I just missed an anniversary. It was 22 years ago yesterday that I made my first Usenet post. (I was talking about fantasy baseball.) While I remember my Usenet days with pleasure, I don’t think about them too often. The baseball talk (both general and Giants-related) has moved elsewhere, with many of the people who posted having become “names” in the process. Same thing with soccer talk, although without the resultant “stardom”. The most intense television talk came in alt.tv.nypd-blue. It was here that a college student named Alan Sepinwall started posting weekly recaps of the latest episodes of NYPD Blue. Sepinwall wasn’t the first Internet recapper, but he was one of the best (as was Amanda Wilson, who took over the NYPD Blue gig when Sepinwall got a real job after college). Sepinwall is a good writer and an even better critic … or maybe the two feed off of each other and there’s no good/better about it. Anyway, Sepinwall’s name always comes up when people talk about the plethora of websites offering weekly episode recaps, even as he continues to expand the horizons of his writing.
Lili Loofbourow has a piece in The Guardian, “How recaps changed the way we think about TV – and our lives”. She kicks things off by stating, “Barrels of virtual ink have been spilled on the Golden Age of Television, and the time has come to take stock of its poor relation, the Bronze Age of Television Criticism.” She continues:
We may not be a churchgoing public anymore, but there remains a deep hunger for sustained, ethical, collective conversation. We are lonely. We long for a public square. But there are other aspects to our national character, such as it is: we are intellectually lazy. We fear politics. We have been shaped by centuries of Bible study. It’s no surprise that TV analysis appeals. There aren’t many situations in a post-religious society where a group of people passionately invested in a story can gather on a weekly basis to discuss its ramifications for how we live today.
“If TV is the new scripture,” she writes, “recaps are the new sermons.”
I find her argument intriguing, partly because I can bounce a few ideas of my own off of hers. A few days ago, I caught a few minutes of a new show my wife was watching, Scorpion. I can’t tell you if it was good or bad, although my wife has continued to watch it, so at least one person finds it appealing. But in the few minutes I watched, I felt that I could already categorize it into one of two categories. Now, these binary comparisons aren’t worth much, and I haven’t even figured out what to call them in this case. But in one group, you have TV shows that act as comfort food … they are familiar, like updated reruns, and some of them are very good, as you’d expect. I don’t watch many of these kinds of shows, but I can imagine myself falling into a pattern of happily watching them, one after another. The other group of shows aren’t intent on familiarity. They usually feature characters that you get to know over the long haul, which to my mind is more important than the long story arcs that are often cited as being what makes the Golden Age different. In Scorpion, there was a brief opening scene to introduce the premise of the show (geniuses save the world). All of the main characters are introduced, identified as stereotypes: the behaviorist, the engineer, the statistical phenom, etc. I realized immediately that if I turned this show on during Season Six (assuming it lasts that long), I’d recognize all of those characters. They might develop a few more quirks, or feature in an episode designed to give them a bit of back story, but their consistency is a part of what makes them, and the show, comfort food. I could be wrong about Scorpion … five minutes really isn’t enough to come up with a value judgment … but I bet I’m right, and at least, there are many other series that work in a similar manner. Take another show we watched for fifteen or twenty minutes, Blue Bloods. It’s probably a good show … well, it’s now in its fifth season, so clearly people like it. It’s a cop show, and I’m guessing here, since again, I haven’t seen this, so I’m relying on Wikipedia. Donnie Wahlberg is the co-star, playing “a top NYPD detective, holding the rank of Detective First Grade” who “is sometimes hard-nosed and does not always go by the book.” It’s a character we’ve seen a thousand times. His boss is played by Tom Selleck, who spent eight seasons in the 1980s playing Magnum, P.I. (His character’s name in Blue Bloods is “Reagan”.)
The point isn’t that these are bad shows, or good shows, or mediocre shows. It’s that they are designed to be comfort food. The best of them do that job efficiently, and if they have a good cast and writers, they can run for many seasons at a decent level. But you wouldn’t expect them to push the boundaries of their chosen genre.
