Some recaps are technical masterpieces. On a complex show, an editor might have to reach back into previous seasons to pluck the narrative buds that the latest episode unfurls. Sharp, quick cuts of dialogue work with expert visual precision (Friday Night Lights did an extraordinary job with this—a character walks into the night with a pissed-off expression, while another character, seen in the previous fragment, describes her perspective on the drama in voice-over). Other recaps play a more expository role, and might not even be chronological, as with The Newsroom or Lost, which kicked off its last few seasons with hour-long recaps. And some shows choose to set a mood rather than offer any kind of chronology, as on Mad Men, whose enigmatic recaps and teasers have proved maddening to some viewers.
Different forms of recaps activate the memory differently, argues Mittel, triggering, teasing, or even confounding the viewer’s cognitive processes. Jonathan Pledger, a television editor who’s worked on The Office, Devious Maids, and Red Band Society, compares the work of creating recaps to fitting together a puzzle: “But a way more intricate puzzle, because there’s not just one way to put things together,” he says. “One scene could be cut five different ways. There could be different subtext, or a different tone. It’s infinite.” Yet most recaps log in at less than one minute. A great one is like a haiku.
Recaps help establish a show’s terra firma in an ever-crowded TV landscape. “There are 352 original comedies and dramas with actual narratives and writing,” writes Kevin Fallon at The Daily Beast. “352 series that are fully staffed with writers and actors and directors. 352 series that are competing for Emmys and Golden Globes and SAGs and—even more importantly—your attention.” Again, by necessity, recaps (not to mention title sequences, which on many contemporary shows are arguably outgrowths of the old situating theme song approach) are key in the business of attention-grabbing. It’s not for nothing that Boardwalk Empire’s first 45 seconds look and sound like a movie trailer, or that Mad Men’s are sometimes so infuriatingly opaque. They create an alluring and recognizable identity for their shows, and have done admirable work in keeping their viewers loyal and committed.
But then again, switching the channel may be becoming less of an issue, with more viewers watching television primarily via streaming services like Netflix, Hulu, Amazon, and HBOGo. These platforms are running their own highly acclaimed, narratively complex series—but they don’t contain recaps. The logic is perhaps the logic of binge-watching: If you’ve untethered yourself from network scheduling and come to a streaming service, you’ll watch several episodes back-to-back, and you won’t need any pre-episode reminding. In fact, on HBOGo, complex shows like The Wire, The Sopranos, Boardwalk Empire, and others that lived long, happy lives on television before they surfaced online, no longer include the recaps they were born with.