Last night, millions watched as Game of Thrones wrapped up a superlative season. Tomorrow night, millions will watch as Fargo closes the curtain on its likewise terrific season. Yet for many, many of those millions, the experiences of the shows aren’t finished when the credits roll. People go online seeking what Abigail Derecho called archontic extensions: reading about the show, talking about the show, or even talking back to the show. Back in 2007, when I published “Still More Gilmore: How Online Fan Communities Remediate Gilmore Girls” in the first printed collection of essays about that show, I only had to research one site for all the show’s online recaps, namely televisionwithoutpity.com. Ah, those simpler times! Now, during these Web 2.0 days, the snarky style of televisionwithoutpity.com has been pitilessly pirated by so many bigger sites, they’ve left TWOP.com to hang the “Sorry, We’re Closed Forever” sign on the door. (I guess it’s a small comfort that TWOP hasn’t gone the way of jumptheshark.com and Malaysian Flight 370 – hijacked, sunk, unfindable.) Nowadays, chatty fans’ online options include reddit, the shows’ official presences on twitter, facebook, and on their networks’ sites, and recaps at places like Slate, Salon, Grantland, the Huffington Post, and many more. You know recapping is a capital-T Thing when even The New York Times is doing it. (“Honey, which section do you want? News? Sports?” “No.” “Opinion? Business? Health? Fashion? Technology?” “No.” “Recaps?” “YES.”) Recapping has gone way beyond simply apprizing viewers of what they missed, and these days summarizing the show is barely half of a recappers’ job, when you count recaplets, weecaps, precaps, tweets…to borrow a term from President Eisenhower, a major chunk of the internet has been given over to the recap-industrial complex.
What happens when the recap-industrial complex ignores a show? (Can the USA network pay someone to cover Suits and Graceland? Pretty please, they may be thinking?) That might be a future post, but today I’m thinking about the reverse: shows on Netflix that ignore the recap-industrial complex, that get dropped (“dumped” seems such a harsh word) all at once online, without letting the haters hate and the lovers love. Yes, people discuss Netflix shows online (including on reddit), but it’s nothing like the systematic weekly chatter that, for months in a year, accrues around shows like Homeland, The Americans, True Detective, and Mad Men. If Orange is the New Black finishes a triumphant season without a recap-o-rama round-robin, is it in any way comparable to a tree falling in a forest with no one around?
A lot of corners of the internet would like to think so, like Manohla Dargis at the New York Times, who in her review the other day of 22 Jump Street mentioned the notion that “fans now enjoy unprecedented control of the production and circulation of popular culture.” Netflix shows are like your friend who’s online but not on twitter or instagram yet; are they worried about exposure? It’s strange to think that Netflix, which is obviously impossible without the internet, enables its shows to be so internet-unabled. Perhaps Netflix will change its all-at-once distribution strategy at some point. Perhaps you figure they don’t care how people watch, as long as they watch? In that case, try this one: Emmy voting (which is now all online) began on June 9 and ends on June 20. You’re reading this during the heart of the 12-day voting period. Does Netflix care about Emmys? Do you think they released Season 2 of Orange two weeks ago as a coincidence? Could I maybe stop asking you rhetorical questions?
Netflix and the makers of House of Cards and Orange is the New Black seem to be betting that they don’t need the recap-industrial-complex for their shows to get the praise they deserve. Certainly they get stellar initial reviews; they just don’t get the extended consideration. Perhaps there’s even a theory that eventually all the chatterati somehow redound against their shows, and it’s best to appear “above the fray,” if you will. Some of the recappers have all the loyalty of parasitic bugs on rhinos…and those are the good ones. One such, Tim Goodman at The Hollywood Reporter, has openly questioned whether his day-after “deconstructions” of his favorite shows have actually harmed more than helped both viewers and producers. Maybe Netflix’s shows are meant to be more like movies, which don’t have the same attendant parasites, though Lord knows Slate and Salon would love to figure out how to make that work. (On the other hand, the Steven Spielberg and George Lucas of 2014, namely the directing team of Phil Lord and Christopher Miller, who made The Lego Movie and 22 Jump Street, don’t succeed by staying above the fray – more like frying and fraying the fray.)
