The Essential Recap: Memory, Amnesia, and Anticipation in Serial Television

Curator's Note

After purchasing a television season on DVD years ago, I was immediately disappointed with the attachment of full recaps prior to each episode; why watch recaps when you have all the episodes? Similarly, when archiving off-air recordings, I once excised those seemingly redundant recaps to save disc space. Recaps like these for Lost and Battlestar Galactica, however, increasingly challenge that assumed redundancy. As Alan McKee stressed, recaps manifest their own unique textual forms, innovatively condensing expansive narratives into bite-sized "snacks" that reorder old scenes within new sequences, relationships, and meanings. But recaps are also inexorably bound to the episodes they precede—not just summarizing the past, but essentially shaping episodes to come as part of those texts. Excised recaps change episodes. The recap shapes audience expectations for the Lost whodunit "The Long Con.". While investigating alongside the castaways after someone assaults Sun and steals all the guns, we can actually draw additional clues from the preceding recap. Charlie flies under the radar throughout this Sawyer-Jack-Locke episode, but the recap recalls Charlie's previous conflict with Locke to provide motive for upcoming treachery. The recap cements Charlie's importance to the subsequent episode, despite his lack of screen time, cluing us in on his inevitable involvement in the scheme before his reveal as perpetrator. Despite the "previously on Battlestar Galactica" claim, some characters and arcs—the like engineer Gardner discussed here by Tigh and Adama—are "recapped" before ever appearing or being mentioned in prior episodes. Though not quite amnesiac, viewers will likely integrate such new elements with what they think they already saw. As a storytelling device, the recap makes the sudden appearance of the high-ranking Gardner character seem less out-of-the-blue. Moreover, in the aftermath of several episodes that fell short of producer expectations and required extensive re-editing, this recap allows producers to augment and alter memories of recent episodes after they air. Thus, recaps shape audience expectation, but also serve a craft utility, allowing producers to frame, retell, and modulate seriality. The question before practitioners and critics, therefore, is how to use recaps skillfully to inflect aggregate narratives without them becoming an expositional crutch.


Fascinating commentary. I also find that the recaps function as little hermeneutic nuggets, offering a sort of preemptive commentary on the important themes of the upcoming episode. I like the heads up about what threads of continuity to watch for. I suspect Battlestar Galactica is especially creative in its previouslies, given the copious amount of material they film that never makes it into the episodes. My favorite example is a scene where Starbuck visits Roslin on her deathbed, not seen anywhere but in the previouslies of LDYB: given how precious little screentime these two characters have shared, these few seconds are important in the fandom, and I know fan fiction based on them!

I am watching the DVD sets of "The Shield" after never having watched a single episode live, and am noticing that the recaps tell the viewer how to watch the upcoming episode at the expense of the coherence of the preceding episode. Derek put it very well when he wrote that they "shape audience expectation." On The Shield recaps, characters who may not make a regular appearance and are involved in relatively minor plots in previous episodes will appear in recaps to tell you that they will soon figure in major ones. I am convinced that, as Derek says, recaps are used by practitioners to "modulate seriality." I'd like more detail on how critics are to use them, or perhaps rather how we are to read them. there is no doubt that they need to be read, since they are part of the television text. But in what ways are we to take account of them? the earlier comment from cyberorganize implies at the end that they're often part of a compensatory strategy to retroactively fix broken narratives or episodes. in what ways can they be viewed more positively or productively?

Not sure this does what Lisa is asking for, but good previouslies for good shows offer really intense, concentrated pleasure. For me, the high point of the Buffy arc was the season three title sequence, but frequently the recaps seemed to set up the pleasure signaled by that little wolf-howl in the title song. (It occurs to me that I'd happily re-watch all seven seasons' worth of previouslies, with the title sequence thrown in at the beginning and end of each season.) One thing I'd add about BSG is that in addition to the creative massaging of the re-caps there is a device that works for me much like the Buffy sequence--after the loud "huh!" in the soundtrack to the title sequence (which comes after the recap) is usually what I call a "pre-cap," where footage from the upcoming ep is cut together very fast to match the percussion. Even the worst episodes of BSG (and there have been some doozies) look good in the precaps, perhaps in a way that certain long remembered eps (of Buffy, say) are re-edited in one's mind so that they are actually more narratively satisfying than the original, which probably featured one too many scenes of the Scoobies sitting around the library... And finally, I wonder how differently recaps work in mystery/puzzle shows like Veronica Mars or Lost than in shows like Weeds, where the seriality is more simply additive?

Responding to Lisa's point, I'd say the recaps, like intro sequences, can be wonderful moments when television shows tell us what the producers think the episode is about. I think of the old back-and-forth between Morley and Justin Lewis about "if we have preferred meanings, who prefers them?" and think that recaps are some of the best artifacts we have to see what at least part of the production team are preferring, and what they think is important. And/or they also tell us what the production team thinks is important to the text's audience. Especially when we compare them to fan-made recaps, intro sequences, and mashups, we can thus often see a vast difference between assumed and actual viewing and meaning-making strategies.

By Anonymous

Great comments, all. I am especially in league with the thread about how these "recaps" are more often "preguides," in that they invite us to structure our understanding and identification of the episode along certain narrative and thematic lines and not others. As a linguistic aside, did anyone else notice that the term "previouslies" used above a couple times is also "previous-lies"? Hmmm.

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