There’s a lot to like about Atlanta, the FX series whose first-season finale aired this week. But of all the reasons to praise it—for its absurdist viewpoint on the world, for its performances, for its humor, for its soundtrack—one thing has gone woefully unheralded: FX’s episode synopses.
Episode synopses are those small blocks of text that appear alongside an episode before you select it in the on-demand menu of your cable provider or on a streaming site or app—that would be FXNow, in Atlanta’s case—or maybe in an earlier era, in the little booklet that came with your DVD box set. They’re a few sentences long, mostly dry half-summaries, just some information to orient you or jog your memory if you forget where you left off: “Olivia may be in a dire situation as the presidential candidates announce their running mates,” one bare-bones Scandal episode description reads. Where they come from can be unclear: Who writes them—the show’s staff, the network, a bunch of frustrated low-level scribes at TV Guide or the cable company? It doesn’t help that they frequently read as if written by an elementary-schooler practicing using active verbs. Here’s HBO’s description for Season 6, Episode 3 of Game of Thrones, for example: “Daenerys meets her future. Bran meets the past. Tommen confronts the High Sparrow. Arya trains to be No One. Varys finds an answer. Ramsay gets a gift.”
But here’s one from Atlanta, the description for Episode 3: “This man Earn broke as hell. How you gone go out on a date with no money? Umm mhmm these Atlanta dudes trifling. But Ok, Paper Boi might really be about that life tho.” It’s only a couple lines, but you can’t miss the voice—calling Earn “this man,” the phrases “how you gone” and “about that life,” spelling it “tho,” and other little things make it read like dialogue from one of the characters on the show. It’s like the network realized the futility of actually trying to summarize an episode—no spoilers!—and instead decided to dedicate the space to an miniature exercise in narrative experimentation.
Here’s another good one, from Episode 5: “Ayyye, okay! We got celebs in the building balling for the kids. I love me some Justin Bieber. Man, Paper Boi stay hating tho haha.” That “ayyye,” the text ending in “haha” just the way you might type a message to a friend—it’s such a skilled encapsulation of the show’s style. For a show like Atlanta, where much of the pleasure lies in absorbing the atmosphere, it’s satisfying that the episode descriptions extend and reinforce that vibe. This, those blurbs declare, is a show that’s confident in its perspective and voice.
Atlanta is not the only show that is reinventing this bite-sized genre. With the rise of Netflix, Hulu, Amazon, video on demand, and other streaming platforms, episode synopses are increasingly visible. Gone are the days of idly flipping through channels—these days, fans consume television on their own schedules, so it’s to the networks’ advantage to compete for viewers’ eyeballs and loyalties as creatively as possible. And so while most shows still favor the dull episode synopses of yore, there are a handful that have begun to experiment with the short-form art of the clever episode description.
Atlanta’s fellow FXer Louie may have pioneered this trend back in 2012 with a Season 3 episode description that read simply, “Louie has a challenging day.” It was a minor social media hit at the time. For a current exemplar in the field, look to Mr. Robot’s all-lowercase, slang-filled descriptions: “fsociety is in too deep rn. an old friend reveals all to elliot. sh*t gets real af,” went the description for Season 2’s finale, true to the show’s paranoid hacker plotline and overall strong branding. Better Things, also on FX, seems to be following in Louie’s footprints with write-ups that are short and wry, in line with the show’s comic rhythm: For Episode 2, “Sam deals with lady things”; for Episode 6, “Sam deals with some situations.” If you appreciate these elliptical, winking synopses as a kind of metacommentary on episode summaries in general, then you just might enjoy the humor of Better Things.
Good episode synopses are like Easter eggs for viewers to discover amid the overstuffed aisles of Peak TV—an in-joke you notice while scrolling through a bunch of generic-sounding blurbs that confirms that this show is paying attention to the details, that makes you feel like your show is speaking directly to you. And if all goes according to plan, maybe it makes you think, Lol, thanks Atlanta, love you too haha.