Celebrity hosts, who have been making inroads in the world of chat-based podcasts, are expanding into pop culture. There’s a small but growing group of pods that feature television stars who were famous in the 1990s and 2000s recapping their own shows, episode by episode. To judge by the recent proliferation of these shows, the idea—which is surely appealing to networks looking for podcast hosts who can bring existing fans to their feeds—has legs.
As far as I can tell, the “celeb recap” genre began in 2016 with West Wing Weekly, but the pandemic, with its shutdowns of standard Hollywood work, brought several new entries into the field. The newest—I Am All In, with Scott Patterson—features the actor who played Luke Danes commentating on Gilmore Girls, a show that had already been ably recapped in full by professional comedians and committed superfans on the podcasts Gilmore Guys and Return to Stars Hollow.
The question arises: Built-in listenership aside, why do these exist? The skills required to make a recap podcast good aren’t bequeathed to veteran actors of beloved television shows at wrap parties. Good recap podcast hosts have a deep knowledge of the show’s arcana and the ability to perform a bit of credible cultural and psychological analysis on a sometimes thin text. Above all, they’ve got the interpersonal chops to move a conversation along and curate the kind of sparkling vibe between co-hosts that prompts listeners to form parasocial bonds with “their” podcasts—bonds that are not quite the same as the connections fans feel with characters played by actors on television.
It’s a tall order. But! Remember the pre-streaming-era delight of discovering random DVD commentary tracks where “I’m done with this” actors said more than they maybe should? Could any of these recap pods harbor similar hidden gems? In search of the truth, I decided to give a recent episode of each of seven higher-profile podcasts that use this format the old college try. I’m not a watcher of all of these TV shows, but as a person who listens to every episode of the podcast How Did This Get Made? without ever seeing a minute of 90 percent of the movies it dissects, I feel safe saying this: When a podcast has the right vibe, unfamiliarity with the underlying intellectual property shouldn’t really matter.
Below is my very subjective report card, arranged from bad to good. Each show received points out of 10 for a few criteria. I’ve given the pods an accompanying letter grade derived from those points and from my general level of annoyance at the time of assessment.
TV Show: Beverly Hills, 90210 (1990–2000)
Hosts: Jennie Garth (who played Kelly Taylor), Tori Spelling (Donna Martin)
First Episode: Nov. 9, 2020
Episode Reviewed: June 7, 2021: “Hot for Teacher, Again!?…Eek,” recapping Season 2, Episode 6, “Pass, Not Pass”
Do they actually talk about the TV episode (full points awarded for more coverage)? 1/10. Here’s where I confess that I leavened the experience of forcing myself to listen to this content-free hour of audio entertainment by taking breaks for another show: Again With Them, which is a Patreon-only podcast featuring actual professional recappers Tara Ariano and Sarah Bunting and is dedicated to recapping this recap podcast, 90210MG. Take one minute to track that lineage, and to ponder the glory of our times!
Anyway! Ariano and Bunting are convinced that Jennie Garth doesn’t pre-watch the TV episodes under discussion and is only doing this for the money, and that’s why there’s very little content to this show—and pretty weird vibes, to boot. After listening to this episode of the podcast, in which Garth barely seems to be trying to participate in the conversation, I agree. The only interesting question about the content of this TV episode—is the young teacher Mr. Suiter, who goes on a date with Andrea, actually “creepy” by 2021 standards?—passes in a flash, with nobody truly willing to commit to an answer.
Do the hosts avoid Hollywood bullshitting (full points awarded for total avoidance)? 7/10. This is the show’s saving grace: No guest star interview—and the strange mood between the hosts—means very little mutual fluffery about past and future career successes. The two women do softly moan about turning 50 and how horrible it will be, but I suppose that could happen in any town.
Is it cringe-free (full points awarded for no cringe)? 2/10. The hosts read a fan question about what the actresses would like to be if they weren’t actresses. Garth says “supermarket checkout girl” (which I know from Again With Them is a callback to an earlier podcast conversation about a Hallmark movie Garth is starring in). Ugh, the condescension! Then there was the part when they remark on how deep it is when the character Brandon observes, “How come nobody in L.A. is from L.A.?” “That’s still so relevant!” they nod, as I die slowly on the inside, fighting a losing battle against my internalized misogyny.
