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What Is The Purpose Of Recap Episodes?

by Justin Sevakis,

It's the holiday season, so people are pretty busy. There's gift-buying, there's decorating, there are parties and for students, final exams. But that also means my questions tend to run dry, so if you can spare a moment, please send a question in! Thanks, I greatly appreciate it!

Joshua asked:

I'm very confused over the positives and negatives of a recap episode. How helpful and effective is a recap episode, and why is it a bad thing to hear a studio do a recap episode in the middle of an airing season?

For long running series, recap episodes can serve an actual purpose. If the show has taken an extended detour into filler sub-plots, for example, a recap episode reminds everyone of where the main story is at. It can also catch newcomers up on the story (although, with most anime available streaming on demand, this is nowhere near as important as when it just aired on television).

But the times where recap episodes are actually planned and serve a real purpose are actually few and far between. In reality, recap episodes are usually an indication of disaster.

You see, nearly all TV anime is divided by episode into rotating teams of animators. Team A might handle episodes 1, 4, 7 and 11; Team B might handle episodes 2, 5, 8 and 12, etc. Each team has its own episode director (enshutsu/演出), its own animation director, and its own small team handling the key animation, special effects animation and other pieces of the animation process. These teams are always struggling to make their deadlines, trying to balance quality with deadlines and the difficulties of production that crop up. (I.e. staff out sick, animators struggling to draw a particular design, you name it.)

These teams very often run behind schedule. Seriously behind schedule. In fact, it's not uncommon for an episode to be finished the day before or even the day OF its broadcast. By the end, it's often a mad panic. As a series goes on, a team being behind on one episode will mean they get a later start on the NEXT episode they're assigned, which in turn becomes even later.

A recap episode, generally, means they finally didn't make it. Some insurmountable challenge has come up, someone has dropped the ball, something just couldn't happen on time. The episode wasn't going to be done on time, and missed its broadcast. It's a white flag of surrender; a face-plant.

And so, with only a few hours, an editor has to sit down with the series as it exists so far and slam together 22 minutes of "the story so far," just to have SOMETHING to broadcast. This is bad for everybody on the show. It's a very public sign that the production has careened out of control. Everyone in the business notices. The studio takes a hit to their reputation, as does the series director. The production committee is usually furious. These series are only planned and budgeted to be a certain length, and they've just blown an entire episode.

And the fans notice too. For a short, one season show, a recap episode is a total waste of time, and can quickly sour fans on a show, particularly if they were on the fence about it to begin with.

And there's collateral damage, too. TV broadcast time is booked well in advance, so there can only be that pre-determined number of episodes aired. The episode that was ALMOST done in time then has to become the next episode, or the story won't make sense. That means that all of the remaining episodes, many of which are already deep in production, need to be compressed and/or rewritten to finish telling the story within the remaining episodes. In extraordinary cases the series can be extended as OVA episodes, but far more often the show's writing staff is tasked with rewriting the remaining episodes AS THEY'RE BEING ANIMATED. This is very difficult to do gracefully, and quality can really suffer as a result.

My heart wrenches whenever I see a recap episode. It isn't always a sign of behind-the-scenes chaos, but it usually is. And when it is, the staff of that show Is having an extremely bad day.

Thank you for reading Answerman!

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Anime News Network founder Justin Sevakis wrote Answerman between July 2013 and August 2019, and had over 20 years of experience in the anime business at the time. These days, he's the owner of the video production company MediaOCD, where he produces many anime Blu-rays. You can follow him on Twitter at @worldofcrap.

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