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Atlanta, Westworld, and the episode-description revolution

Mr. Robot, Westworld, Atlanta, and Rick And Morty
Mr. Robot, Westworld, Atlanta, and Rick And Morty
Photo: Peter Kramer (USA Network), John P. Johnson (HBO), Guy D’Alema (FX), Adult Swim, Graphic: Rebecca Fassola.
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There’s always too much good TV to keep up with, but in a packed spring—The Americans, Westworld, The Terror, Legion, sigh—Atlanta’s second season has felt like uniquely essential viewing. Comedies go “dark” all the time, but few manage to delve all the way into horror, as Donald Glover’s has, while still retaining its stark, absurdist wit. The direction, often by Hiro Murai, finds room for quiet visual splendor, and musically, the show is becoming to a certain strain of liquid Southern hip-hop what Twin Peaks was to dream-pop, creating a cohesive assemblage of influences that points toward an alternate universe of music listening. It’s become an increasingly prismatic show, turning the saga of Earn, lackluster rap manager, into some broader aesthetic and cultural idea.

And nowhere is this clearer than in the show’s episode descriptions, which are written in the voice of some sort of omniscient hype man, wilding over the show’s unexpected turns alongside viewers. Popping up below whichever streaming platform you happen to be using, or as the copy on your cable service’s guide overlay, they’re weird, extra-textual pathways into the universe of the show. Here’s how the season premiere was introduced:

Ayyy! We back in the city but thangs feel a little different. Must be Robbin’ Season. Free Paper Boi!

Here’s how Van’s surreal evening at Drake’s mansion was described:

Yeah girl, we gonna party tonight! But if you don’t post about it, did it really happen?

And here’s how they teased Paper Boi’s harrowing odyssey through nightmarish woods:

Why Paper Boi always got an attitude? He rich, right? That’s why I can’t feel bad for these celebrities.

Image for article titled Atlanta, Westworld, and the episode-description revolution
Screenshot: FX

At least, that’s the way it’s supposed to work. I started to notice something weird as I grabbed episodes this season. Like a lot of people, I don’t watch anything in the same place anymore—I recorded a few episodes from a Sling account I share with my family, I streamed a few others directly via FX, and I bought one, in an indulgent moment, for a few bucks from Apple. I also revisited the first season on Hulu, which is when I noticed some platforms take these descriptions as mere suggestions and “clean up” the copy. The results are wild. Here is Sling’s episode copy for the above three episodes, respectively:

Things feel a little different back in the city at the beginning of Robbin’ Season.

It’s time for some partying, but it’s debatable if that partying occurred if there wasn’t a post about it.

Paper Boi seems to always have a bad attitude, despite the fact that he’s rich.

This is… cringe-inducing, to say the least. I went out looking for the copy in various stores and databases to see how they described the show, and it seems to just be the two versions out there. Sling TV and TV Guide, for example, use these “translations.” Hulu, Apple, and FX all use the original copy.

Image for article titled Atlanta, Westworld, and the episode-description revolution
Screenshot: Sling

Atlanta isn’t alone in playing with this format. Over the past few years, some of the best shows on television have flagrantly defied the traditional episode description—that terse sentence-or-so description of the main conflict, with maybe a hint toward the B-line, that have accompanied TV listings since time immemorial. The first show I really noticed flouting these convention was Rick And Morty, whose “broh”-filled episode descriptions sound like recommendations from a skeezy stoner friend:

This one is real good broh. It has action and heroes.

Atlantis here we come broh! A nice self contained episode about Atlantis!

Image for article titled Atlanta, Westworld, and the episode-description revolution
Screenshot: Adult Swim

These, too, have alternate versions on some platforms that strip the color from the copy and can result in nonsense:

Action and heroes surface.

The guys visit Atlantis.

Starting in its second season, Mr. Robot adopted an all-lowercase, acronym- and internet-speak voice in its episode descriptions. They generally evoke the tone of chatrooms, Reddit threads, and late-night, unsigned emails, peppered with acronyms, abbreviations, and slang:

remember, remember, 29th of september. elliot faces off with mr. robot. dom grows tired of red tape but tries the ribs for escape. tyrell’s new plan wont be forgot.

