| Arts & Culture
Television TV Recaps Taught Me How to Write Criticism
They provided a blueprint by showing the critical apparatus in a container transparent enough that I could see the inner workings.
The internet has blown the lid off traditional genres of media. Who would have thought, merely a few decades ago, that when asked about their entertainment interests someone might respond that they like to watch strangers giving house tours, or close-up videos of pimples being popped?
It’s surprising that within this endless pool of content, where the boundaries between “high” and “low” culture seem blurred if not erased, there might still be room for a guilty pleasure. But for me, one of those indulgences has been rewatch podcasts. These shows have become a genre of their own, offering episode-by-episode breakdowns and analyses of TV shows. In the low-serotonin months of 2020 and 2021, I searched for different iterations on this theme: chatty shows deep-diving into old sitcoms, weekly recaps of the reality shows I was currently watching, and even years-old dissections of long-canceled series I’d barely seen (I’m looking at you, The X-Files Files ). I thought this habit would pass, like the three-month period during lockdown in which I was unable to watch anything but Frasier reruns. But instead my obsession has deepened into a kind of ritual––one that’s become central to my writing.
This past fall, I started an MFA program in fiction. The coursework necessitates an hour-long train commute, and when I put in my earbuds in the morning, I find my thumb scrolling helplessly past the things I feel that I—as a writer with pretty snobbish tastes—“should be” reading and listening to and instead tapping again and again on Office Ladies .
I’m clearly not alone in this. The show premiered in the top spot of Apple podcast’s weekly rankings in 2019 and currently has more than eighty thousand reviews on that platform . It was the fifteenth-most listened-to podcast on the Stitcher app in 2020, according to a report by the listening app . In fact, TV-recap podcasts seem to be a growing genre. As Slate notes, “celeb recap” podcasts began with the Joshua Malina–hosted West Wing Weekly in 2016 but proliferated during the pandemic, when celebrities, like many others, found themselves with a lot more time on their hands. Now you can listen to a former Gilmore Girls love interest watch the show for the first time, hear Mark-Paul Gosselaar wax poetic about Saved by the Bell , or take in the “little content” and “pretty weird vibes” (per Slate) of Jennie Garth and Tori Spelling’s 90210 rewatch. Seeing lists of these shows online or hearing them promoted in ads on other podcasts, my knee-jerk reaction was a scoff. I couldn’t help but assume they were an easy cash grab mixed with a way to revive a flailing career.
In the case of Office Ladies, it’s actors Jenna Fischer and Angela Kinsey. As they say in the intro, “we were on The Office together—and we’re best friends!” The show is just as saccharine as that tagline suggests. Yet somehow, I can’t stop listening to it. Despite the fact that I’ve seen The Office innumerable times. Despite the fact that if you were to ask me before pressing play, I’d tell you I don’t particularly care which lines in each episode were improvised or what kind of craft services the cast received on set or where in Los Angeles each supposedly Pennsylvanian location was shot. Somehow, for an hour every Wednesday, I’m riveted.
When I was in high school, my parents finally purchased a DVD player. Our meager collection of discs included the first three seasons of The Office . I remember sprawling on the family sofa and, having exhausted my repeated views of every episode, pressing play on the episode-commentary tracks. As an adult, those lazy afternoons seem so long and impossibly luxurious. How did I have so much free time that I could watch every commentary on every episode? I feel jealous of that kid.
I got a bit older. I moved from sprawling on the living room couch to sitting on my bed with a clunky old laptop. And I discovered a natural successor to those commentary tracks: written TV recaps.
It wasn’t long before I began reading recaps of shows I had never seen and had no plans to watch.
Recaps emerged on the internet of the 1990s, mostly on fan-run sites where dedicated TV viewers broke down their favorites, episode by episode. Over the following decades, this format carved out an undeniable niche. As The Ringer puts it, “The recap, as it’s now known, starts from a simple, user-friendly premise: What if, instead of simply telling viewers whether or not they should spend their time on a show before it even airs, a writer tracked a program’s ups and downs for the people who’d already made that commitment?” In the 2000s, sites like Television Without Pity and The A.V. Club made recapping central to their content, and outlets like Vulture , Time , and Entertainment Weekly also assigned writers to the recap beat.
