“Previously on”: Recaps in the Age of Binge Watching

Recaps have long been a staple of serialized series, but is binge-watching making them obsolete?

“I like Homeland, but I don’t think it’s as good as that other show, Previously on Homeland. That thing is action-packed.”

— Amy Poehler at the 2013 Golden Globe Awards

From Twin Peaks and LOST, to The Hills and RuPaul’s Drag Race, the breadth of television series that employ the now-ubiquitous “previously on” segment at the start of every episode is staggering. Whether you’re catching up on last season’s cliffhanger or just last week’s episode, these recaps help orient you and prime you for the episode ahead. They manage to feel simultaneously necessary and extraneous to the episode itself.

Some shows have understood the importance of these segments and have embed them into their own storytelling, perhaps, as The Atlantic put it earlier this year, as a way to help establish themselves in “an ever-crowded TV landscape”. You need look no further than Battlestar Galactica‘s pulsing recaps, which went one step further and gave you blink-and-you’ll-miss-them spoilers about the episode you were about to watch.

Perhaps Glee‘s conversational recaps (Ian Brennan’s chipper voice: “and that‘s what you missed on Glee!”) is a better example of making these scenes feel part of the show itself, emulating as they did the type of hallway gossip that so defined that musical comedy show. More recently, we could look at Ichabod Crane’s (Tom Mison) touchingly hilarious OnStar scene in the “Lesser Key of Solomon” episode from Sleepy Hollow’s first season, in which the show’s transplanted 18th-century lead feels compelled to recap his own story while communicating with a customer support operator, the show visually echoing a “previously on” segment with accompanying images of Ichabod’s long-lost lover, Katrina (Katia Winter). A scene like that almost presupposes a stumbling viewer hoping to get more insight into this out-of-time protagonist, one who has no time (or desire) to sit through these recaps.

It’s no surprise, however, that in making the transition from broadcast to DVD and streaming services, some shows dispense with these recaps altogether. While unmistakable, you’ll never hear the suave “Previously on Mad Men” if you catch up on the show on Netflix; same goes for AMC’s other breakout drama, which had the network announce itself at the start of every show (“Previously on AMC’s Breaking Bad“), perhaps showcasing the purpose of said recap as mere in-house marketing.

As we discover old shows in new formats, we’re continually asked to consume television in ways it was never meant to be viewed. Weekly serials are now condensed to weekend binges, changing both the pace of the narrative and the experience of the viewer. Watching the entire first season of Twin Peaks in a binge-viewing session is decidedly a different experience than having watched it ebb and flow week in and week out. Those moody recaps that greeted viewers when they tuned to ABC in 1990 are absent in their Netflix incarnation. Indeed, even the special Log Lady intros that David Lynch created when the show entered syndication on Bravo are now only available as a special feature in the new Blu-Ray edition of the show. Seemingly required viewing during broadcast, these “previously on…” recaps remain elusive in these newer viewing formats, never stitched onto the episodes themselves, as if their mere existence were an extraneous appendage that the program can dispose of.

As a genre, these “Previously on…” recaps have always fulfilled two disparate and competing roles, roles aimed at two different types of audiences. On the one hand, they are designed to make sure the wayward viewer who may not have been diligent about watching the show on a weekly basis (or who has never once watched it herself) has the necessary information to enjoy the episode ahead. This, in tandem with didactic opening credits explaining the show (think The X-Files, or more recently, The Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt), work as a marketing ploy to make episodic television self-sustainable. You could tune in any time and a quick recap would get you up to date, even (or especially) if the show is essentially a serial that requires careful attention and diligence.

On the other hand, these recaps always felt a little like fan-service. Usually, the clipped narration or cut-up dialogue and images that make up these recaps feel all too obscure, not least because it usually requires some knowledge of characters, concepts, and large storylines that one cannot hope to include in under a minute recap. As more seasons go by, they may very well be inscrutable to non-fans, even while they are thrilling to longtime fans.

