Miscellany

The Spoiler Problem (Contains Spoilers)

man whispering to a woman.
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It's an old debate, but it's cropped up again, this time in the context of Sunday night's Mad Men finale: spoiler warnings. Or, I should say, "spoiler" warnings.

After — seriously — a commenter expressed irritation that a story titled "Mad Men Postmortem" contained information about the finale of Mad Men, writer Jace Lacob, who writes the blog Televisionary, took a stand.

Lacob argues that anything that has already aired is not a spoiler. Period, end of sentence, thank you very much. If you are seven episodes behind on Mad Men, that is your problem, not his.

This morning, Slashfilm (which, notably, works primarily in movies and not in television) fired back, arguing that there's absolutely no reason you can't warn readers that an essay contains spoilers. All you have to do is throw in a sentence at the beginning that says that there are spoilers. "Really, how difficult is it to just throw up a sentence at the beginning of the post explaining what exactly you'll cover/spoil?"

Well, it's quite difficult, actually. In fact, in every meaningful way, it's completely impossible.

Suppose that I am discussing a new TV show featuring Jay McCarroll, the first-season winner of Project Runway. (There is no such show at the moment; this is a hypothetical.) The only reason he has this hypothetical show is that he won Project Runway. His season of Project Runway finished airing in 2005. It is, however, available on DVD, and there are undoubtedly people who haven't watched it yet and one day will. Can I refer to him as "Project Runway winner Jay McCarroll"? Have I just spoiled the entire first season of Project Runway for people who haven't yet seen it? Have I done so right now?

The bubble and your responsibility to maintain it, after the jump.

Suppose there is a news story proclaiming that Courteney Cox has been cast on The Office to play Pam's sister. (This is not true.) Is that a spoiler? Because I will tell you right now: some people think it is. Some people believe that is absolutely a spoiler. Some people believe that all casting news is a spoiler, and that spoilers cannot be in headlines, which means that a blog post about that would pretty much have to be titled, as near as I can tell, "Former Sitcom Star Cast In Supporting Role On Current Sitcom." And you would have no idea whether this would spoil anything you care about until you go to read the item, at which point I could tell you that it contains casting information about The Office, and then you can decide whether to read on.

And at some point, we have just entirely lost the quality of the discussion, because I am leading you through a series of security doors that 95 percent of people won't care about and will find cumbersome and frustrating, just so that you can avoid knowing that Pam has a sister who will be on an upcoming episode.

Let's stay with that show, in fact. Suppose I am talking about the recent wedding episode of The Office. (Wait, is it a spoiler for me to say there was a recent wedding episode of The Office?) And suppose further that I want, in a review, to compare it to previous TV weddings and say, "Admittedly, the idea of a private wedding before the blowout wedding has been done before on shows like How I Met Your Mother, but here, it was still fresh." Does the warning at the beginning of my post need to say, "This post contains spoilers about a recent episode of The Office and an old episode of How I Met Your Mother"? Does that change if I name the characters whose HIMYM wedding I am talking about?

Here's the problem: If you actually follow the rules that strict spoilerphobes want followed, not only do you create all kinds of layers of meta-discussion of what you're discussing that benefit only a small group of people and become unwelcome noise to everyone else, but your warnings become completely meaningless and will immediately be ignored.

Remember, Slashfilm's argument is that you can list everything — everything — you will be "spoiling." How, then, do you headline a piece called, for instance, "25 Great Death Scenes"? Do you list the 25 movies whose death scenes you will be spoiling? Doesn't the fact that you've just revealed that they contain notable death scenes spoil them already? How does the completely arbitrary rule they suggest, which is that a "spoiler" is anything that happens more than a third of the way through a movie, make any more sense than halfway through a movie or two-thirds of the way through a movie?

If you knew that all it meant to say "contains spoilers" was that I might tell you about something that happened one time on Happy Days, you would completely stop paying any attention to me when I said "contains spoilers." If you knew that every review of every movie was going to say "contains spoilers" — because, by the strictest definition, they all do — you would tune it out completely.

If, however, I save it for when it really applies — for times when there is a big, surprising plot development in a movie, and I want to talk about it, but it's clear that you might want to see the movie first or at least be given a clear choice — then it retains some meaning. If I keep the big news out of headlines, helping you to maintain your own fresh blanket of untrampled mental snow if you so choose, then you can actually maintain it more easily.

But ultimately, I admit that part of any writer's response to this comes down to the level of sympathy that he or she feels to the argument that any information about anything that is going to happen ruins the entire show forever. There are people who, should you reveal one plot point from the fifth season of a show, will say, "I was about to start watching this on DVD — I guess there's no point now, thanks a lot." If you honestly get nothing out of a show except awaiting a single plot reveal five seasons in — if all you did for four-plus seasons was wait around for the rabbit to be pulled out of the hat — then you were not watching a very good show.

Some of it is about practicality, but some of it is also the subjective fact that I find it perplexing when people claim that entire shows or movies are ruined for them because everything that happens isn't a complete surprise. I have seen many, many movies where I basically knew what the ending would be, and I've watched many, many TV shows where I knew the basic arc of the show ahead of time.

That happens, after all, every single time you see an adaptation of a book you've already read. Harry Potter fans presumably know how those movies are going to end; it doesn't stop them from going. The journey is important. Even if you know what Point A and Point B are, most of art and most of entertainment — not all, but most — is about how you get there. I think writers like surprises, and no critic should run around maliciously and gleefully robbing you of the opportunity to enjoy the real ones. But at some point, perfecting the details of the construction of the spoilerphobe's bubble has swallowed the real issue, which is common sense.

As I have discussed before, I am not unsympathetic to the argument that when the surprise of a plot detail is important, you should be sensitive about revealing it. And while I philosophically agree wholeheartedly with Lacob on this point, I don't follow it here, partly because I like surprises myself, and partly because I know people will complain.

So I follow a few general guidelines in the interests of peacekeeping: If it's within a day or two of a TV show airing, I do let people know if big plot points will be discussed. If it's a specific big shock, I don't reveal it gratuitously for no reason. I certainly don't put last night's big developments in a headline. I have absolutely no problem with keeping this issue in mind — I do, all the time.

But ultimately, the fact that you can choose to delay viewing of a show or a movie for months or years doesn't necessarily mean, in my view, that you have the right to demand that other people who have chosen to watch it will wall off the entirety of their discussions — that they will build the bubble around themselves and maintain it and be sure to remain inside it so that you can go where you want and read what you want and know that you will not see anything you don't want to see.

If you need a perfect bubble — not a rough filter where people will try to show you some consideration, but a seal between yourself and everything that's ever happened on any show or any movie you haven't seen — then you're going to have to build that bubble yourself. Stay off Twitter until you get to see Glee if having someone nonspecifically rave about the rendition of "Afternoon Delight" is going to destroy the experience. And for heaven's sake, don't read a blog entry about Mad Men the morning after the finale that is clearly about the finale if you haven't seen the finale.

(There is no rendition of "Afternoon Delight" in the works for Glee, as far as I know.)

Here's a point for discussion: If I were following the Slashfilm rule, what would be the appropriate spoiler warning for this post?

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