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How recap culture is hurting television
The endless hunting for 'clues' in shows like Mad Men and True Detective distracts critics and viewers from what they should be noticing
 
Sometimes, there isn't more than meets the eye.
Sometimes, there isn't more than meets the eye. (Michael Yarish/AMC)

"It's just not part of the show. No one's going to die." - Matthew Weiner, creator and showrunner of AMC's Mad Men.

Weiner's uncharacteristically definitive statement about the future of Mad Men came last year during an interview with the Los Angeles Times, which asked him about a t-shirt Megan Draper had worn — a t-shirt that happened to be an exact copy of one Sharon Tate wore in a 1967 Esquire photo shoot less than two years before she was murdered by members of the Manson Family.

Megan Draper is an actress; Sharon Tate was an actress. The connection was made, and the internet spent days hashing over the theory that Draper would be murdered before the season was over. In that same interview, Weiner dismissed the t-shirt as merely the end result of a dispute with his costume designer, nothing more. But it was too late. The shirt had to mean something, because the internet believed it did. And even when the season ended with Megan Draper very much alive, the conspiratorial rumblings refused to die.

Welcome to the way we watch TV now, where nothing is ever what it seems to be.

It all started with the recap. If the basic idea of the TV recap was popularized by the (now shuttered) Television Without Pity, it was sent into a tailspin by ABC's Lost. During the show's six-year run, viewers were presented with countless enigmatic scenarios, many of which were never properly explained. But all those endless loopholes and unanswered questions had an unexpected side effect: they gave recap writers plenty to toy with — almost too much. Writers and fans, feeding off each other's observations, assumed that everything that happened had a deeper meaning. Every theory, no matter how unlikely, was given equal play on the message boards. Lost provided unlimited questions and the internet was eager to answer them all.

Lost set a precedent for recaps, as well as the entire galaxy of commentary that surrounds them: there could be something deeper, so keep digging. The plot was merely the surface dirt, meant to be shoveled and tossed to the side in search of what was really happening, or what was going to happen. Recaps began to double as proving grounds for theories, as if a TV show were a puzzle that needed to be solved.

The effect extended to almost every serious TV drama. Dexter's Harrison wasn't merely the protagonist's infant son; he was going to kill Dexter, providing an almost poetic way for the character to meet his end. Breaking Bad's Jesse wasn't being held captive by the Nazis; he was cooperating with them in secret, as they came up with a plan to kill Walt. The Walking Dead's Carl isn't just a confused and uncertain teenager with weird hair; he's headed down a path that will lead to the group's demise.

But for all those early examples, overreaching recaps truly came into their own during the brief first season of HBO's True Detective. Never has a show triggered so many theories so quickly — which is partly the show's fault.

True Detective featured hints of mysticism and a direct reference to Robert Chambers' The King in Yellow, an influential collection of horror stories published in the 1800s. Nic Pizzolatto, True Detective's showrunner, included the "Yellow King" as a kind of winking reference; in Chambers' telling, The King in Yellow was a play that drove its readers insane. Even that was far more than viewers needed to know about the Yellow King, but an intense subset of recappers and fans took it much further: if viewers didn't understand every aspect of the book, they weren't going to understand True Detective.

That set the tone for the rest of the season. Every single thing in True Detective that could be analyzed was analyzed. A photograph on Rust Cohle's wall was a clue. The location of Maggie Hart's parents' house was another. Maybe there were aliens involved. Maybe — maybe — viewers first saw Reggie Ledoux in a jockstrap because Breaking Bad viewers first saw Walt in tighty whiteys, and both shows were meant to highlight Fruit of The Loom's impact on the male ego.

Like Weiner, Pizzolatto spent an inordinate amount of time debunking theories that were born on the internet. True Detective's penultimate episode showed viewers exactly who the killer was, yet Pizzolatto was still routinely asked if Cohle or Hart were the murderers. Why? Because the internet had been busy creating story lines that weren't there, and they needed to be addressed before Pizzolatto could discuss the story he was, you know, actually telling.

Not every TV recap or recapper is doing some great disservice to TV — but they are certainly changing the medium, and how viewers consume it. True Detective fans who thought there would be a supernatural element were vocally disappointed by the normalcy of the finale. But there was no reason to expect such an element in the first place.

And recaps aren't just a part of the shows that have aired; they're a part of the shows that haven't even been written yet. Pizzolatto might not admit it, but as he begins to write True Detective's second season, he will surely remember the firestorm of speculation that accompanied season one. That will impact the show. The only question is if that new knowledge will make True Detective better or worse.

If a creator of Pizzolatto's status has the internet in the back of his mind, imagine how recap culture will affect those budding creative minds who grow up immersed in it. Networks are hungry for the buzz that drives shows like True Detective, and it's easy to imagine a future full of shows that deliberately cater to the internet wormhole, overflowing with references that keep recappers chasing their tails, while seldom advancing the narrative.

With Mad Men currently working toward its end, Weiner is probably in the midst of ironing out any final wrinkles in the plot. Viewers expect a lot out of finales, and there's no reason to think he isn't planning something special. But the trust Weiner has earned won't stop the rampant speculation and endless digging found in Mad Men recaps, and viewers can always find some new minute detail to analyze.

Even Weiner can't escape it. Last year, he may have told the Los Angeles Times no one would die on Mad Men — but he couldn't resist adding, "This season."

 
Chris O'Shea is a freelance writer living in Charlottesville, Virginia. His work has appeared in Esquire, GQ, The Village Voice, and more.

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