Television

Spoilerphilia and Spoilerphobia: Showrunners Talk Surprises

As part of the run-up to the Emmy nominations, The Hollywood Reporter's web site has been running a series of videos in which various showrunners — including Mad Men's Matthew Weiner, True Blood's Alan Ball, and Grey's Anatomy's Shonda Rhimes chitchat about various aspects of production, from network standards to product placement.

In the clip above, they express frustration about the proliferation of spoilers — leaked information about what's going to happen on episodes that haven't aired yet. (This is indeed the traditional definition of a spoiler; it is only much more recently that the term has, for some, taken on the new meaning of "information about a show that you personally haven't chosen to watch yet and perhaps never will, but it would be great if nobody would say anything about it in case you eventually do.")

Their varied reactions are fascinating. Ball (along with The Office creator Greg Daniels) is annoyed by the effect of spoiler-hunters on the logistics of filming, Weiner seems affronted by the disruption of his creative process when people don't digest the show at the pace he intends, and Shonda Rhimes — Shonda Rhimes, of all people — professes to just not understand, as she puts it, "why spoilers make people happy."

Weiner goes on to insist that people don't actually enjoy reading spoilers; they are only fun for the people who are doing the revealing, who are in fact making everyone else miserable. That's true in the case of people being involuntarily spoiled (a major problem for, in particular, all online communities where serial shows are discussed).

But there is also a massive, thriving community of people desperate to be voluntarily spoiled, and it's fruitless to pretend that part of the challenge isn't that you're trying to defeat simple curiosity — the fact that people are impatient and don't like waiting.

Furthermore, if you were looking for a defender of spoiler-free living, you would not logically go to Shonda Rhimes.

The tease and the long history of string-pulling, after the jump...

What makes Rhimes such an unlikely and seemingly disingenuous advocate of the "I don't understand why spoilers make people happy" theory is her long history of teasing (and teasing and teasing) future episodes to play on the exact impatience that she claims not to understand. The Grey's Anatomy writers have a blog, in fact, and before the last episode of the season, she wrote this:

We're going dark, people. Why? Because next week's episodes (two in one night) are so explosive and cliff-hanger-y that we, the writers, have all agreed that we can't even talk about them.

If you truly didn't understand the mentality that leads to surprise-busting, you wouldn't promote your own show with phrases like "explosive and cliff-hanger-y." If you know why "cliff-hanger-y" is a good word to pin on your own season finale, then you know why spoilers make (some) people happy.

Fans have always craved the cycle of suspense and resolution; that's the reason the word "cliffhanger" was invented a few years before the Internet started trying to figure out whether Meredith and McDreamy were going to get married or not. The fact that they don't always want to play out that cycle on the schedule set by the show isn't all that baffling.

Certainly, if there had been a popular Internet at the time of "Who Shot J.R.?", it would have been on the case, trying desperately to beat the Dallas writers to the punch.

What's interesting is that nowhere in this discussion do the showrunners acknowledge that the rise of spoilerphilia has led to an equal and opposite rise in spoilerphobia. The people trying to ruin every surprise in great detail are met at every turn by people who are insistent that they don't want to know information that would once have been considered totally innocuous, like what was shown in the "Next week on..." previews, published titles for upcoming episodes, whether a particular actor has been cast in a particular show, and so forth.

This is really the trick of managing your own fandom. To make spoilerphiles happy, you have to feed them at least enough information to keep them speculating and doing frame-by-frame analysis of the previews; they need kindling, and that's what it is when Rhimes leaks information about her own show (information, that in that specific case, turned out to be highly misleading if not an outright lie, interestingly) (don't read it you've been freeze-dried and stuck in a bottle and haven't watched this season of Grey's Anatomy yet).

But to make spoilerphobes happy, you can't reveal so much that absolutely everybody unavoidably knows what's coming. People who hate spoilers really hate them — I have one friend I firmly believe would cut all ties with me if I accidentally gave away the results of so much as an episode of American Idol before he watched it.

The more online spoiler specialists you have and the more easily information travels, the greater the tension between the camps. So I leave it to you: where do you come down? Do you read spoilers? Does it depend on the show? Did you have an "explosive and cliff-hanger-y" weekend? (Okay, you don't have to answer the last one.)

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