E Corp in chaos elliot on the run darlene comes to help cant stop wont stop angela FTW.

Their copy gets a little less mangled when edited, but it’s still weird:

Elliot faces off with Mr. Robot; Dom grows tired of red tape; and Tyrell’s new plan is memorable.

E Corp is in chaos. In other events, Elliot is on the run and Darlene comes to help.

And starting this season, Westworld started writing its episode-description copy in character as the show’s hosts. Here’s episode two:

Why don’t we start at the beginning?

Which did not really need editing but still got turned into this:

A look back at the beginning.

If you’d like to see many more examples, I got sort of obsessed, and here is the spreadsheet that resulted. It isn’t exactly clear where this started, though Rick And Morty’s first season was in 2013, making it the first of the above examples. The descriptions aren’t being dreamed up by some forward-thinking go-getter in marketing, either: Justin Roiland has tweeted that he writes the Rick And Morty captions himself, and a rep for FX said Atlanta’s in-voice descriptions are written by Donald and Stephen Glover themselves, as most of the episodes are.

As for those alternate versions, a rep from TV Guide said they come from Rovi, which a 2011 Business Insider article called “the most important tech company you’ve never heard of.” That may be overstating it a bit, but Rovi provides a whole suite of services to digital-video providers, including the digital guides used by cable networks. It makes sense that there’d be someone, or more likely a team of people, compiling all the copy provided by networks and making it user-friendly so as to be blasted out into millions and millions of homes, but you can also see them starting to strain under the load with some of these edits. Better Things’ droll descriptions (“Sam clears her head”) typically get ported over verbatim, but the season-one finale—“Only women bleed”—got changed to, “Sam has a tough day.” Tact!

The neutered, edited copy will probably stay out there, in other words, but this very variation points to how TV is changing—and how we’re changing along with it. You don’t need me to tell you that the medium is a hotbed of format-breaking creativity right now, but it’s fascinating to see that energy leaking out into the very structures and platforms that deliver the shows to us. It’s probably no coincidence that some of the best episode descriptions on TV come from some of the best shows on TV, all of which have uniquely devoted fan communities online. The episode descriptions almost sound like messages directly from the writers of the shows to their viewers, shirking the flat pragmatism of a “plot summary” in favor of an added lens into the universe. In a world where every offhand utterance leads to rigorous fan speculation, this is one more little playful venue for communication.

And anyway, in the age of serial TV, no one’s showing up midway through Mr. Robot or Atlanta, wondering what some new episode is going to be about. You’re already in the cult, or you’re not watching. Or, even more likely, you’re planning to watch at a later date, and are totally averse to spoilers of any sort. Splintered across a billion platforms and means of viewing, these episode descriptions are a sort of vestigial tail from the era when you’d be curious what sort of adventure Quantum Leap was getting into that week. It recalls, in its way, the manner in which Mad Men grew increasingly disdainful of its “next week” teaser as the seasons went on, ultimately turning into almost wordless montages of stern looks, cleared throats, and cocktail glasses. Similarly, these descriptions laugh at the notion of synopsizing an episode; the Rick And Morty one about Atlantis, above, had almost nothing to do with Atlantis, and was not a self-contained episode at all.

These are the sort of wily rough edges that result when a medium is transforming. Would you even want a description of Atlanta’s “Teddy Perkins” episode if you could have it? Better to just go with something like this:

Darius is trippin in this one. Y’all know I woulda been left.

Which Rovi didn’t really fuck up that much:

Darius is trippin.

It’s a little surprising, in fact, to see other forward-thinking shows still attempting to cram their plots into a straightforward sentence or two. Shouldn’t Legion’s descriptions be an indecipherable mix of meta-textual analysis and ’60s psychedelia? Shouldn’t The Terror’s be written in the florid vernacular of a 19th-century boatswain suffering from hypothermia? Abandon reason, episode-description writers of the world. We’re not here for the plot. We’re here for the writing—as unfiltered as possible, please.