These days, watching TV feels a little too similar to my old dating life: At first I’m commitment-phobic, insisting I don’t have the time to get all wrapped up in a series. Then I check out a first episode, and if that goes well, I promise myself to take it slow, keep it casual. Of course, my “one episode a night” rule instantly turns to four, and there’s no time for anything else ’cause it’s the only thing I want to talk about. When it all ends—and not to sound bitter or anything, but that’s what these shows do to you every time—I feel stranded and prickly. Friends try to hook me up with new series, but I tell them I’m fine. Really, I just need some space.
Throughout all of this, I crave what is only human: consolation, synopsis, analysis, gossip. Back when the world watched TV programs at more or less the same time, these things were found at the proverbial water cooler, where co-workers gathered to dissect what had transpired the night before. But since DVRs and streaming services allow everyone to view a series on their own time, any discussion is quickly thwarted by, “Stop! I’m only on Episode 2!” Or worse, “Wait till I’m done breastfeeding and have time to watch!”
Thankfully, the web is bursting with recaps, the relatively new trend of posting episode reviews as soon as they premiere. I’m partial to the ones on Vulture and The New York Times, while friends swear by the A.V. Club and Hitfix. Either way, these rush-job summaries—as informative and annoying as your real-life coworkers—fall into four distinct categories:
1. The Straight-Up Synopsis. These plot-focused, just-the-facts rundowns are a huge help after watching, say, the more policy-driven episodes of House of Cards, where it’s easy to get lost in all the political babble. (Mommy, what’s a “backchannel”?) But when applied to a half-hour sitcom format, it can feel like reading a “See Spot Run” primer—pointless and rather insulting to one’s intelligence.
2. The “Hate Watch” Hatchet Job. This is when the writer clearly loves hating the show, or just plain hates the show, and proceeds to cyber-bully the crap out of it. Often, as with Rachel Shukert’s recaps of Smash a few years back, the results can be more fun than the show itself. Right now, the Empire recaps on Vulture are taking tons of irresistible cheap shots. “I hear Macy Gray will play another one of Hakeem’s lovers in a future episode,” writes Craig D. Lindsey. “I’m not looking forward to that sh*t at all.”
3. The “I Can Do This Better” Proposal. Halfway through a Vulture recap of a Looking episode, I read this passage: “On Girls, so many of the performers talk too fast and don’t land all of their jokes because they skim right past them. [Looking star Lauren] Weedman talks just as fast as, say, Zosia Mamet’s exhausting Shoshanna on Girls, but she gets her laughs by shaping certain words in her rapid-fire delivery, which is a matter of emphasis more than anything else.” Then I threw up in my mouth.
4. The “This Isn’t a TV Show, It’s a Film” Thesis. Mostly reserved for works of A-List gravitas (Mad Men, The Wire, The Sopranos), these motherf*ckers go deep. We’re talking shot-by-shot analysis, Shakespearian reference, historical context, the works. It doesn’t get any better than Matt Zoller Seitz’s obsessive decoding of Breaking Bad, which deserves to be published as its own ebook. It’s too early to tell if Better Call Saul will inspire similar academic discourse. Perhaps I’ll give it a shot, once I’m ready to start dating again.