The creator of The Wire says it’s ridiculous to blog about TV. Is he right?
Last month, David Simon, the creator, head writer, and executive producer of The Wire, declared that the number of people blogging about TV is “ridiculous.” A key target of his wrath: those who recap individual episodes immediately after they air. “They don’t know what we’re building,” he complained to an interviewer for the New York Times’ ArtsBeat blog. “It doesn’t matter whether they love it or they hate it. It doesn’t mean anything until there’s a beginning, middle, and an end.”
Simon later clarified his anti-recap comments in a lengthy interview with blogger Alan Sepinwall, a veteran TV critic who writes for the website HitFix. “I think there’s a fundamental disconnect between what certain types of longform television are now trying to build and the way in which they’re consumed by the audience,” Simon told Sepinwall. A TV show, he argued, tells a story in pieces. In other words, dissecting each piece before getting to the end is like a future homeowner critiquing a pile of bricks before they become his house. But in this so-called “golden age” of television, there’s a lot to say about those bricks. Examining each piece of the puzzle before you know what the whole will look like is half the fun; you can’t expect a Mad Men fan not to wonder how Don will screw up his latest marriage.
Simon’s frustration is understandable—there is an ever-expanding army of bloggers foaming at the mouth the second an episode ends, ready to dispense their patently expert opinion before they can appreciate the narrative arc of a series. In 2007, Bravo, which is owned by NBC Universal, bought Television Without Pity, a website largely devoted to recapping every show you can think of. Slate’s TV Club is reviewing every episode of Mad Men’s fifth season, as it did with the third and fourth seasons. New York magazine’s Vulture blog is currently recapping over 20 different shows, as is Entertainment Weekly, and many smaller blogs have followed suit.
Sepinwall’s blog on HitFix is aptly titled, “What’s Alan Watching?” The answer is: pretty much everything. Sepinwall is the undisputed King of Recaps, but he shies away from the r-word, since he spends little time rehashing an episode’s plot—if you’re reading about it, you’ve seen it. “The nature of TV means people are much happier to talk about something they’ve seen than something they haven’t,” he told me recently via email. “TV’s not like any other art form, and I don’t think it should be covered like any other art form. While some people watch shows in chunks on DVD or whatever, for the most part everyone is still experiencing the shows that they love one episode at a time, one week at a time, and I like to write about them that way, too.”
Around the time Mad Men premiered, the maddeningly enigmatic drama Lost was midway through its six-season run. During that time, New York’s Emily Nussbaum (now The New Yorker’s TV critic) led a pack of bloggers who picked apart each episode of Lost like eager med students dissecting a cadaver. When the show ended in May 2010, Nussbaum melded those body parts into a Frankenstein’s monster of an article that homed in on her own sense of betrayal. She couldn’t understand why the creators of Lost had abandoned the show’s early brilliance in the service of “manipulating [the show’s] own relationship with its fans.”
Perhaps Lost was a pioneering example of how not to pay attention to online fandom. As Nussbaum opined, episode reviews can steer a show in the wrong direction if its writers pay them too much heed. And that’s precisely what showrunners and viewers alike should worry about. Simon, on the other hand, is simply irritated by the way consumers of his show have chosen to talk about it. His grievances are valid, but you can’t control that kind of online discussion any more than you could a water-cooler conversation.
We don’t have to choose between week-by-week analyses and a broader, comprehensive look at a series once the smoke has cleared. In fact, recaps can provide an arsenal of information for fans who long to understand a show on a deeper level. At the end of the show’s run, those same viewers will pore over their stash of seemingly inconsequential or perplexing details that suddenly make sense. Recaps allow us to indulge in a kind of conceptual TV-related gluttony: We can have our cake, eat it, and still have room to lick the bowl clean. The batter’s the best part anyway.