While one hopes the anti-spoiler crowd wouldn’t go quite that far, and the fact that I stumbled upon it for this commentary is quite lucky, there are people who hate something to be spoiled. And I understand the reasoning as a fan, but also as a writer. There is, however, another camp with an equally valid beef against the anti-spoilers, namely people who want to discuss that really cool thing they saw in last night’s show because it was so good. Somehow these two sides ended up at war, because that seems to be what geek culture is good at lately. Yes, even people who hate the military and don’t think we should go to war to protect ourselves and our allies (and I’m not pointing at specific cases, even in light of current events) will toss death threats over the dumbest things possible.
While the above video is played for laughs, Vulture contributor Adam Sternberg is quite serious in an article where he treats spoilers like a tight yoke around the neck and thinks spoilers are actually a good thing. I see his point but also disagree with him. There is a reason for spoilers and it comes down to the reading or viewing experience.
Spoil everything. Give away all the endings and, while you’re at it, reveal all the beginnings and middles, too. As an audience, we’ve become far too obsessed with spoilers: flagging them, evading them, burying them far from human eyes like nuclear waste in Yucca Mountain. We argue spoiler etiquette. Then we reargue it, when new technology makes the old rules obsolete. There is a simpler path. Free the spoilers! You will, in turn, free yourself.
Talk about hitting the ground running. This is the first paragraph! As far as re-arguing spoiler etiquette when the technology changes, should he be that surprised? New advances change everything.
This was my reaction, anyway, after spending a delirious and hypnotic hour or so clicking through Netflix’s new Living With Spoilers site, an ingenious bit of marketing/time-wasting that attacks spoilers in a few different ways. You can find out what kind of spoiler you are (if you are, indeed, the spoiling type) — the Clueless Spoiler, the Coded Spoiler, the Shameless Spoiler, etc. — as well as add your vote to which famous spoilers now belong in the public domain. (The Sixth Sense, yes, of course; Revenge season three, too soon.) But the absolute best, most diabolical part of the site is Spoil Yourself, or what many have called Spoiler Roulette. Click the button, spoil a movie or TV show. Click it again. Spoil another. It’s that easy. And addictive. And terribly, horribly fun.
The difference being that by going to these sites you are intentionally getting these spoilers yourself. Video reviews are notoriously spoiler heavy, and that includes mine. However, when it comes to new, still on the shelves comics, in-theater movies, or recent episodes I warn beforehand if I can’t review it without a spoiler or two. It’s considered common courtesy.
I’m sorry — were those spoilers? Maybe you haven’t yet seen that famously twisty film from 1995? Or you haven’t got around to all of Breaking Bad? Or you still think “Red Wedding” is a song by Billy Idol? Which means your whole life is still structured around acrobatically evading those toxic informational tidbits that will absolutely, positively destroy your ability to feel human pleasure from entire films or seasons of television.
Which again is their choice. I only post this because he’s exaggerating. Not as bad as “Only Leigh” above but still exaggerating.
See, that right there is the whole problem with spoilers.
Thanks to a climate in which pretty much everything is available to be watched any time we want to watch it — in other words, we’ve achieved total hedonic mastery of when, why, and how we watch — all that’s left to us is what. As in, what’s going to happen? Which is a primal question! It drives all storytelling. But it is not the primary pleasure of storytelling, any more than the primary pleasure of a well-chosen gift from a loved one is the fact that we don’t know what’s in the box before we unwrap it.
There are people who don’t want to wait a week for a new episode to come out or a month for the next comic installment since comics are now insistent on doing 4-6 issue story arcs nowadays. So they wait for the full season, or sometimes full series, to hit DVD or online, or wait for the trade to come out. I don’t understand that, but I’m a fan of the old movie serials and grew up before the home video market existed, much less full season box sets or Hulu. I must think differently.
Yet our unhealthy concern over twists, turns, shocks, solutions, jolts, reversals, and reveals is slowly spoiling us as an audience. (HOMONYM ALERT: I mean spoiling like milk, not like brats — though it’s kind of spoiling us like brats, too.) Not to mention that it’s also having a detrimental effect on the people who make the movies and TV that we desperately don’t want spoiled. If you don’t believe me, consider the example of Damon Lindelof, who’s clearly still haunted by all the public disappointment over the way that his series Lost ended. [SPOILER ALERT: Disappointingly.]
I never got into Lost in part because how scary the fans got over a bunch of numbers. If Lost is responsible for anything, its fans going over any story with a comb just in case something in one episode is part of a huge reveal no matter how minor it is. When you start doing that with Sesame Street, I think you have a problem. That said, from what I hear the payoff was terrible. The reasoning made no sense, as if they really didn’t think the entire mystery through before plodding through. Network interference, due to keeping the show going as long as possible since ABC was raking in the ratings, didn’t exactly help. But that’s another reason not to spoil it. It was a mystery that the fans had to try to solve. The problem was they didn’t have the answer before beginning the mystery. The mystery can also be ruined by new showrunners or comic writers who don’t care what their predecessor had in mind because they can do it so much better by ignoring plot points pointing in direction A because the want to shift to B no matter how little sense it makes.
