade that turned the Oval Office into the, err, busiest room in the White House. Perhaps Scandal fans seek validation of their interests, finding it in recaps that are simultaneously more detailed and better written than our own memories. Or we want to share in the “WTF?!” zeitgeist experience with the greater universe of #gladiatorsinsuits.

Thanks to the convergence of new media—Twitter, Netflix, iTunes—we consume and share culture in disparate ways. A live broadcast event is now a special occasion: the Super Bowl, the Oscars, the massacring of The Sound of Music. And for some, those are non-events. Without basic cable, how do we have a shared televised experience? Can we replicate a concert for music lovers, or a night at a movie theater surrounded by people who are actually laughing out loud? Not LOL, but laughing out loud?

In a way, TV recaps offer that sense of community in a disconnected, internet-saturated age. It is our book club—a club of culture fiends—hiding under our sheets, reading by the glow of an iPhone.

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