< The Art of the Recap


Friday, October 15, 2010

BROOKE GLADSTONE: This is On the Media. I'm Brooke Gladstone.

BOB GARFIELD: And I'm Bob Garfield. Recapping, the Internet phenomenon of writing synopses of TV shows and movies as soon as they're seen, has exploded in popularity in recent years. And while some websites stick to the straight play-by-play summaries, the best recappers are snarky and smart, engaged in celebrating a show’s weakness, as much as summarizing its plot. The recapping phenomenon began in earnest in the late '90s, when two TV junkies started a website called Television Without Pity, which served up hilarious, meandering meditations on Dawson’s Creek. But The New York Observer noted last month that it wasn't until 2007 that recapping achieved major Internet penetration. That’s when Gawker began recapping the primetime teen soap opera, Gossip Girl, and NBC Universal bought Television Without Pity. Finally, recapping was recognized as an entertainment genre in its own right, one that could really draw a crowd. Richard Lawson recaps a number of shows for Gawker, including Gossip Girl. It’s a show, writes Lawson, that plays as if, quote, “Written by drunk chimpanzees wearing old-timey green accountant visors, smoking Marlboro Ultra Light 100s.” [LAUGHS] Richard, welcome to the show.

RICHARD LAWSON: Hi, Bob, thanks.

BOB GARFIELD: Recaps do recapitulate the events of a TV program but usually, and certainly [LAUGHS] in your case, they do so much more. Why do you recap shows?

RICHARD LAWSON: I guess it’s to continue a conversation that starts the night that you watch the show. It’s kind of a water cooler conversation writ large, I guess.

BOB GARFIELD: So, strictly speaking, you’re not filling people in who have missed the show and just need to be caught up, you’re writing from the point of view that whoever your audience is has actually seen the episode that you’re writing about.

RICHARD LAWSON: There are certain shows that I recap, like American Idol, that are competition shows where, yeah, if you miss an episode you could read what happened, you know, the next day. But yeah, largely I think it’s for an audience that is maybe a little obsessive about whatever show we're talking about, and so we can get really into some silly nitty-gritty about the program.

BOB GARFIELD: Tell me about your approach when you recap, let's just say, Gossip Girl.

RICHARD LAWSON: Gossip Girl’s an example of something that I don't honestly love to watch, but I have a ton of fun writing about it. Certainly, my disdain for the actual show does seep into the - [LAUGHS] to recaps pretty heavily.




RICHARD LAWSON: [LAUGHS] Okay, maybe overtake.


BOB GARFIELD: It’s more like the red Hungarian sludge -


BOB GARFIELD: - that overtakes the town.

RICHARD LAWSON: [LAUGHS] The closest example, and it’s a kind of strange example, is people who are obsessed with celebrities who end up kind of wanting to kill them. It’s the kind of ardent fervor –

[BOB LAUGHS] - for this show that end - you know, it turns out that I just end up trashing it because there’s nothing left to do.

BOB GARFIELD: You’re getting in touch with your inner Mark David Chapman.

RICHARD LAWSON: I, I guess so, yeah. I don't really have a Jodie Foster to try to impress but something like that, yeah.

BOB GARFIELD: Even though you’re taking off after Gossip Girls, do the producers and do the CW Network despise you, or are they delighted that you’re doing this in order to attract more audience to their program?

RICHARD LAWSON: People behind the scenes of the shows tend to just enjoy the attention, no matter what. You know, if I didn't like the show, in some strange way, I wouldn't keep watching and I wouldn't keep writing about it. I do Real Housewives recaps for, you know, the BRAVO series, and I've met some higher-ups at BRAVO who really like that I do them, even though I'm saying some not-so-kind things about the show. Until recently, I've never really gotten any kind of backlash. There was an incident with one of the housewives on the most recent iteration of the show where she was pretty upset about some things [LAUGHS] that I had written about her but, by and large, I think that it’s almost as if our show is on, on Tuesday night but then on Wednesday morning we get another little bit of attention from all the recappers.

BOB GARFIELD: Years ago, we interviewed the founders of Television without Pity. They mentioned that they believed that the writers of the show were actually kind of acknowledging their recaps by inserting sort of sly nods to the recapitulation process in the, the stories themselves. Do you see that as actually taking place?

RICHARD LAWSON: I mean, I've seen it. Unfortunately, they haven't done it for me but New York Magazine’s Daily Intel website does some pretty exhaustive Gossip Girl recaps, and they've mentioned them sort of in a subtle way. And I know that on EntertainmentWeekly.com there was a recapper who did recaps of The O.C., that FOX show, and they pretty obliquely like just mentioned her in the show, and then they gave her a favorite prop from the series. In my case, I think I might be a little bit too [LAUGHS] hard on the shows sometimes to really get their attention in a positive way. But who knows?

BOB GARFIELD: So what are you? Are you, in fact, an entertainment journalist?

RICHARD LAWSON: No, I wouldn't say so. I'm a writer, and I write fiction and I write plays and poetry and, and all that other stuff, and the recapping stuff, the blogging stuff is fun, different and, in my case, really unexpected. There’s a lot of room. You know, it’s kind of frontier territory, in terms of what you can do and what people are willing to accept.

BOB GARFIELD: You know, with the fragmentation of media, the notion of 50 percent of the entire country watching an episode of Gunsmoke and then talking about it at the water cooler the next day, that’s gone, but the desire for communal experience is not gone. So you’re just kind of a facilitator for people doing what people do.

RICHARD LAWSON: If you look at any of the posts on Gawker, really the discussion of the show in earnest takes place in the comments. So, if nothing else, I'm at least providing a kind of springboard for readers and commenters to point out little details that they thought were funny, and they always get very excited either when I mention something that they're like, oh, yeah, I did notice that, or, you know, another commenter says it. It’s that kind of shared recognition that someone else across the country was sitting down and watching the same thing you were.

BOB GARFIELD: Thank you so much.

RICHARD LAWSON: Thanks a lot, Bob.

BOB GARFIELD: Richard Lawson is a staff writer for Gawker.com, where he recaps.