The Previously Ill-Considered Importance of “Previously, On…”

This piece was written on spec for Time, and never used.

After finishing the second season premiere of House of Cards, two thoughts stuck in my head. The first was, of course, related to that thing that happens, the thing that those who’ve seen the episode will immediately know what I’m talking about without my having to spoil it for others here. The second was less obvious: I found myself missing the traditional television “Previously On…” recap at the start of the episode.

There are many reasons why such a recap is absent from the episode, and House of Cards and other Netflix shows in general. The most obvious is that the “binge-viewing” nature of the Netflix model would appear to make recaps unnecessary; more than likely, you’ve watched the previous episode(s) of the series so recently — perhaps even just seconds before the episode you’re watching next — that you don’t need anyone to remind you of the plot.

There’s also the fact that “Previously On…”s can be problematic in general; more often than not, they telegraph the events of what you’re about to watch when summarizing what’s come before. Whatever scenes are chosen to remind the viewer of past events offer hints at what’s about to unfold, especially if those scenes are less-than-obvious selections (Whenever a network show’s pre-episode recap features a guest-star who hasn’t been seen in a few weeks or longer, you can pretty much guarantee that they’re going to show up again within the hour). With the best of intentions, a poorly-constructed “Previously On…” montage can spoil what the episode ahead.

With both complaints in mind, the lack of a recap would appear to be a bonus. Finally, you might be thinking, I don’t have that problem of having to skip past the recap like I do when I was binge-watching The OC on DVD that time. And yet, without it, something seemed to be missing, somehow.

That “something” just might be context. The previous season of House of Cards started a little over eleven months ago, which on a regular television schedule wouldn’t be that big a deal; with an episode released weekly, we’d only have been looking at, what, an eight month gap between seasons? Surely that’s not that long to forget the various balls left in the air by the end of the season. Except, of course, House of Cards was purposefully designed to work outside of a regular television schedule, and for a large percentage of viewers, it’s been almost a year since Frank Underwood’s plans and schemes bore fruit.

When speeding through the first season of the show — or, even, the second season, once it gets going — the unforgiving pace and structure of House of Cards felt like a plus. It didn’t pander to viewers, or pause to offer exposition or explanation; instead, it pushed them to pay attention and keep up, safe in the knowledge that if they didn’t, they could always go back and rematch the episode to catch what they’d missed the first time around.

At the start of the second season, though, that unrelenting focus on forward momentum felt like a problem. I didn’t rewatch the first season before starting on the second, and as a result, I felt lost in certain scenes: Had I met this character before? Was this conversation referring to something I’d known or was it new information? What is going on here?

(That that particular feeling, that moment of concern and uncertainty about not being up-to-date with everything that was happening and temporarily lost in a world that was insular and uninviting, felt oddly appropriate maybe spoke a lot about the world which House of Cards is set inside, with all of the alliances and power plays that we’re not privy to. I doubt that such parallels between confused viewers and confused laymen to the political process is anything more than coincidence, however.)

The problem wasn’t that I didn’t remember the main points of the first year, but that I hadn’t remained as steeped in the minutae of the show as I had been during that first breathless binge watch. I could recognize Frank Underwood, Zoe Barnes and the rest of the main players; I could remember what had happened to Peter Russo. It was more a problem that I didn’t know whether or not I was supposed to recognize Jacqueline Sharp or not, and whether or not we’d previously known that the father of Gillian Cole’s unborn baby was a married man or not.

In Netflix’s defense, there is a special recap episode available for those looking to catch up. Perhaps the problem was that I didn’t realize quite how much I hadn’t remembered, or how unforgiving the first episode of the new season would be in terms of re-entry into the series and the world it takes place in. Throughout the whole episode, however, I remember thinking often that I wished there had been, just once, just for the start of the season, a “Previously On” to act as primer for what’s to come.

Perhaps some things from the old model of television are worth keeping, after all.

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