TV NotesThe TV Recappers: From 'Breaking Bad' to Honey Boo Boo
By John Jurgensen, Wall Street Journal
- Aug. 16, 2013
The biggest challenges facing most "Breaking Bad" fans during the crime drama's final weeks are coping with cliffhangers and nervously speculating about the show's conclusion. The stakes are higher for viewers like Donna Bowman. Every Sunday night, within a few hours of the final credits, Ms. Bowman completes a written analysis of the episode, decoding the narrative of one of the most tightly written dramas in TV history. She must anticipate questions in the minds of thousands of readers waiting to read her review online Monday morning and, if she's on her game, get some laughs in the process.
A 47-year-old theology professor at the University of Central Arkansas, Ms. Bowman has been dissecting "Breaking Bad" since its debut five years ago on AMC. Her own audience has ballooned with the show's prestige. During season 1, her weekly reviews garnered a couple of hundred comments each from readers. Her breakdown of last week's premiere episode (which set a viewership record for the series) received about 3,000 comments the first day. Her posts routinely get more views than anything else on the website paying her to write them, the A.V. Club, a sister publication of the Onion which attracts more than 1 million unique visitors a month.
"I'm very proud to have been there since episode 1," Ms. Bowman says. "That's a long time in Internet or television years."
If a TV series has mustered enough of a following to stay on the air, it has likely attracted scribes that churn out the episodic plot summaries known as recaps. In a reflection of how we devour and digest television now, the number of TV recaps has exploded in recent years. Unlikely outlets from political magazines to local news affiliates are publishing CliffsNotes-style summaries of "Under the Dome" and "Big Brother," piggybacking on the shows' popularity and thrusting themselves into competition with established entertainment sites and individual bloggers. (The Wall Street Journal's Speakeasy blog posts recaps of about 10 shows per week, from "Mad Men" to the reality TV spectacle "Here Comes Honey Boo Boo.")
Recaps have emerged as a cornerstone of TV culture in a phase of major transition. For networks, they are indicators of buzz at a time when traditional Nielsen ratings don't tell the whole story. Though the weekly scrutiny annoys some producers, others monitor recaps to help guide storytelling decisions. When creators of the CBS drama "The Good Wife" were preparing to reveal a major secret about a character in season 2, "we kept track of the recaps to make sure the deceptive plot points were truly misleading," said executive producer Robert King in an email. Conversely, recaps of last season's big finale suggested that viewers hadn't fully grasped the main character's romantic motives. "Clearly, our plot movement here wasn't explicit enough. And we intend to address it," Mr. King said.
Yet the rise of recaps has most to do with the transformation of the TV audience at large. Not only are viewers more inclined to sound off online about the minutiae of their favorite shows, many are also looking for insights about a growing number of serial dramas with complex and sophisticated storytelling. The best recaps serve a dual purpose: guiding fans of a show through subtleties (or entire episodes) they might have missed, and serving as fixed hubs of discussion for readers whose viewing patterns are staggered by time-shifting.
Nine minutes after "Breaking Bad" ended last Sunday, Washington, D.C., college student Brett Rudman wrote on Twitter, "I need @andygreenwald to tell me what I just watched," joining other fans of the show in alerting Mr. Greenwald, a critic for ESPN's Grantland site, that they were awaiting his conclusions.
There's also a more basic driver of recap activity: They drum up steady web traffic for the content-hungry sites that host them. That has helped transform the role of professional TV critics, who in the past would weigh in on a series (in a newspaper or magazine column, of course) at its premiere or at pivotal moments in its run. Now that no longer seems sufficient to keep pace with viewers.
It's impossible to tally the number of sites that regularly publish recaps, but the demand has spawned a growing labor force: 21st-century piece workers who pound out posts during the graveyard shift between prime-time TV and the early-morning deadlines of the websites they work for.
