Previously On: In Praise of the Television Recap Sequence

As plots become more and more complex, the humble summation has risen to an art form.  

AMC/Fox/The Atlantic

We’re in a golden age of television, say critics in chorus, during which time shows’ plots have thickened agreeably. Dramas like Breaking Bad, Homeland, The Wire, Mad Men, and True Detective, to name some of the most lauded, are marvels of continuity, inviting viewers not only to watch, but also to dwell in their fine-grained narrative universes, with their multivalent characters and carefully layered references. If TV series in their first few decades were intended to be seen haphazardly, by a “presumably distracted and undiscriminating viewer,” writes media scholar Jason Mittell, “today’s complex narratives are designed for a discerning viewer not only to pay close attention to once, but to rewatch."

Yet even the most discerning viewers are human, and humans don't always have photographic memories. In a time of “novelistic” television, even a committed watcher might need a memory job when she settles in for season five, episode six. She relies on the little storytelling tool that you might call the unsung workhorse of complex TV: the recap sequence, which often begins with a narrator intoning, “previously on.” The decades-old staple of television, now fading in prevalence, is inextricably tied to the rise of intricate narratives on the small screen.

Running from 1955 to 1961, The Life and Legend of Wyatt Earp was among the very first series that presented a continuing storyline—and that used the recap sequence. A few voice-over sentences usually sufficed to summarize the events of the previous Tuesday evening, because the show really only had one plot line, one life and legend. Its first season was a sort of mini-series: six episodes with a major story arc—unusual on television in those days, although then again everything was. These were the pioneer days, and everyone was experimenting.

As far as fictional storytelling went, television executives quickly found they wanted shows that could be scheduled to run in any order, and multiple times. “Reruns were big business,” says Tim Brooks, the TV historian and former network executive. “It’s very difficult to program things with a week-to-week schedule.” So they discarded serialized storylines in favor of standalone 30- or 60-minute episodes, to let viewers tune in at their leisure. Networks could replay old episodes without worrying about narrative context, and maximize their financial gain. The standalone format, which accordingly had no use for the recap sequence, reigned for decades, organizing comedies and procedurals and dramas alike. It’s worth mentioning, though, that some of the most popular shows of the day did devise other kinds of entrees into the situations of their comedy, like certain theme songs now indissoluble from memory (Gilligan's Island, Beverly Hillbillies, I'm looking at you). Each episode was a fresh start, a welcome wave to viewers veteran and probationary.

Storytelling—and in turn, recap sequences—didn’t much evolve until the late 1970s and early 1980s with the rise of “quality” primetime soaps and police dramas like Dynasty and Knot’s Landing, which embraced storylines that arced over whole seasons. A 30-minute, snappy resolution wasn't the first priority, though nor was novelistic complexity; these shows were a kind of stepping point. “For the first time, it was important to know what happened before,” TV historian Gary Edgerton says. “And it was important to follow along.” Edgerton says that the knitted architecture of these shows challenged viewers at first, but a new form of recapping—the splice-and-dice from previous episodes that's now so intimately familiar—became integral in ferrying the viewer along to the following week. It was also helpful for viewers who still treated television as a medium of convenience—if you'd missed last week’s episode, the recap was there.

In the ‘90s, critical and popular hits like Twin Peaks, The X-Files, and Buffy the Vampire Slayer dramatically upped the stakes of what television plots could look like. A sophisticated narrative with sophisticated characters became a broad expectation. And increasingly, the recap evolved from summarizing what happened “previously on” and became a new kind of narrative form unto itself, essential to the mechanics of the show it represented.

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.

So perhaps the gradual vanishing of the recap is out of necessity—for those watching multiple episodes in a row, a 45-second recap may feel like a waste of time. But its disappearance is a shame—and is certainly out of sync with the universe of Internet recapping that exists off the screen and fully online. What began as a cottage industry among show fanatics with blogs has morphed into a mainstay of every respectable outlet of cultural criticism (alas, Television Without Pity lived and died along the way). Some online recaps are pure play-by-plays; others highly analytical. “Not to compare myself to anybody else,” Gawker recapper Jacob Clifton told The Observer back in 2010, “but my image of myself has always been sort of [Jacques] Derrida or somebody, [Roland] Barthes, in a shop window being like,  ‘Well here’s what the story’s really about.'”

Online recaps are different animals than those attached to a show. But the scope and depth of the former say a lot about the latter. TV recaps are no longer simply about what was “previously on”; they’ve evolved into a new kind of narrative form, a vehicle for viewers to drive deeper into the technical, emotional, and narrative particulars of their show. Perhaps the Netflixes and HBOGos of the world will realize this—or at least think of the committed viewer who might appreciate an occasional memory-jog—and give us a recap button.

Thanks to scholars John Ellis and Lisa Surridge for their insight.