There has been something almost un-television about this outstounding (see, Will Smith? I’m still using it) season of Orange is the New Black. Unlike most of America’s most-talked-about shows, it doesn’t feel especially driven by plot or genre expectations. Yes, there’s a story, but again and again on Orange, we come back to character and emotion. Again and again this season, we’ve expected a flashback to tell us the story of how a given inmate landed at Litchfield, only to be told, somewhat like Poussey by her father in Germany: put that gun away, this isn’t about that. Let shows like Game of Thrones, Fargo, and True Detective atomize the many steps toward reckless behavior, and, as often as not, let their transgressors off the hook (or kill them). Orange is, instead, a show about picking up the emotional pieces after those big ill-advised moments of your life. Other shows, as much as I love them, strain for effect. No show does better than Orange to seem like it’s just happening.
Perhaps House of Cards and Orange is the New Black will get all their deserved Emmy nominations, and this post will seem much ado about nothing. But yes, as one more online onanist, I do feel like Netflix shows are missing a great and maybe-important party. The best recappers – starting with Andy Greenwald at Grantland – make you feel smarter for having paid attention, to the show and to them. And as I’ve said to my students many times, artists don’t get the last word on the significance of their art. It’s not just about “influence” – e.g., how an internet backlash convinced the producers of Lost to kill off two newer, hated characters – but more about how the content of a show is only the beginning of the communal experience of a show. It’s not like producers of Netflix shows want them only to run in their basements. As that Maharishi of multimedia, Henry Jenkins, wrote, “None of us can know everything; each of us knows something; and we can put the pieces together if we pool our resources and combine our skills.” What’s true about the internet in general and about shows on HBO and FX ought to be true about shows on Netflix.
Were I one of these paid recappers, here’s how I might have finished my thoughts on the second season of Orange is the New Black (SPOILERS): “…in the end, Morello finally used her van privileges for more than just her own selfish, self-abnegating spiral, proving that for her, love is more than lip service (read that how you will). With brilliant comic energy, a righteous wind blew through the righteous sisters, though it fell upon the virtuous and not-so-virtuous alike (Sister Ingalls, authorities). Our less righteous sisters – Jefferson, Washington, Watson – are righter and tighter-knit than they’ve been all season. Should V have been standing on that road, waiting for help, or should she have crept around the forest for a few days, more like Harriet Tubman? (Not the first time V ignored her better forebears.) Perhaps Norma and Gloria’s cocktail had weakened her body and judgment, though it’s also perfectly plausible that she figured she could con or eventually overpower any driver of anything; I mean, outside of Butch (Bruce Willis) seeing Marcellus (Ving Rhames), who makes a snap decision toward vehicular manslaughter? It’s only fair to refer to a film from 1994 because the show made a big deal of two songs from the era – the unlikely sing-along to Lisa Loeb’s ‘Stay’ and the guard’s just-as-unlikely love for ‘Breakfast at Tiffany’s’ – but I was more impressed with how the show used its curtain-closer, ‘Don’t Fear the Reaper.’ During this century, that song has been associated with kitsch because of SNL and Christopher Walken and ‘more cowbell,’ but thanks to Orange’s beautiful re-appropriation, the song just returned to its status as art. On the surface, yes, Rosa must not fear the very-near reaper, but on another level, think of that haunting refrain (which never made much sense in the original song) ‘she had become like they are…’ Like a lot of terrific work at the finish line, the show breaks form just a smidge to give us young Rosa again, the one who said she’d always wanted to die in a hail of bullets like a character on TV. Poetically, Rosa gets her wish to become like they are, while we instead get the wonderful absence of such a TV cliché. In its quiet empathy for the ordinary, aging, non-white, and female, Orange isn’t like they are, and that’s one reason why it’ll feel like 11 months in prison before us viewers are permitted to return our van to Litchfield.”