Devin Faraci wrote a piece today about taking responsibility for time shifted television viewing. Mostly, he’s tired of reading complaints about spoilers across the web. And while I agree with the points he’s making, the article made me interested in another idea entirely: the virtue of spoilers.
I love a good spoiler. As a child, I flipped to the end of books before opening to page one. I would be so excited to read that I simply had to know the ending — it allowed me to savor everything along the way. Obviously, this was a practice that needed to stop as I grew older, if only because flipping to the end of The Great Gatsby did not yield the same payoff as flipping to the end of a Matt Christopher* book.
What bothers me about ALL-CAPS SPOILER culture is the idea that stories are merely information vehicles. They certainly can be structured as such: The Sixth Sense seems like the classic example, and to spoil it is to ruin the only circumstance under which one should watch the film. Lost is another example, although an opposite extreme: to spoil it is to save one from having to watch it. In retrospect, the show is interesting within this conversation because it seemingly decided to become an information vehicle midway through its network run.
During this past season of Mad Men, I ran into situations almost every week that Faraci describes in his piece. I would be on Twitter. I would be recording the show. And I would eventually see tweets about the show as it aired. Most of the time, I would leave Twitter. While I am not crushed to learn spoilers, I also don’t seek them out. Except when I do: one week, I kept reading my timeline and eventually thought I had read too much. Namely, I thought I had learned that Pete Campbell had killed himself in an automobile accident. Now, for you SPOILER SPOILER SPOILER folks, I haven’t spoiled anything — except, well, that Pete Campbell doesn’t die in an automobile accident. (Aside: isn’t that still a spoiler? Can I not even rule out events that DON’T happen?) And Mad Men viewers can probably guess the episode where I read tweets that led me to such a conclusion. But subsequently watching the episode was riveting: I was expecting one thing and found another. While different than my childhood reading, the experience was mostly similar: in entering a story with expectations, I experienced the media in front of me at a heightened level. These are story experiences that I wouldn’t take back.
An even better and direct example from my life: The Sopranos. After its sudden and controversial conclusion, I found it impossible to avoid hearing about it. Despite having never seen an episode of The Sopranos at that point in my life, I knew about the final scene within 12 hours of its airing. It’s a show I had been meaning to watch for some time. My parents had the first season on DVD. I could have borrowed it. I simply never got around to it.
In our current ALL-CAPS SPOILER culture, the typical reaction would have been to complain, and to have even less motivation to watch the show. But I started watching that week. Even moreso than Mad Men, I had flipped to the end of the book, albeit this time without choosing to do so. And what I saw enthralled me. I started watching the show that week. And I didn’t enjoy it any less having known how it would end. If anything, it made me even more appreciative of how it ended. It’s the finest conclusion I’ve ever seen to a television series.
But I can hear the naysayers now: “John, Mad Men and The Sopranos are awesome shows. Of course you still liked them. What about the aforementioned Sixth Sense, for example?” First of all, naysayers, thanks for teeing this up for me. You used the exact example I wanted! And you’re right. Those shows are excellent, and it’s hard to imagine how any spoiler would render them poor or less worthy. But The Sixth Sense is a perfect example for my rule of thumb: a spoiler can’t ruin a good story, but it can ruin a bad one. I loved The Sixth Sense when I saw it as a teenager. But I’ve hated it every time I’ve seen it since. It’s a magic trick, and a good one at that, but anyone can tell a good story by withholding crucial information. Only the best storytellers can keep your attention when they lay everything out in front of you — or when their young readers first flip to the end of the book.
I suppose I would understand those concerned with spoilers if they had better justification for their fear. If, for instance, a hypothetical friend of mine was worried he would have his perception of a show shaped by the reaction to it — this I could understand. But ALL-CAPS SPOILER culture seems only to fear the information itself. These reactions are born of an ugly approach to stories: that we read or watch them because they end, and not because they exist and engage.
I care about this not because I wish to spoil stories — in fact, I hope I’ve gone to great lengths to not spoil any of the shows or books mentioned here — but because I wish to talk about them. And in worrying about spoilers, we try to preclude good conversation — the exact types of discourse where we don’t merely talk about information, but about experience.