Jacob Clifton doses up on various supplements—MiO caffeine mix, 5-Hour Energy drink, Prolab caffeine tablets, stovetop espresso—to cover up to five shows a week, sometimes three in one night. A freelance writer in Austin, Texas, he makes his living writing recaps for the site Television Without Pity, where some of his treatises run to 20 online pages and include made-up character dialogue that delivers his running commentary. It takes him up to four hours to recap a one-hour drama as he pauses each scene on his DVR, writes it up on his laptop, then moves on to the next scene. In a recent explication of the teen show "Pretty Little Liars" (season 4, episode 8) he made references to Homer (the poet, not the Simpson) and the Dust Bowl.
"If I can be the one to take a show so seriously that's it's ludicrous," he says. "Then my readers will feel less weird about taking the show as seriously as they do."
Some shows are more conducive than others to the recap treatment. Though "NCIS" is the most-watched program on television, its procedural crime-of-the-week formula doesn't leave many viewers clamoring for a post-show deconstruction. After author Rachel Shukert chronicled the two-season flameout of "Smash," an NBC show about a Broadway show, writing delirious streams of consciousness about "Smash"'s unintended absurdities, Amazon.com approached her to write a memoir about the experience. In the e-book's introduction, she wrote, "'Smash' destroyed my sleep patterns, my workweek, and, I feared for a brief time, my sanity."
People have been writing online recaps since the 1990s. Like any industry hitting maturity, however, this one is reckoning with big changes. Writers accustomed to the weekly rhythms of episodic TV have struggled with how to cover shows from Netflix, which dumps whole seasons onto its streaming service at once. Websites are recruiting professional comedians to riff on "Real Housewives" and veteran advertising executives to parse "Mad Men," leaving less demand for the entry-level writers who sell recaps for $20 each—or less—to get their foot in the door.
One occupational hazard: When a slow-starting show suddenly becomes a hit, as ABC's "Scandal" did this year in its second season, some sites were caught flat-footed. They'd ignored the show through in season 1.
"I wish I could get a do-over on that," says Daniel Manu, site director of Television Without Pity, the first website to build a broad audience by publishing recaps; launched in 1999 under a different name, it was purchased by NBCUniversal in 2007 and covers about 40 shows during the peak fall TV season.
Gilbert Cruz, deputy editor of New York magazine's Vulture, says, "Every site has to play the traffic game. If you were to remove the recaps from the site, we would take a huge hit." Post-mortems on last night's programming also give editors a head start on the 20-plus TV items Vulture publishes on a typical day. "Recaps are the reliable foundation. You know you're going to have that every morning. The challenge is to distinguish yourself with the writing."
Like TV networks canceling shows that sag in the ratings, recap sites routinely scrub shows from their lineups if they don't generate enough traffic or discussion. Hitfix.com recently cut recaps of the NBC singing competition "The Voice," one of the most popular shows on television. "The people on our site didn't have any particular interest. It petered out after a season-and-a-half," says HitFix Executive Editor Daniel Fienberg.
On the other hand, sites cover some series out of obligation to readers or the shows' perceived relevance. Todd VanDerWerff, TV editor and chief TV critic at the A.V. Club, says the animated comedy "South Park" can be punishing to review on a weekly basis, because the satire is overt and the characters never change. But the site has a mandate to document important TV shows in this way, not unlike a news outlet handling an obscure a political race. "It's like covering the Iowa caucus campaigns. 'South Park' is that for us," says Mr. VanDerWerff, who rotates writers on the show (now in its 16th season) to avoid burnout. Still, those reviews often rack up hundreds of comments, usually from readers debating whether the show has maintained or squandered its greatness.
In addition to current series, A.V. Club scribes are currently working their way through some that ended years ago, including "Friends," "Gilmore Girls" and "Freaks and Geeks." It's a library on defunct shows that viewers continue to discover on video. Mr. Manu of Television Without Pity says archived recaps of "Buffy the Vampire Slayer," "The West Wing," and "Friday Night Lights" routinely get tens of thousands of hits per month. "People are still trying to figure out what the heck was going on in 'Lost,'" he adds.