For the shows I loved, recaps were a way to extend the pleasure of viewing week-to-week. It was exciting to see others pore over the minute details of Mad Men or Community. Like fan forums and other internet outlets, recaps were a way to engage with a form of entertainment consumed passively that felt curiously active —a way to compare theories, process what you’d just watched, and try to predict what would happen next .
But recaps were also a form of entertainment in and of themselves. It wasn’t long before I began reading recaps of shows I had never seen and had no plans to watch. In some cases I started watching shows I actively disliked just to see how the recapper would interpret the episode (or maybe take it to task) the next day. Some, like the New York Magazine recaps of Gossip Girl , developed a format entirely their own, rating the soapy teen show’s wild plots and New York name drops on a “Reality Index” —an unauthorized addendum I found more engaging and entertaining than the show itself.
Meanwhile, I was venturing into the world of academia and getting my English degree. “The function of criticism should be to show how it is what it is, even that it is what it is, rather than to show what it means,” Susan Sontag wrote in Against Interpretation . I was introduced to Sontag in one of the film-studies classes that I kept loading onto my schedule despite my stated aim to study English literature. I was taking English and film courses because I loved books and movies, of course, but something else drew me to the notion that I should fill my time reading and watching and thinking and analyzing. What did it mean to read for study rather than for pleasure? Something was opening up before me, and that was criticism.
I was starting to read impressive works of criticism, thoughtful writing that did just what Sontag describes, and I wanted to write that way too. But often, what was demanded instead by my education was a simple “showing what it means.” In survey courses, I filled out tests with multiple-choice questions about the meaning of a symbol in a short story or a line in a poem. My answers would be marked wrong or right. I sat in class with disinterested students looking to fill an English credit who’d slump toward me, wagging their copy of the book that week, saying, “I don’t get it. Do you get this?”
Maybe I often didn’t. But I couldn’t help but feel that getting it wasn’t the point.
Film-studies courses were a magical reprieve. For two hours once a week, I would settle into a gray theater chair in a dim screening room just off the campus library. It had the clean, studious smell I associate with libraries, off-gassing aging plastic and wood. The lights would go out and I would forget about the other twenty eighteen-year-olds and the professor sitting in front of me. It was a space of pure concentration. It was too dark to make notes. You just had to let it wash over you.
Stumbling back into the fluorescent-lit hallways after class, my mind felt full to bursting. There was so much I wanted to say. But how to imitate the writers and theorists I loved so much? Their work was beautiful but impenetrable.
When I wanted to learn to write like a critic, TV recaps offered me a way in. They provided a kind of blueprint by showing the critical apparatus in a container transparent enough that I could start to understand the inner workings. Books, academic articles, or reviews published in print represented weeks, months, years, of thinking and editing. TV recaps by necessity were fast affairs — most of them went up the day (or even mere hours) after the show aired. The recappers usually didn’t know the whole story, providing only their impressions of one entry in a serialized arc. They gave off the unique effect of almost watching someone think in real time. And while there were plenty of straightforward recaps simply recounting the episode beat by beat, the good ones —the writers and sites I found myself returning to over and over again—exhibited something deeper than a replay of the action (“showing what it means,” as Sontag would put it). My favorites offered a kind of fast-paced from-the-hip formal analysis, starting with the effect the episode had generated within them—reacting to a shocking finale, a disappointing season opener, a perfectly executed joke—and trying to find the how and why of it.
Reading these recaps gave me the same feeling as reading Sontag, or Pauline Kael — an experience of criticism as an art form in itself, something with its own pleasures. More than the critics I read for class, who took on works of art and literature already deemed “important,” TV critics were assessing the quality of something at its midpoint, even offering their opinion on whether this nascent thing might one day become important . In a way, a review functions to dignify its subject. Recaps turned the gaze of criticism on something that might be classified as frivolous, “low culture,” unimportant, unworthy.
Academic and podcaster Hannah McGregor — cohost of Witch, Please , an excellent podcast dedicated to rereading the Harry Potter books — wrote in a recent article that making the show had made her a better reader and scholar. She describes her feeling that other academics would perceive her and her cohost as “unserious scholars” and would feel “that our attachment to a popular series should embarrass us.” She quotes English scholar Lisa Ruddick’s 2015 article on the state of academic criticism, which takes to task a strain of aloof “ruthlessness”: “The only way now to replenish academic discourse is through innumerable tiny acts of courage in which people say the uncool things,” Ruddick wrote. This is what McGregor seeks to do by applying academic theory to a children’s book series and by loving openly and engaging emotionally with the subject of her study.