TV Show: Scrubs (2001–10)
Hosts: Zach Braff (Dr. John “J.D.” Dorian), Donald Faison (Dr. Christopher Turk)
First Episode: March 31, 2020
Episode Reviewed: June 8, 2021: “423: My Faith in Humanity,” recapping Season 4, Episode 23
Do they actually talk about the episode? 5/10. Episode talk started around minute 21 (out of 72) and didn’t go on long. Mostly the chat was about how funny some of the jokes were, including one told by a doctor to a nurse that was basically workplace sexual harassment. One host pointed out, “You couldn’t say that now”; then both of them agreed, “But it was funny!”
Braff and Faison take phone calls from fans who want advice, and this episode ended with one, further curtailing the time they had to do the actual recap. The way the two actors handled this episode’s phone call, which was about a dilemma totally unrelated to acting or comedy (or even to health or medicine, their fake field of expertise), was at best basic and at worst weirdly patronizing, with them heaping praise on the bilingual caller for how good his English was.
Do the hosts avoid Hollywood bullshitting? 5/10. Faison moans a bit about not being called for roles he wants, to which Braff offers comfort by trying to sell him on the grass-is-greener idea that those actors in Star Wars and Marvel movies might envy Faison for his career (they surely do not). Later, Braff tells Faison all about the thirsty DMs he gets after posting photos of Faison on social media, trying to build up his ego.
Is it cringe-free? 5/10. I don’t need to know that Zach Braff feels good, though privileged, about going to the farmers market and buying ethically farmed meat. Like, duh, of course you do! And I can’t deal with Faison’s off-color “jokes” about “ass babies” and “twat ears.” (Literally? Don’t ask.)
TV Show: The Sopranos (1999–2007)
Hosts: Michael Imperioli (Christopher Moltisanti), Steve Schirripa (Bobby Baccalieri)
First Episode: April 6, 2020
Episode Reviewed: June 7, 2021: “Episode #63 ‘Cold Cuts,’ ” recapping Season 5, Episode 10
Do they actually talk about the episode? 4/10. Oh, my God, this podcast is so long (2 hours, 37 minutes), and they didn’t get to the recap part until about halfway through. And even when they got there, they got diverted quite often by chitchat about cooking and board games. I don’t mind hearing about what kinds of pasta people ate in Naples, but if you were to ask me what events occurred on this episode of The Sopranos, I’d have barely a clue.
Do the hosts avoid Hollywood bullshitting? 5/10. The more guest interviews in a show, the worse it’ll score in this category. Two guest interviews mean more time to talk about the business, about how Chevy Chase is a jerk (not news!), and about the secret to acting success, which is “don’t fuck up, be a nice guy, no attitude,” says guest Richard Portnow—good advice, I guess, but not exactly groundbreaking.
Is it cringe-free? 5/10. There are multiple mentions of experiences working with Woody Allen, without the hint of a sense that this might be jarring or problematic to some listeners. Schirripa makes a few jokes about his “Mexican” wife being a “hot tamale” that I could definitely have done without. There’s also some Andy Rooney old-guy stuff about how, in the modern world, you can’t talk to a customer service agent in person. Oof.
TV Show: Saved by the Bell
Hosts: Mark-Paul Gosselaar (Zack Morris), Dashiell Driscoll (writer of the rebooted series and host of the web series “Zack Morris Is Trash”)
First Episode: July 29, 2020
Episode Reviewed: June 2, 2021: “Episode 38: The Game,” recapping Season 3, Episode 4
Do they actually discuss the episode at hand? 10/10, thanks to Driscoll, who moves things along, keeping the focus on the structure of the script. Gosselaar, a fan of cars and racing, goes off on a few tangents about different types of cars that made my eyes glassy, but Driscoll is always there to pull him back.
Do they avoid Hollywood bullshitting? 10/10. I tensed up when Gosselaar started talking about having met Eric Dane at a party, thinking, It’s starting, but Driscoll’s strong hand stopped Gosselaar from getting off track. This is where having only one actor in the mix helps. If you get more than one, the bullshit monster grows.
Is it cringe-free? 8/10. At one point, Driscoll asks Gosselaar whether he ever haggles, and the actor says, “No, I let my reps do that”—which is painful, since Driscoll wasn’t talking about Hollywood deal-making—but the two recover quickly, and in good humor. When Gosselaar compliments the Tesla as a good car, Driscoll, who has a much stronger handle on the Discourse, is ready to hop in and say: “Good job on that, Elon—maybe not on some other things, but good job!” I would definitely hang out with Driscoll at a party. Parasocial bond: forming!
TV Show: The Office (2005–13)
Hosts: Jenna Fischer (Pam Beesly), Angela Kinsey (Angela Martin)
First Episode: Oct. 16, 2019
Episode Reviewed: June 2, 2021: “Business Ethics With Amy Ryan,” recapping Season 5, Episode 3, “Business Ethics”
Do they actually discuss the episode at hand? 8/10. Fischer and Kinsey had the good idea to use the preexisting DVD commentary for the episode as a springboard, and it seems to work to anchor the discussion a bit, after they get out of the recap-free zone that was the guest interview.