Compare them to the most-acclaimed of the “Golden Age” cop shows, The Wire. Everything was ambiguous, you couldn’t easily pin down a character because they were too complex, narratives only resolved over time (and sometimes never resolved at all), the line between good-guy and bad-guy was never completely clear. Like shows such as Blue Bloods, The Wire featured fine actors. Unlike Blue Bloods, it was hard to tell exactly who the “main character” was, if indeed such a character existed (none of the more important characters appeared in every episode). A look at the Wikipedia page for The Wire gives a sense of what the cast was like. On the main page, you’ll find a section, “Cast and characters,” that begins with a link to “Main article: List of The Wire characters”. Click that link, and you are presented with links to separate pages dedicated to law enforcement characters, politicians, “the street”, schools, “the docks”, and the newspaper. Underneath that is a section titled “Starring cast”. It lists 36 separate characters.
Again, step away from value judgments here … the idea is to identify two generalized groups of television series, one I call “comfort food” and another which, lacking a better name, I’d call “shows today’s critics think make a Golden Age”. There is something about that opening minute of Scorpion that signifies it is a comfort food show, just as Blue Bloods, with Tom Selleck as “Reagan”, is a comfort food show. A show like The Wire is irritatingly complicated. If you want to take it on its own terms, you’ll have to work at it, which makes it the vegetable on your plate next to the Scorpion mashed potatoes.
Which takes us back to recaps. Recaps of comfort food shows aren’t particularly useful, although in the right hands, they can make for entertaining reading. On the other hand, recaps of “Golden Age” shows have become almost a requirement … we’re looking for help, hoping others can fill in what we’ve missed (and we know there are things we’ve missed, and we know it matters … who cares if you miss ten minutes of Criminal Minds, it’ll still be there in the same place when you get back, and if not, well, there’s always the next episode, and the next episode, and the next episode).
It’s a bit ironic that Sepinwall started by recapping NYPD Blue, which in today’s context seems fairly tame and not very outlandish … if you watched an episode today, you’d probably think it was comfort food. At the beginning, they cussed a bit more than the average network series, and you saw somebody’s bare butt, but really, it wasn’t much different from what came before. Sepinwall (and Amanda Wilson after him) made the recaps work by using analysis. There’s something else, which I argued in my essay, “From Sisyphus to Junior, Or How Andy Sipowicz Made NYPD Blue Safe for Syndication”: David Caruso’s John Kelly, the central character of the series, was an existential hero whose angst couldn’t be resolved without destroying what made the character unique. The problem was that it’s hard to get people to watch brooding angst for very long. John Kelly wasn’t a copycat example of the cop who “doesn’t always go by the book”. Kelly was gone early in Season Two, and Andy Sipowicz, played by Dennis Franz, became the main character. He had many flaws, but they were flaws that could be conquered. Despite his bluster, Sipowicz was far more comforting than Kelly, and the series ran for twelve seasons.
(I’m getting lost in rhetoric, as often happens when I do these long posts. This is what good editors do, take something with good ideas and pare it down to the essentials. That doesn’t happen very often on a blog. I haven’t gotten around to talking about the different ways we watch television compared to only a few years ago. I used to write about a show at the beginning and end of every season, the beginning because I wanted to encourage people to watch, the end because I wanted to sum up a season. But nowadays, it’s more like writing about old movies. Few of us watch TV shows in real time. As I type this, I’m behind an episode of Sons of Anarchy and Walking Dead and Homeland and a couple of episodes behind on a few others, plus there are series like Amazon’s Transparent and Netflix’s Happy Valley where all of the episodes are released simultaneouly … am I “behind” because I still have two episodes to go on both of them? And when I finally write, I’m just leaving a marker for when someone binge-watches a season down the road and wants to see if I had anything to say about it.)