Over at AUFS, Adam Kotsko names the problem with the “recap” as a form of TV criticism. (Incidentally Adam, if you’re ever looking for somewhere to blog about TV…) I think it’s telling that recaps weren’t something I was ever knowingly aware of until I started thinking about this blog. (What Adam refers to as “write-ups” aren’t generally distinguished on the web from recaps.) It’s a form without currency in the British blogosphere – what’s left of it anyway – & I don’t think I’ve ever read any British blogger or web-zine using it. There are reasons for this of course: it seems to have originated from the online outcrops of the American press & to be almost exclusively keyed in to the rhythms of US television, with its seasonal waves of new shows & seasons arriving every autumn. It appears, moreover, as a slightly pointless form in the context of the British press: most of the major newspapers publish reviews of “last night’s telly” in the morning editions (watched on preview DVDs of course).
There has, as it happens, been a critical fuss over the recap in the past year, split, predictably, between those who argue that, as an emergent form, recaps are the only critical game in town & those who accuse them of emasculating critique, deforming it into to data etc etc. (In the latter camp is, equally predictably, most of the “difficult men” responsible for these difficult series: Davids Simon & Chase, the astoundingly irritable & irritating Matthew Weiner.) The bald–men–fighting-over-a-comb quality of this tussle invites a dialectical reading that recognises the problem of the recap without lapsing into nostalgia for a Golden Age of Substantial Criticism that never existed*.
There are some obvious points to make. One: the recap only works for narrative-driven “event” television – the kind of thing Adam has called High Quality Cable Drama**. There would be no point leading the reader through what happened on last night’s Man Vs Food Nation. The increasingly fragmented temporality of contemporary TV, derailed by easy recording, confused programming & the presence of a host of simultaneous channels isn’t conducive to the punctual, episodic focus of the recap. To judge by many episode recaps, it’s as if we weren’t all mostly watching TV on lossy or interrupted streams, but ensconced, undistracted, in front of our nice HDTVs as if it were still 2000, everybody, in that spectral, wishfully-thought image of community, glued to the same show. Two: this inbuilt snobbery is accompanied by a bourgeois privileging of psychological narrative over everything else that constitutes the ambient haze of TV, its decomposition into moments and lacunae. “Small movements or gestures… – moments of unlikely energy, reflection, emptying or light” as Ian Penman put it “can affect you way out of proportion to their supposed ‘importance’.” The half-heard 40s ballads & actors’ faces like looming, unseeing planets in Mad Men mean much more to me – & seem to be more important to the show – than the story convolutions of wh/ Phillip Maciak gives a slightly bloated account. Three: I really don’t buy Matt Zoller Seitz’s line about “Writing fast [as] writing on instinct… You have to give up your inhibitions and let your fingertips dance on the keys.” As someone who did three years of a creative writing degree I can confirm that first thought ≠ best thought. Unless the conditions themselves are right the unconscious isn’t going to come to your rescue. Four: “tired” is more or less the right word. As the note of despair in Adam’s penultimate paragraph suggests, it’s structural. Every technology that opens up new potentialities in cultural forms also comes w/ its own new set of blockages – &, indeed, unrealised possibilities. What is the focus on recaps or overnight reviews preventing or obscuring? Well, given that most of the long-form writing on TV is ridiculously boring & point-missing, that’s one outcome. But also: asides, fragments, montages (like Chris Petit’s “Flickers”), unsententious threads of thought, video-essays. Who knows? The congruence of the recap to the rhythms of social media – not merely the demand for insta-reaction but the libidinal static of the notification or bumping-up inbox number – prevents anything other than the hegemonic temporality intruding into criticism, nothing other than a criticism rendered one-dimensional.
*My own preferences in TV criticism past & – to some extent – present is for eccentrics & exceptions. Ian Penman’s TV columns from the 80s (selected in Vital Signs) are a kind of highwater mark, along w/ Raymond Williams’ 70s columns for The Listener (available in an insanely expensive Routledge edition).
**Incidentally, I don’t really buy the narrative, rehearsed by Maciak in the articles above, of a TV “revolution” made possible by the explosion of The Sopranos, as much as I dearly love that show & some of those that took their cue from it (The Wire & Mad Men to name only the obvious). Serial drama that strings narrative threads across seasons: what about Our Friends in the North? Dennis Potter? Twin Peaks? The Rockford Files? Even – god forbid – Dynasty?