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On Television Without Pity

Today TV recap site Television Without Pity  announced it is ceasing operations on April 4. I remember discovering the site around 2000, as it was publishing hilarious recaps for the short-lived WB series “Young Americans,”  which my middle-school best friend discovered. The site, existing in 2014, is shockingly Web 1.0, waiting sometimes a full week to post a recap of a show, when New York magazine was able to get its entire reality index for Gossip Girl up by Tuesday morning at 9:07 am.

But I stuck with the site despite the changing Internet tide. Reading American Idol recaps became a vital ritual every Wednesday and Thursday morning in college, and my two favorite writers from the site emerged in Joe Reid and Jacob Clifton, who alternated performance night and results show recaps. When, during the summer of 2007, I started hate-watching Entourage and discovered Clifton had recapped the series, I actually wrote him a piece of fan-mail. It is the only piece of fan-mail I have ever written. He responded: “Thanks! I totally forgot about those — I was really proud of that line. ["Waiter, there's a fourth wall in my eye" was the line in question] I appreciate that you took the time to write. Now back to work!”

Clifton’s work became the reason I stuck with the site, and I was lucky as he wrote about some of my favorite modern series: Homeland, Bates Motel, True Detective and Gossip Girl.

It was in his Gossip Girl recaps that I truly recognized the power of his writing. I was going through several situations tangentially analogous to those of the main female characters at the time the show was airing, and his language gave me perspective and found meaning in a show that had been written off as soapy teen fare by so many at the time. But nothing from his writing affected me more than this passage, from a sea-changing episode near the end of the show’s first season:

Your brain and your body exist on different continents, and the hormone onslaught is only the first volley of an intense 10-year war your body commits on your mind, which is why sex has driven every single one of these children completely batty, and if you’re gay that’s one of the weapons too: Your body starts telling you a certain thing that makes very little sense — because sex is dirty, because everything defaults to shame, because marriage and being scared of sex and your own body are very old traditions — which is that basically all the time, it wants to do this thing that is incredibly scary and renders you powerless, and nobody will tell you how to do right, and which involves showing your body — which you hate — to somebody who may or may not also hate it, while doing something complex and athletic which you have never done before. And either your body is crazy, or your brain is, and the war begins.

And if you’re gay, there’s a fifth column in the war you didn’t even know about, an enemy inside your body, so it’s two wars at once: your body starts telling you a certain thing that makes very little sense — because heterosexuality is the default, because everything defaults to heterosexuality, because marriage and childbearing and heterosexuals are very old traditions — which is that sometimes, or all the time, it wants to do this thing that is not the default. So either your body is crazy, or your brain is, and the war begins. And the only way anybody makes peace in this war, which everybody eventually does, is either by being raised in that rare miraculous household where you end up with the tools to actually negotiate these minefields — lucky for you — or by doing what Eric’s done and what Serena still has to do: look that demon in the eye, and say you love it.

I remember sobbing the first time I read that, thinking about what so many people I love have gone through. To be writing about a show allegedly about the dramatic escapades of rich teens and come up with something like that…it’s, quite simply, genius.

That was five years ago. Just last week I was reading a Clifton recap of True Detective and I came upon another passage that stuck with me.

“There’s a feeling — you might notice it sometimes — this feeling like life has slipped through your fingers. Like the future is behind you, like it’s always been behind you.”

This habit of expressing utter banalities as though they were essential truths that nobody had ever thought of before, do you think he had that all along or is this something you can catch from Rustin Cohle? That is terrifying to think about. As is the concept of trying to figure out when the good part of your life is, or was, instead of actually living your life. That sounds like the opposite bummer of the flat circle. It’s always behind you, but also coming right for you.

I am glad that TWoP gave the man’s writing a home for so many years, and I hope that he will find continued success elsewhere. And I hope that they will leave the site up in its current state, because every now and then I need to refresh my college lit course memory with Clifton’s recap of The Age Of Dissonance.

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8 thoughts on “On Television Without Pity

  1. Lisa

    That was so well stated; thank you for sharing it! Many of us feel exactly the same way, like there was a grace in his writing that was so unexpected for a recap site. I will forever be grateful to TWOP for introducing us to Jacob Clifton.

    Reply
    1. Sara Gaynes Post author

      Thank you, as will I! I’m so flattered he tweeted this post, I respect him and his writing so much.

      Reply
  2. Samantha

    Jacob’s Gossip Girl recaps changed the way I watched tv, and to some extent helped me build a language to describe what I saw in these ostensibly frivolous teen shows. He’s helped remind me that beautiful, powerful writing can be found anywhere at any time, and I appreciate what that has added to my life.

    Reply
  3. Susannah

    Well said all around. Jacob’s Gossip Girl recaps were something amazing, though it was his Battlestar Galactica ones which made me adore his writing in the first place – even though that show was much denser, he could still swing off on beautiful tangents about life and meaning and who knows what. It was always an experience.

    On a broader note, though, I will miss what the site represented – a place for long-form discussion, usually irreverent but occasionally shockingly reverent towards the shows it addressed. I first visited it for Couch Baron’s Veronica Mars recaps, stuck around for Jacob and for the warm with of Cindy McLennan on HIMYM and TVD, and have mostly abandoned it these past few years since the handover (and since I stopped watching anywhere near as much tv). But I will still miss it as a stalwart of the tv recap sub-genre, and I also hope it gets left online in some meaningful form for future viewers to be able to visit.

    Reply
  4. Sara Gaynes Post author

    Yes! I am remiss in not mentioning Couch Baron– his Veronica Mars and Mad Men recaps added a depth to the discussion of those shows that really made watching them more fun. I came to Veronica Mars after its initial run ended, and having Couch Baron’s recaps made it feel like a friend was watching along with me.

    Reply

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