On Monday and Tuesday mornings, you can reliably find me on “Television Without Pity” frequently clicking refresh, in anticipation of Jacob Clifton’s latest “Gossip Girl” or “The Good Wife” recap. I’m not alone. The “recap” is a relatively new genre of writing, popularized by the website “Television Without Pity,” in which the writer gives a detailed description of a television episode, whilst editorializing, sometimes satirizing and also providing critical commentary.
The master of the recap is indubitably Jacob Clifton. When he was recapping “American Idol,” he had a whole slew of followers who watched the show for the sole purpose of being able to read and fully appreciate his recaps. The same is now true for “Gossip Girl,” though at least this show does have some of its own merits. Clifton’s recaps render anything remotely stupid or preposterous instantly awesome once you start seeing the show through his eyes.
Clifton’s trademark is his impressive, acerbic satire of “Gossip Girl,” some of the cleverest I’ve seen in recent years: brilliant and laugh-out-loud funny. The satire hit its zenith last season at about the halfway point when the show was also at its best. A classic example is his recap of an exchange between best friends Chuck and the gorgeous but hopelessly stupid Nate. Chuck confronts Nate about having stolen his girlfriend. Chuck’s line on the show: “I guess the Archibald charm wasn’t as rusty as you thought. Unlike the knife in my back!” Clifton’s brilliant satirical addition was inventing Nate’s response: “Ten-four. Now explain that thing before. Am I the knife? Why is the knife not rusty? Where did the knife come from? Is the knife my charm? Are we friends now?”
Clifton also has an uncanny knack for seamlessly inserting pop culture references into his writing to add an extra level to the analysis and description. When describing a case of mistaken identity last season—one of the characters, Colin, was mistaken for his cousin, Ben—Clifton wrote, “Some people know that Colin is dating Serena, some people don’t, but they’re not dating and Juliet is involved with Colin in a way that makes even less sense than before, and Ben is Glory and/or Colin, and…give up.” It’s easily missed, but “Buffy” fans will recognize the reference from another case of mistaken identities, which was the subject of an entire hilarious episode, when Spike had to constantly remind the others that “Ben is Glory”. And here on “Gossip Girl,” there was even a character named Ben. It’s just—perfect.
While Clifton is unmatched in his ability to cleverly call out stupidity, he is equally able to recognize when a show does something right. He always rightly praises the crackling dialogue and fantastic on-screen chemistry between unlikely friends (and now lovers?) Dan and Blair. And his critical commentary is both incisive and insightful. In season three, he wrote an extended mini-essay about the complications of Jenny’s decision to lose her virginity, which delved into the complexities of the characters’ experiences through the lens of Clifton’s own personal experiences. His fascination with the show’s themes of surveillance and public identity have led him to write some of the best commentary on what it is to be Serena, to have your beauty as your primary characteristic.
This season, he started recapping CBS’s “The Good Wife,” a show that nobody in their right mind would call a guilty pleasure, and he still manages to provide hilarious satire and very thoughtful analysis of the show’s characters, themes, and direction. To read Clifton’s writing is to engage in a thought-provoking dialogue about television. It’s proof positive that, as Woody Allen wrote in “Sleeper,” “Everything bad [i.e. television] is good for you.” Even if you’re convinced that you could never watch “Gossip Girl” in earnest, if you watch just one episode of season four supplemented with Clifton’s commentary, you could easily be convinced to watch it simply for the rewarding recaps.