Take, for instance, the “Road So Far” clips from the CW’s Supernatural. Long used in season finales to orient the viewer precisely on the adventures of brothers Dean (Jensen Ackles) and Sam (Jared Padalecki) Winchester, the tenth season’s aptly-titled episode “Fan Fiction” banked on fans’ appreciation of said recaps to stage an amateur musical performance of Kansas’ “Carry On Wayward Son”, the very song that scored nearly every prior “The Road So Far” clip reel. Made for and by fans, that re-performance speaks to the way these “previously on” segments all but cater to these die-hard fans.

Indeed, most of these recaps usually function as easter egg repositories that entice viewers to find clues about, not what happened last week, but what the episode ahead has in store, making fans analyze every image and dialogue presented in a way that would make many a Reddit thread proud. Did we get a reminder of last season’s one-off character because he’s back this episode? Is the choice to solely focus on scenes from last week’s episode mean we’re picking up right where we left off?

It’s no surprise that Game of Thrones viewers found themselves ecstatic over the leaked “previously on” segment for the show’s finale episode of its latest season earlier this year, prompting even Vanity Fair to state that, “If we know anything about these videos that run before each episode of the HBO series, it’s that they hardcore telegraph the content of each episode they precede.”

Perhaps these recaps are just the ultimate vestige of broadcast television, more ingrained in a television model that still imagines viewers tuning in and out on a weekly basis, too distracted to have remembered crucial details necessary for a satisfying viewing experience. While Netflix shows have all but reinvigorated the opening credits sequence, they’ve forgone these recaps altogether.

It’s understandable, given the rise of the binge-watching model, but part of me looks back on these recaps as essential to the shows I love. They never just stood for quick-and-dirty catch-ups, but also as weekly reminders of why I enjoyed the shows I did; seeing a “Previously on Buffy the Vampire Slayer” always made me giddy, not only because Anthony Stewart Head’s voice was so soothing in uttering the words, but because seeing the scenes replayed made them all the more vivid (Alyson Hannigan’s reading of “Tara? Tara?” from “Seeing Red” in season six gained a level of gravitas more perhaps for its repetition throughout the episodes that followed than for its first utterance upon seeing her newly deceased girlfriend).

Then again, Buffy always understood the value and utility of these recaps. The final episode to air on the WB, “The Gift” was for all intents and purposes, the series’ intended final episode. It also features what may very well be the greatest “Previously on” ever aired on television. In a mere 45 seconds we’re informed of the main conceit of the show (“into every generation a slayer is born”) we’re introduced to each major character (“I’m Buffy”, “I’m Xander”, “I’m Willow”, “I’m Giles”, “I’m Cordelia”, “I’m Angel”) and in a quickening montage, we’re offered every single major plot point of the past five years, from romances to deaths, from spells to battles, from villains to allies, all in a dizzying string of images — from every single previous episode (!) — that eventually speeds up so much it’s even hard to tell them apart.

Everything, this super-sized recap seems to say, has been leading up to this episode. It was a ballsy move, and a willful bending of this humble and oft-dismissed genre. More importantly, it was both informative and redundant. The barrage of images from the past five seasons whir by so quickly the entire sequence would feel useless to anyone who’d never watched the show. Instead, the recap functioned more as a memory trigger. Seeing blink-and-you’ll-miss-it frames of Jenny Calendar (Robia LaMorte) and Angelus (David Boreanaz), Mayor Wilkins (Harry Groener) turning into a snake, or Spike (James Marsters) driving into the “Welcome to Sunnydale” sign, suggests an awareness on the part of Buffy‘s creators of the potential these recaps can have to further not only an expository role, but one which reinscribes the very audience awareness they’re seemingly increasing.

But what role can (and do) these recaps play in an era of binge-watching? Must I really be made to sit through a recap of an episode I just watched in order to carry on? Or, conversely, if I only watch seasons in one sitting and only return to the show months later when the next season is fully available, do I lose something by not having a helpful recap once I begin streaming the premiere episode?

As viewing models continue to be shaped by new technologies and modes of distribution, we may yet find that hearing the words “Previously on…” will feel as antiquated as “We’ll be right back, after these messages” or “Filmed in front of a live studio audience”; echoes of distant pasts that, despite their whiff of nostalgia, one can’t ever hope to regain in earnest.