Like any trade, recapping has its version of combat duty. Though many networks make episodes of their shows available to reviewers in advance of the air date (usually on DVD or password-protected websites), sometimes they choose not to, especially in the case of finales and other carefully guarded episodes. Ms. Bowman enjoyed early access to most "Breaking Bad" episodes in previous seasons, giving her days for observations to "marinate." But she was stressed for most of this summer about having to critique the final episodes sight unseen. That contributed to her decision to focus more on her academic career, less on analyzing fictional TV characters into the pre-dawn hours: "I'm too old for that," says the married mother of two. "I'm getting out of the recapping game."
Showrunners have been known to praise and interact with certain recappers. Alex Gansa, an executive producer of the Emmy-winning thriller "Homeland," says he admires the writing of Mr. VanDerWerff and others. Overall, however, he says recaps are problematic, like reviewing a novel chapter by chapter. "This insane scrutiny and dissection of each episode as if it has a beginning, middle, and an end is kind of maddening to those of us doing the show. I can't read those things anymore," Mr. Gansa says.
Even the terminology is somewhat divisive. Though there are plenty of writers who simply run down the events in an episode, often in the style of a snarky stenographer, established critics distance themselves from the word "recap." Indeed, their weekly deep dives have become Rosetta stones to many fans of densely packed serials such as "Mad Men," which brims with literary allusions and self-referential symbolism.
Alan Sepinwall, a prolific critic who helped refine the form with his episodic reviews of "The Sopranos" for the Newark Star Ledger, says the recap boom has yielded a lot of great writing—and too many writers ruminating about the usual suspects, like "Game of Thrones" and other lauded cable dramas. "In theory, what's great about the army of recappers out there is that there are so many shows they could be writing about," says Mr. Sepinwall, who now writes for HitFix. "It's not evenly distributed."
Danielle Henderson entered the ranks of paid recappers by identifying just such a niche. She loved comedian Julie Klausner's breathless recaps of the "Real Housewives" shows set in Beverly Hills and New York City for Vulture, but she was irked that the site ignored her favorite version in Atlanta. She successfully lobbied for the job. It was she who later picked up "Scandal" in the middle of season 2.
Ms. Henderson, a 36-year-old PhD candidate in communications at the University of Washington in Seattle, is now writing her way through "Orange Is the New Black," the latest original series from Netflix. For the recapper, this has posed a peculiar challenge, because some of her readers have already seen all 13 episodes, which were released simultaneously on July 11. Ms. Henderson has set a pace of publishing two recaps per week, but has to avoid any reader comments that might shape her thinking about coming episodes.
One of her "Orange" writings included the assessment, "The chicken is both real and an allegory, a symbol of impossibility and freedom." Another one jumped off from a point of personal history: "I gave up on Catholicism in 1985 when, at 7-years old, I started lying to the priest in confession each week about the made-up terrible things I did."
Some of her readers have been pulling their own weight in the comments section by identifying references to the popular prison movie "The Shawshank Redemption," or speculating about the books that appear in the show, such as Virginia Woolf's "A Room of One's Own."
To some, such minute observations would seem superfluous. While visiting the Warwick, N.Y., home of her grandmother, Ms. Henderson's was working on an "Orange" recap when 80-year-old Carole Lacey interrupted to ask why she was typing on her laptop while watching a TV show. Ms. Henderson says her explanation of her side job perplexed her grandmother, as it does other members of "the TV Guide generation."
It's not that Ms. Lacey doesn't like television—she's counting the days until the return of "The Walking Dead"—she just can't identify with the urge to write or read about a TV show's deeper meanings. The grandmother says, "I don't know what's so complicated about it."http://online.wsj.com/article/SB10001424127887324769704579008593725664338.html?mod=WSJ_ArtsEnt_LifestyleArtEnt_4