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.


Gone Too Soon: Philip Seymour Hoffman Dead at 46

Philip Seymour Hoffman, photographed by Lindsay Borden at the Fairmont Olympic, Seattle, in 2010.
Philip Seymour Hoffman, photographed by Lindsay Borden at the Fairmont Olympic, Seattle, in 2010.

What devastating news this morning, that Oscar-winning actor Philip Seymour Hoffman was found dead in his Manhattan apartment of an apparent drug overdose. He was 46. Only 46.

News reports say that he was found with a syringe in his arm and an envelope of what looked like heroin nearby. Hoffman had struggled with addiction and substance abuse earlier in his career, but had been clean for 23 years until he spoke in interviews of “falling off the wagon” last year, reports The New York Times.

Hoffman seemed to have it all: an Oscar for his titular performance in Capote in 2005; the respect of his peers; a busy career with starring roles in complex dramas (The Master, Doubt) and blockbusters alike (he was in the middle of filming The Hunger Games: Mockingjay – Part 2).

But more importantly, he was a family man with three children — Cooper, 10, Tallulah, 7, and Willa, 5 — and a long-term partner, costume designer Mimi O’Donnell. He was loved. He knew love. That’s what we talked about when I had the pleasure of interviewing Hoffman in 2010 for Seattle Met magazine. He was making his directorial debut with the film Jack Goes Boating, but our conversation turned personal when I told him I was getting married that summer. He lit up and quickly started dispensing relationship advice: “You’ve gotta say I love you a lot and touch each other a lot.” “I cook [my partner Mimi] breakfast a lot, whatever we have in the fridge.” When the story went to print, we titled it “Lover Boy.”

Philip Seymour Hoffman was a gentleman and an amazing talent. I knew him briefly, and superficially, but his memory will live on.

Read This: Pharrell’s Productivity Secrets

Despite being overshadowed by his Vivienne Westwood/Canadian mounty hat, Pharrell Williams was one of the stars of the Grammys this year. Seven nominations. Four wins. Producer of the Year. He co-wrote and performed two of the 2013’s biggest pop hits, Daft Punk’s “Get Lucky” and Robin Thicke’s “Blurred Lines.” He even learned how to speak “French robot” so he could accept awards on behalf of Daft Punk.

We’ll be hearing even more about Pharrell as the Oscars approach—he’s up for best song for Despicable Me 2′s “Happy”but Fast Company has one of the best profiles out on the multi-hyphenate man. Not only is he self-deprecating, he’s a philanthropist–fashion designer–tech entrepreneur.  Can we all work for Pharrell?

Recommended reading: “Get Busy: Pharrell’s Productivity Secrets.”

2014 Oscar Nominations and Snubs (Or: Why I Feel Vindicated for Hating ‘Inside Llewyn Davis’)

As many, many entertainment outlets reported early January 16 — early enough to get Jared Leto out of bed so he could have an existential crisis, think about vegan pancakes, and get back into bed — the 2014 Oscar nominations are out. American Hustle and Gravity lead with ten nominations each; 12 Years a Slave trails just the slightest with nine. (As one critic pointed out, 12 Years a Slave would likely have 10 nods as well if the movie even had a leading actress to nominate.)

And then, there were the snubs and surprises. Our favorite part.

Tom Hanks and Emma Thompson get nothing?!

There’s no love for the lovable. Tom Hanks hasn’t been nominated for an Oscar since Cast Away in 2001, and his leading role in Captain Phillips had all the makings of another sure thing: a character who was emotionally and physically adrift, left to survive at sea on increasingly smaller boats. And this time, Hanks got to act opposite a Somali pirate (played by Barkhad Abdi, up for best supporting actor in his film debut) instead of a volleyball (played by Wilson). His final 30 minutes in this film deserved a nod.

Meanwhile, Emma Thompson will have to settle for Meryl Streep’s adoration instead of an Oscar. The Academy didn’t recognize her outstanding work as P. L. Travers — the fussy author of Mary Poppins, dogged by Walt Disney for 20 years to turn her novels into “sentimental animated rubbish” or “[insert British-y putdown here]” — in Saving Mr. Banks. It probably didn’t help that the movie and the late Walt Disney have received hate press for the past month, but Thompson shouldn’t be punished because Disney didn’t like women, Jews, or cats.

Lots of love for Nebraska and Dallas Buyers Club.

In the shadow of his fellow nominees — Nebraska director Alexander Payne (best director), Bruce Dern (best actor) and the hilarious June Squibb (best supporting actress) — stands Bob Nelson, nominated for best original screenplay for his debut script. He’s something of an unknown to the Academy, but in Seattle, he was one of the funniest guys around for over a decade. His story — of an addled alcoholic (Dern) who’s convinced he won the Sweepstakes and embarks on a Great Plains Odyssey to collect his winnings — both warmed and broke my heart.

Not surprising that Matthew McConaughey (best actor) and Jared Leto (best supporting actor) ride their Golden Globe victories for Dallas Buyers Club into Oscar season. What is pleasantly surprising is that DBC sauntered into the best picture category, elbowing out Inside Llewyn Davis and Saving Mr. Banks with a McConaughey-styled “all right, all right, all right.”

Only two nominations for Inside Llewyn Davis.

For cinematography and sound mixing, which probably feels like nominations for “best trailer” and “best mixtape.” Despite Llewyn Davis topping multiple “best film of 2013” lists, the melancholic movie about a pitiable Greenwich Village folk singer looking for his big break in the early 1960s was like a 105-minute Jeff Buckley song. Sad, and beautiful, but really, just sad. No wonder critics loved it. Happy things don’t get nominated for Oscars unless Pharell Williams is involved.

Lee Daniels’ The Butler is shut out.

That’s what you get for sticking your name in the title. Is the butler waiting on Lee Daniels? No.

The movie also committed the cardinal sin of Oscar maneuvering: Thou shalt not release thine film in the summer. Even Oprah’s star power couldn’t keep The Butler’s momentum going from its release, in mid-August, through Oscar voting season this winter.

Handicapping the 2014 Academy Awards

  • If it’s a visual effects or editing category, give it to Gravity.
  • If it’s an acting category, give it to American Hustle or Dallas Buyers Club. (Or just give it all to Cate Blanchett for Blue Jasmine.)
  • Best screenplays go to 12 Years a Slave and Her, otherwise the Academy will feel guilty.
  • Director: Alfonso Cuarón. The man conquered space.
  • Best picture: Toss-up between 12 Years a Slave and Gravity. It’s a rare best pic that doesn’t win best director and/or best screenplay. Advantage goes to Slave, since Harvey Weinstein  publicly praised it.
    The 86th Academy Awards airs Sunday, March 2, at 7e/4p on ABC.