TV viewers are living through the Golden Age of the pre-show recap — you know, that opening-moment bit that begins with "Previously, on ... "
With so many densely plotted, heavily serialized shows in rotation on TV — Grey's Anatomy and Gossip Girls, Big Love and Desperate Housewives — you have to have a pre-show primer to keep up.
The poster child for "Previously, on ..." is ABC's knotty drama Lost. Executive Producer Carlton Cuse says today's viewer has the tools to follow intricate plots that writers just couldn't pull off before: things like DVRs, DVD box sets and streaming videos to catch up on episodes you missed.
There is a downside, though. Cuse says that all of the subplots of back stories of tangents on TV can keep a network executive up at night, worried about losing overwhelmed viewers.
"While most network executives would acknowledge that it's impossible to catch the audience up, they can't just abandon trying to do that," Cuse explains. "So they put [on] the 'Previously, on...' with the hope that if you're just starting to watch, you'll be able to follow along."
Good luck with that.
New Viewers Vs. The 'Oh, Yeah' Contingent
In the first couple of seasons of a serialized show, the "Previously, on ..." typically serves the new viewer, a person who's heard good things about a show but could use a scorecard to tell the players apart.
By a show's third and fourth and fifth season, though, all pretense of catering to the new viewer gets set aside.
"At this point in the game, the 'Previously, on' is just to satiate the 'Oh, yeah' contingent," says Lost's other executive producer, Damon Lindelof.
In other words: "While you're watching the episode, you'll think 'Oh, yeah, that's why Jack's so angry,' or 'Oh yeah, that's why Sayid has just melted out of the jungle with a gun.' "
Lindelof's theory about "Previously, on ..." is that it's got to meet the needs of a guy whose wife sits down right before the show starts and asks him what she needs to know: He's only got 30 seconds to tell her.
So a show's editors and writers collaborate, trying to craft a tiny story that orients the regular viewers and gives them just enough information so they're not hitting the pause button every other minute to say, "Wait — are they talking about the Dharma Initiative submarine manifest for 1977, or the Dharma Initiative submarine manifest for 2004?"
Serving The Viewer, But Steering Clear Of Spoilers
Lindelof warns that there are pitfalls. If you're watching Lost or any other show with a recap, and suddenly there's a character you haven't seen in several episodes in the "Previously, on ...", you're just not going to be surprised when they show up in the middle of this episode.
Jeff Alexander, author of A TV Guide to Life: How I Learned Everything I Needed to Know From Watching Television, says that sometimes, "Previously, on ..." can be an outright spoiler.
"They always have these freeze frames that introduce a character," Alexander explains. "If it's a character who hasn't previously gotten one — a minor character like someone's boss or co-worker — [it's] a pretty good sign that that person's going to die that episode."
Lindelof and Cuse have managed to steer Lost through five seasons of mysteries and twists while steering clear of spoilers. The show's season finale airs tonight, and though the network has been hyping it as a special three-hour season-finale event, it's not.
It's a two-hour season finale.
And the first hour — the part starting at 8 p.m. ET/PT? It's a 60-minute recap of what's happened this season. In other words, a giant, industrial-strength "Previously, on ...."