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'Gossip Girl' And The Rise Of The Recap: Trendsetter Or Style Sheep?

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On Dec. 17, The CW's "Gossip Girl" reaches its conclusion, capping off six seasons of metatextual self-awareness, shameless fourth wall breakage and unabashed self-absorption. It will also mark the end of a colorful era in TV recapping, which saw outlets such as New York magazine and Gawker experimenting with the form and function of the medium, crafting delicious, snark-laden screeds or tongue-in-cheek tallies to count up how realistic each individual episode was.

Aptly, since it's a show primarily focused on dissecting in obsessive detail the dramatic lives of its characters, "Gossip Girl" appeared just as the TV recapping trend was taking off. It debuted in 2007, the same year that acerbic TV-review site Television Without Pity was purchased by Bravo, bringing the art of analyzing and critiquing TV shows for entertainment purposes firmly into the mainstream.

Perhaps the most widely recognized "Gossip Girl" recap came courtesy of New York magazine's Chris Rovzar and Jessica Pressler, who created the "Reality Index" to chart how believable an episode's portrayal of New York City was by awarding pluses and minuses for the relative realism of plotlines, locations or quotes.

"I was watching it at first just to see how it used the city, and it did. I mean, they didn't get things right exactly, but they did use New York, which I appreciated. It wasn't the New York of 'Seinfeld,' where you could always immediately tell it was a sound stage," Rovzar explained during a phone interview. "The first time we did it, it wasn't even very structured as a recap. It was just, 'Hey look, let's see what they did.' And it was fun to do. People liked it, and other people -- especially people that lived in New York -- had that same reaction we did, which was that you don't just let it slide by when somebody is on like upper Fifth [Ave.] and ends up five minutes later on the Lower East Side."

The main appeal of the Reality Index, Rovzar explained, was that it immediately created a dialogue with the show's fans. "You sort of have this reaction where you're like, 'Wait, no, that's not right.' You're not going to say that out loud, or often you're watching the TV show alone so you just have that reaction internally, and people found it very satisfying to go somewhere and see other people having that reaction too. I think that's what people like about recaps in general. They just want to have that feeling that other people thought the same thing they did while they were watching something they like."

Thankfully, "Gossip Girl" featured enough absurd moments to balance out its realistic aspects (and vice versa), and as with most articles in the digital age, the comments section was where the action really happened, whether visitors agreed, disagreed or just carried on separate debates about the show. As Time's James Poniewozik pointed out last year, "Weekly reviews are as much valuable, or more, as a starting point for discussions in the comments as they are for the critics' analysis themselves."

"You never could've predicted that a genre where essentially people just describe something that you've already seen would be so popular. But when you think about it, there is really something very satisfying about that," Rovzar said.

The practice of TV recapping has been around for years, although there's some debate as to its origins and what precipitated its recent rise in popularity. Every culture publication worth its salt now boasts a blog with a veritable army of recappers dedicated to dissecting TV on a weekly basis, from Vanity Fair, The Wall Street Journal and New York magazine through to EW, TV Guide and our very own Huffington Post.

Most entertainment aficionados chart the rise of the recap back to TWOP's birth, when it was called Dawson's Wrap and focused wholly on analyzing "Dawson's Creek" in the late '90s, although Gawker's Rich Juzwiak traced the recap's origins even further back:

Tom Shales, TV critic for the Washington Post, dated the inception of the recap back to "L.A. Law," NBC's courtroom dramedy that ran from 1986 to 1994. It wasn't covered as meticulously as your average modern-day show, but, Shales told us, critics would return to it repeatedly over the course of its seasons in admiration of its sophisticated storylines and characters, which marked a break from the then standard top-of-the-season, review-it-and-forget-it schedule ... The most important early episode-by-episode engagement on the Internet was that of Daniel Drennan, whose message board explorations of the original "Beverly Hills 90210" eventually ballooned to thousands of words on his own site, Inquisitor Mediarama. Those "90210" recaps influenced [Tara] Ariano, Bunting and Cole to engage with "Dawson's Creek," and that engagement spawned Television Without Pity, the unparalleled champion of Internet recapping for years.

Others cite Alan Sepinwall's "NYPD Blue" reviews that the critic wrote while he was still in college, although Sepinwall himself credits both TWOP and "the writing Timothy W. Lynch had done on the 'Star Trek' spin-offs for the Usenet 'Trek' groups."

Regardless of which show or critic kicked off the recapping trend, "Gossip Girl" undeniably capitalized on it, using the blogosphere's fascination to fuel its metatexual urges. Chris Rovzar found out just how influential the format had become when he and Pressler were invited to make a cameo on the show during Season 6.

"The director told us on set that they refer to things sometimes as pluses and minuses, which is pretty amazing," Rovzar admitted. "We were pretty big supporters of them, especially in a time when they didn't really do that hot during the middle of the first season. So I think they were grateful for the attention, and yeah, very early on they had New York magazine [mentioned] in it a lot."

Rovzar noted that the show started to go astray when the series ditched the idea of college, even though this group of highly educated prep school monarchs would probably be dominating the Ivy League: "They just ignored that problem, and I don't think any of them graduated from college ... they would be probably sophomores or something now, and that's just not addressed," he pointed out. But while the show got plenty of things wrong (especially Dan's hair), Rovzar still believes that the show has an enduring legacy, especially in New York.

"This is probably because I live in New York, [but] people still talk about it," he said. "And when I was on it, I was really surprised at just how many people of the different walks of life were like, 'Oh my God. You were on this show.'"

Rovzar and Pressler's "Gossip Girl" recaps certainly helped put New York's "Vulture" blog on the map (though Rovzar has moved to Vanity Fair -- where the character Dan took his sequel exposé in Season 6 -- Pressler is still recapping the series for the site), and the show itself is credited with contributing to the rise of TV recaps in general, alongside "American Idol," "Lost," "Buffy the Vampire Slayer" and "Mad Men."

And though the days of clique-y, niche dissections of shows with dedicated fan-bases may be fading as the recap industry continues to boom and communities of fans grow ever larger, when the recap junkies get nostalgic for the days when not every "Top Model," "Duck Dynasty" and "Harry's Law" had a weekly blow-by-blow, we'll always have the snark.


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