Television Without Pity: A personal EWlogy -- ESSAY

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I’ll never look at a bucket of ribs the same way again.

I’ve been a steadfast reader of Television Without Pity since I lit upon Tracie “Potes” Potochnik’s America’s Next Top Model recaps back in 2004. In snarky TWoP style, Potes regularly engaged in a gentle mockery of host-mogul-mentor Tyra Banks about everything from her Kool-Aid weave to her love of barbecue-slathered pork. From the first lines of those recaps, it felt like I’d found the website equivalent of my very soul (and what a trash-TV-filled, highbrow-educated soul it is). And so, like Tyra Banks and those ribs, I devoured the damn things week after week. As with all of the site’s recaps, they were well worth the wait.

It’s taken me some time to process Thursday’s news that NBCUniversal will shutter the site (along with lifestyle newsletter DailyCandy). You see, I’m not just a decade-long TWoP acolyte, I was also a recapper for four and a half years.

For me, the April 4 end of TWoP isn’t just the loss of another time-sucking, iPhone-accessible fix of entertainment. It’s a sign that the times are shifting away from the kind of writing that informed who I am as a journalist today. It’s a sad day for my friends and former colleagues, who are now out of work. And it means that part of my own identity is now receding — as if I’m watching my first “adult” apartment burn down right in front of me.

I can’t even begin to estimate how much time I spent reading TWoP recaps during my first couple of years in New York: A 40-page beyond-deep dive into Center Stagea reviewcap of Rosie O’Donnell’s Riding the Bus With My Sister, and an epic retrocap of the Beverly Hills, 90210 pilot, to name a few. The latter was written by Sarah D. “Sars” Bunting (who created TWoP with Tara “Wing Chun” Ariano and David T. “Glark” Cole) and has particular significance for me, as I eventually recapped The CW’s 90210 reboot for three seasons.

Like many loyal TWoP readers in those days, I regularly checked the site’s hiring page to see if they had abandoned their “We don’t need any more recappers” policy. After three years of checking, I was resigned to the fact that I’d never join the ranks of these smart, side-splittingly funny recappers. Still, when I was tasked with writing a profile for my grad school arts reporting class, I could think of no one I more admired than Sars. Long story short, the profile never saw the light of day, but I mentioned my superfan status in passing, and Sars said the site would be expanding thanks to its recent acquisition by Bravo. (So, no, you won’t catch me throwing shade at NBCUniversal, for whom I also worked as a production assistant in 2007 and ’08.)

After submitting a 15-minute sample recap of E!’s Playboy Mansion-set reality series The Girls Next Door (dignity, always dignity), I got the gig. Since summer was approaching — remember the days before TV adopted its current rolling-admissions model? — I had to wait five months for an assignment… but boy was it a doozy. Yes, ladies and gentlemen, I would make my Television Without Pity debut recapping Fat March. (I’d go on to chronicle many such gems, including Living Lohan, VH1′s herpetic Bachelor Pad predecessor I Love Money, and Mischa Barton’s two-episode “comeback” vehicle The Beautiful Life — as well as genuinely quality shows including 30 Rock, The Killing, and The Hills.) But on that first night, sufficiently nervous that I might biff my first recap, I e-mailed Sars to confirm that I’d at least shown up and was ready to watch those fatties march. Her response? “Let the distant rumbling begin…”

Though TWoP was fundamentally a decentralized organization — I filed recaps from my New York apartment, my parents’ house in Alabama, and even a hotel gym in Los Angeles — there was nothing slack or compromised about its editorial standards. Since I started recapping for TWoP while working an overnight job, I clicked the “Send” button on my Fat March recap at 8:03 a.m. the next morning. After it arrived, I was politely but firmly told by Sars that I’d blown my 8 a.m. deadline. That’s journalism 101, and despite TWoP’s non-journalistic mission, the site had a high bar for its contributors.

Intellectually, too, TWoP was rigorous. Jacob Clifton, another of my role models and eventual friends – not to mention a prolific-doesn’t-even-begin-to-cover-it O.G. TWoP staffer – regularly engaged in some of the most intelligent meditations on life, sexuality, and any number of other weighty topics (as another blogger eloquently acknowledged at greater length than I can allot here)… and this is while in the context of his literarily whimsical takes on less-than-philosophical shows including Gossip Girl and American Idol (though he most recently recapped that flat-circled brain teaser True Detective). Work like Jacob’s speaks to a bigger truth in a time when serious issues often feel trivialized, quizzified, and listicled into inconsequence. TWoP reinforced that television of any ilk could stir serious and valid emotions, that the seemingly frivolous could indeed have consequence.

Given the telecommuter nature of a TWoP recapper’s work — moonlighting contributors hailed from Alberta to Austin, Boston to the Bible Belt — it was often easy to overlook the reach of our work. You’re not really thinking about such things when, at 2 a.m on a work night, you’re bleary-eyed and still contemplating the meaning of life vis-à-vis Pauly D’s blowout. Still, the site’s global readership never failed  to boggle my mind. For instance, when I lived in Toronto, my boyfriend at the time came home one night with the unexpected news that he’d made a new friend at work primarily because it had come up he was dating TWoP’s 90210 recapper. Throughout my time at TWoP, I also received letters from as far as Italy (and believe you me, actual Italians had much to say about Jersey Shore‘s season in Florence). The most successful sites these days seem to favor two extremes — niche dominance or mass aggregation for the most macro possible appeal — but TWoP found its home in that sweet-spotted middle with a mix of hyper-specific and yet universal appeal.

Though I never quite built up the courage to reach out to Potes, I did make genuine connections with many of my fellow TWoP writers despite never actually meeting most of them in person. But that was exactly the power of Television Without Pity. It engendered a community that so many sites, platforms, and Web Whatever.0 start-ups have tried, and failed, to replicate. Even as the readership dwindled in recent years, its devotion was no less strong. Which is why many TWoP regulars were relieved to know their forums would still be in operation through the end of May.

However, Thursday’s announcement was also that much more disheartening as it slipped in the detail that TWoP’s archives will be saved “in the digital ether,” but publicly inaccessible — its content virtually disposed in a last gasp of bitter irony (or perhaps I should call it cosmic snark?). Television Without Pity blazed a trail by giving weight to cultural ephemera; now, it’s been replaced by others who’ve built their success on making even weighty issues feel ephemeral.

UPDATE: On April 1, TWoP tweeted a reversal of the archiving policy: “Bad news for producers of the past decade and a half’s worst shows; good news for our fans: TWoP’s archives will stay up.”

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