This is also the quality I found in TV recapping. At school, I often felt like the work of interpretation was taught as if art was a puzzle to be solved. To “solve” a poem or a short story necessitated holding art at arm’s length, looking down at it like a specimen about to be dissected. Its effect on me was irrelevant. Recaps, on the other hand, taught me to be attentive to pleasure, to not write things off for being silly, to consider criticism as a conversation between artist and audience, to not take published work as the final word simply by virtue of its publication. (That lesson went for the recap writers, too; all you had to do was scroll down to the comments section.)
Recaps turned the gaze of criticism on something that might be classified as frivolous, “low culture,” unimportant, unworthy.
Those things —pleasure, cultural context, an active conversation around the work—gave me a new set of questions to consider when engaging with art. It felt like exploration, not dissection. Attending to these things made me think I could write too—not just to prove I’d understood something but to come to that understanding through writing. To discover “how it is what it is.”
Here’s a list of things I realized, on the morning of the first day of my MFA, that I didn’t have: a laptop bag, a working pen, a lunch for the day, and any idea of what building I was supposed to go to.
Transitioning back to academic life at thirty, it turned out, was a little bumpy. On the other hand, I have a much better sense of my own mind than I did at eighteen—I feel like I can form coherent opinions, and I have some idea of the work I want to create. My cohort is inspiring, and no one has made me fill out a multiple-choice quiz about what the collapsing walls symbolize in “The Fall of the House of Usher.”
But this time, I’m in school to make my own work, rather than critique others’. After years of trying to squeeze in writing time on evenings and weekends, I can actually say writing is my full-time occupation. This is exciting but also intimidating.
And it turns out, rewatch podcasts are a comfort to these feelings of intimidation. Like the recaps I used to read, rewatch podcasts are teaching me about pleasure—the pleasure of creating and revisiting that creation. The completionist episode-by-episode format, diving into small details, lets the audience see how creative work is made. Sometimes the format also allows the artist to talk back to the work, to bring up choices they didn’t agree with, square past mistakes, or incorporate new dimensions only made possible by time.
My feeling of “guilty pleasure” around Office Ladies probably signals a discomfort with something that (to me) feels uncool. In a review of this podcast and the related An Oral History of The Office (hosted by Brian Baumgartner, the actor who played Kevin on the show), The New Yorker seems to reflect a similar tension, stuffing an enjoyment of the show into its lofty tone. “It’s a chipper gabfest,” podcast reviewer Sarah Larson wrote. “Kinsey, who enjoys using ‘shiitake’ as a swear, describes details she observes . . . The insight to be found is roughly proportional to the amount of work that gets done at Dunder Mifflin: enough, but it’s not really the point.”
The reviewer’s not wrong, in my opinion. But in reading it I sensed a gap in the critical appraisal, almost like something was being stepped around. Perhaps that absence is an expression of one tension critics tend to be less adept at exploring: This is bad, but I like it . But trying to skate around that tension, rather than addressing it, leaves criticism’s full capacity untapped. The critic can push into some of those contradictions and create space for thought—something that always seemed possible in the gleeful, fast-published prose of recaps, as well as in the squabbling in the comments sections.
In a recent episode of Office Ladies , former The Office writer Aaron Shure reminisced about writing a show during that age when TV recaps and fan-led internet response were growing so rapidly. In the writers’ rooms of previous shows he’d worked on, it was generally advised to not look at fan forums or any kind of online discourse, but The Office was part of a “generational shift” toward writers engaging with fans: reading message boards, giving interviews, even live-tweeting episodes. “It was like a reciprocal relationship,” he said, “where we would talk to the internet, and the internet would talk to us.” This is what I’ve always believed criticism could do and what I saw TV recaps doing—and it turned out, behind the scenes, TV creators were reading those recaps too.
It’s comforting to hear from the people behind the show as they look back and remember how it became what it became, interpreting the process rather than the product. This goofy rewatch podcast has helped me see the creative process more collaboratively and has also brought down some of the barriers stopping me from putting pen to paper (okay, fingers to keyboard)—the intimidation that can come with thinking of how one’s work might be perceived, or simply the fear that it might not live up to the vision for it in your own mind. It suggests that your work is never really done, that it’s always possible to revisit it and find something new. Your last word is not the last word on your work—and neither is any critic’s.