TV Tropes defines a clip show thusly:
An episode which consists mainly of fragments (clips) of previous episodes. Usually has a theme: for example, to highlight a character’s development over the years, or show the relationship between characters. Sometimes, however, it won’t be shown that the events take place in the past, but they are shown as appearing directly one after another.
The clip show, like in the Robotech episode whose comic adaptation I went over this afternoon, is often a target of scorn as of late. They’re seen as lazy. “We already saw these episodes. Why do we care?” And fair enough, but to understand the clip show as something other than a way to save money (as if somehow properly using their budget to get a full season is a bad thing) we need to understand the other reasons behind them in the past and how they can actually serve a story today, even in our on-demand stream and binge TV and video watching culture.
First off you have to remember how watching television was in those days, and really you can trace it back at least as far as the old serials. There was no home video, never mind on-demand or streaming. An episode aired once on television or played once on screen and the only way you saw it again was a rerun at the end of the season or in syndication, or if the movie theater decided to rerun it somewhere down the line. I’ll stick with TV for the rest of the analogy, but in either case you had to be there on time to watch something. It’s like theater today and the same was true with radio dramas and comedies, but since that was usually done live with a new episode each week or day depending on the show you never had reruns of radio while the theater usually is the same show over and over, just slightly different based on the performance that day. They didn’t even record the old shows for years and a lot of performances were lost. For example the Green Hornet show has episodes you’ll never hear again even though they eventually started recording them.
Take for example the Robotech episode that inspired this commentary, “Gloval’s Report”. In it, Captain Gloval gives his report on the events leading the SDF-1 into space and confronting the Zentraedi with a crew of new recruits and not fully tested equipment. The intended launch was supposed to be part of that testing, to see how flightworthy the ship was in a proper testing situation. That ran into a problem when the very group the ship was boobytrapped to block showed up. It was the fourteenth episode of the show, and the show was a daily show, so roughly three weeks in. However, the show it was adapted from, Super Dimensional Fortress Macross, was a weekly series, so thirteen weeks out before Captain Global gave his own report. With no marathon reruns and on-demand still a pipe dream at best (even when Pay-Per-View was invented for cable you had to be watching at the time) if you came in at any point past the first episode learning what you missed would be advantageous while a viewer watching once a week and most likely watching a bunch of other shows as well (“okay, that’s my one show a week, now to do nothing but sit on my thumbs and wiggle my toes and mentally replay this one episode so I don’t forget anything until the next episode”) might enjoy a refresher of events as a reminder of a moment they may have forgotten but was important to the overall storyline.
For the comic adaptation, coming out once a month, if you missed an earlier issue and didn’t know about comic book stores (most of my early comics came from seeing them in normal stores, while I got a subscription to The Transformers that didn’t start until issue #17 after seeing the comic in a drugstore at #5 and wasn’t able to get one until #6 and was punished once by not being allowed to pick up #9 until adulthood) you were totally out of luck. The captions telling you “this character last appeared in issue #x” is fine if you can actually see that comic. Episode 3 is long past gone and until the VHS and Beta collections of shows you weren’t going to see it. And when those first came out they weren’t cheap and took up a lot of shelf space for four, maybe five episodes if you’re lucky. A later episode we’ll be looking at through the comic adaptation is used to connect the events of Macross and Southern Cross into the first two Robotech Wars.
Radio couldn’t have clip shows but movie serials and television could. The main purpose from a narrative perspective is obvious. In comedy it’s used to show a character’s growth or the highlight the funniest moments. In drama it also shows character growth but in the case of a longform story it can help sum up events and point out clues to a case the viewer might have missed. In shorter stories it can reintroduce a character or bring viewers the important details of a story that somehow factors into this one, either tangentially or a revisit of characters and/or events making a return. If you haven’t seen the later story, a clip segment will fill you in. Maybe you’ll go back and watch the previous episode and maybe you won’t.
Power Rangers is one of the few shows I see use a clip show lately. While it does save money, much like a “bottle episode” (all set in one place and thus one set), when done right it can highlight all the important details to a story, to better examine the big threat and how they’ve changed since becoming Rangers. Some clip shows are beneficial to the seasonal plot and some are just kind of weak. It all depends on the framing device. And this is where even a modern on-demand series can benefit from doing a clip show. A good framing device matches our own lives, as we can reminisce about events in our past, things we did together, or possibly explain a situation to someone who wasn’t there. Of course the show has to make sure the other person wasn’t there. While not a clip episode and more of a flashback, there was an episode of Benson where Kraus is telling Denise about Benson getting his own condo, but Denise is in the story with the rest of the regular cast. I don’t know if that was an episode they recorded and just stuffed it with a framing device like the Star Trek episode “The Cage” but considering we hadn’t seen Benson living in the condo at the time it was an unnecessary framing device. The point is, if you showcase the highlights of the previous stories make sure the character being told the story either has amnesia or wasn’t part of those events in the episode.
Long form mystery stories can absolutely benefit from a clip show. Even binging it you also have character moments and red herrings, either on purpose or the viewer getting something wrong because it looks like it might be a clue when it’s just character building, simply a rock, or a coffee cup nobody saw being left behind when the cameras rolled. There’s a chance something might be forgotten unless you’re an actual detective and used to remembering this stuff. A clip show can help put all the clues thus far into context and help solve the mystery. In the case of Power Rangers again the good shows helped the heroes figure out what the villains’ endgame was or to show how far they’ve come just when everything seems the bleakest. In other words, a clip show can work when you’re consolidating information or looking at the story arc in a new way. It’s all in the framing device and reason for the story beyond “we need to save money for the finale while still having the requisite number of episodes”.
TV Tropes also mentions yet another positive use of clip shows. “After the death of actor Jack Soo (Det. Yemana), Barney Miller aired a tribute in the form of a clip show, with the actors breaking character and recalling their favorite Yemana scenes. ” For less personal tributes an episode of Three’s Company had Lucille Ball on the set of the apartment and hosted a tribute to the series, while films like That’s Entertainment paid tribute to the golden age of Hollywood with highlights from some of the most popular movies of the day. Some of these can also include bloopers and other outtakes. The problem isn’t the clip show existing but to find a positive use for it as tribute or pushing the story, and it lets fans seen their favorite moments, although clips on YouTube admittedly serve that as well. Wikipedia had a good one, too.
Another common rationale for a clip show is the lack of a new show to air, due to failure to meet production schedules. For example, the computer-animated series Roughnecks: Starship Troopers Chronicles used clip shows four times for this purpose, interrupting in-progress story arcs. Similarly, the Moonlighting season 3 episode “The Straight Poop” helped to fill out a production schedule that was rife with delays: in 15 weeks since that season began, only 8 episodes of the “weekly” series had been broadcast. Chappelle’s Show resorted to producing five clip shows (using material from only 25 episodes) over the course of its first two seasons.
Maybe we don’t need clip shows like we used to and a bad framing device will lead to a terrible and boring episode when we can go to our video shelf or favored streaming service to see the actual episode. Still, every time I see someone complain about them just happening without even seeing it I have to roll my own eyes, but at them. The concept of the clip show isn’t a bad thing, like a lot of stuff I see folks moan about in stories. The question is how well they are used to advance the story and highlight the characters, or as a form of tribute to a lost character or actor/actress. A clip show can work from a narrative perspective and that’s more money they have for a spectacular finish. So before you immediately write off a clip episode look what they do with it and see if it moves the story along instead of insisting you can just watch the episodes if you wanted to see them again. It might not be the best episode of the show, but it could be more important than you think on the surface.