Do they avoid Hollywood bullshitting? 4/10. The interview with Amy Ryan, who played HR rep/Michael Scott’s girlfriend Holly Flax, is sweet—all three women do seem kind. But Ryan doesn’t have much to say about the show itself, instead talking about how wonderful it was to work with everyone, how funny “Steve [Carell]” was, how great the wardrobe and makeup people were, how she is getting recognized more and more often now that the show has found a zoomer audience … it’s exhausting. It’s possible another episode—they don’t seem to do guest interviews very often—might be better.
Is it cringe-free? 9/10. I did have to listen to the group of actresses go on about how much they loved a craft services cook who brought the cast their very particular, very egg-white-scramble-centric breakfast orders (“He took such good care of us!” “I’m crying!”). But, like I said, these women seem kind, and if they don’t genuinely have affection for one another, they’ve certainly fooled me.
TV Show: Gilmore Girls (2000–07)
Hosts: Scott Patterson (Luke Danes), various producers who remain quasi-anonymous
First Episode: May 3, 2021
Episode Reviewed: June 6, 2021: “The Counter Is a Sacred Space,” recapping Season 1, Episode 5, “Cinnamon’s Wake”
Do they actually talk about the episode? 10/10. Scott Patterson is committed. (“All in,” perhaps?) The conceit of the podcast is that he has never watched Gilmore Girls, despite starring in it, and he really sounds like he’s falling in love with the show—as well he should. Patterson comes on mic with a strong stance on Max Medina, Rory’s teacher at Chilton, who asks Lorelai out in this episode. While it’s a little weird (is Medina really “a master manipulator,” as Patterson says?), and I’m also not quite sure about the gender politics of Patterson’s celebration of Rory’s “sweetness” and “small-town values,” blessings on any podcast host who knows that a strong stance on the material at hand can only help the conversation along.
Do the hosts avoid Hollywood bullshitting? 8/10. Patterson is kind to the guest interviewee Ted Rooney, who bemoans the fact that his character Morey wasn’t brought on as a regular. In the course of being kind, Patterson starts going on about how everyone on the show mattered, and it was all like a family, blah blah. Luckily, the blah blah doesn’t last long.
Is it cringe-free? 8/10. There’s a segment at the end where the producers quiz Patterson, and one another, about the references on Gilmore Girls, famously a very reference-heavy show. It’s not Patterson who doesn’t know about the Iran-Contra affair or who the Bangles are—that’s a producer who’s on mic—so the experience of hearing somebody exposed as ignorant of basic cultural facts is a little less excruciating, but still.
TV Show: The West Wing (1999–2006)
Hosts: Joshua Malina (Will Bailey), Hrishikesh Hirway (current/former host of the podcasts Song Exploder, Home Cooking, and Partners)
First Episode: March 22, 2016. This is the granddad of the group.
Episode Reviewed: Jan. 22, 2020: “Institutional Memory (With Janet Ashikaga),” recapping Season 7, Episode 21, “Institutional Memory.” This is the last episode of the podcast proper, not counting a few live shows and special shows that posted to the feed after the show concluded.
Do they actually talk about the episode? 10/10. Hirway is an expert at making sure that things stay on point, and they intercut their discussion with clips from the TV show—an editing move I’ve found really, really helps keep a recap on track. Both he and Malina have an ability to step back, look at the bigger-picture themes, and articulate their thoughts on those themes in a way that satisfies.
Do the hosts avoid Hollywood bullshitting? 8/10. As per usual, the Achilles’ heel is the guest interview—in this case, conducted by Malina with The West Wing’s editor, Janet Ashikaga. They reminisce about her trip up the career ladder, how great Larry David is, etc., etc. At one point, Ashikaga says, “Looking back, [The West Wing] looks like a very white show to me,” but the point is dropped. I wanted to hear more—much more!
Is it cringe-free? 8/10. Like I said, this thing is smooth. I am taking off a few points here because The West Wing is a TV show that’s gotten quite a bit of criticism from the left-of-liberal crowd in recent years; there’s even another West Wing recap show with hosts who approach their rewatch from a very critical point of view. Those arguments about the centrist politics of the TV show are very front of mind for me, but at least in this particular ep, which was the wrap-up to a four-year run, the hosts were nothing but celebratory. To me, that’s a little cringe. Your mileage may certainly vary!