Remember that Monarch in DC’s Armageddon 2001 was supposed to be Captain Atom, but it was changed at the last minute because word leaked out…and that was before the internet we know today. The spoiler was already out and to change it was lame, even if I understand why. The point of a mystery story is for readers and viewers to solve the mystery before the hero or heroes. (Unless you’re watching Columbo, where you already knew who did it but the interest was watching Columbo put the clues together as the murderer sweated. There the mystery is how does he figure it out?)
Then there’s the twist, and no I’m not discussing M. Night Shyamalan. I haven’t really watched his stuff because I’m not a horror person and his movies don’t look all that exciting. Instead I’m going to discuss Magic Knights Rayearth. Both seasons have their own surprise that will change the way you looked at previous episodes. Heck, the ending to season 1 is a huge spoiler that changes everything, and it’s so fantastic that I want to review it. However, I would put a huge spoiler warning because it will change the entire experience. And that’s ultimately my defense of spoilers, the experience.
Those kinds of discussions happen too, of course — all the discussions happen these days — but they happen too often in the shadow of our collective spoiler mania. (And are hampered, of course, by an ongoing sideline chorus of “No Spoilers! No Spoilers!”) I love a good twist (sort of) as much as the next person, but I also understand how waiting for the big reveal distracts me from everything passing before my eyes and ears right now. I don’t think Citizen Kane — to use a shopworn example — is a lesser experience if [SPOILER ALERT!] you already know that Rosebud is a sled. In fact, the sled has nothing to do with what makes the movie great. Or, put another way, the single greatest cinematic spoiler-maestro of our lifetime is M. Night Shyamalan, and he rode his weird addiction to big reveals right into artistic ruin.
M. Night is a one-trick pony to the point that my fellow video reviewers use the “what a twist” line from Robot Chicken for every twist ever, whether Shyamalan is involved or not. However, that’s what he’s trying to create, that sense of mystery and surprise. And his fans enjoy that. They don’t want to know the shocking twist (and hopefully it’s actually a shock and not one telegraphed with all the subtlety of a billboard and skywriter) because that sense of guessing is what draws them in. And it can only be ruined once. Repeated viewing comes from going back and finding the hints about the Magic Knights’ mission or what is really going on with the plane crash survivors. There’s a sense of satisfaction the first time solving the mystery before Sherlock Homes or Scooby-Doo’s friends, or in having your mind blown when what you thought you saw isn’t the reality. Then you go back and see if you can find the hints, which if done right was subtle yet easy to spot only when you know to look for it. (Which is actually how a good mystery works, now that I think about it.)
As a writer you come up with these moments to make a statement, or just to keep the readers, listeners, viewers, and players on their toes. But if they know it’s coming, either from bad marketing, bad writing that makes the twist or solution too obvious (thus making the characters look like morons), or through someone telling you, the experience is taken from you and you can never get it back. I don’t think we should kill the person who accidentally spoiled something (I kind of liked Amy in the few seconds I knew her) but Sternberg’s insistence that knowing everything before you go in is fine for him. However, there’s a difference between Citizen Kane and The Empire Strikes Back.
The end of both movies have become part of our culture. However, as Sternberg said, the story of Citizen Kane isn’t about the sled. This is just a plot device to send the reporter on a search through Kane’s history, to tell the viewer the story of the man’s rise and eventual fall. “Rosebud” is a means to an end. On the other hand, Darth Vader’s reveal to be Luke’s father is an important part of the movie. All this time Luke thought Vader murdered Anakin Skywalker, and from Obi-Wan’s perspective that’s what happened. When Anakin was seduced by the Dark Side due to his own anger issues and wanting to protect Padme (which turned out badly), the sweet little boy was gone. In fact Vader slaughtered other sweet little boys and girls. This is a huge moment for Luke, and for Vader as the series ultimately ended with Anakin’s redemption. At least until the new movies start. The Clone Wars went and resurrected Darth Maul for no good reason and Boba Fett escapes the Sarlacc in every non-official story he’s in.
Anticipation is certainly one of the pleasures fine films and TV can offer us, but it’s not the only one, and frankly, it’s probably the cheapest. The thrill of a good twist is like artistic flash paper: It excites for a moment but offers little lasting wonder. If you’ve ever seen a good film with a big reveal, you probably immediately had the urge to watch the whole thing again — and, in my experience, the second viewing is always more satisfying than the first. Because you notice all the things you missed while you were busy waiting for the twist.
So if they already know the twist the first time there won’t be a second viewing? That’s kind of what’s implied here, albeit unintentionally. The fact is, Mr. Sterberg, while that twist means nothing to you it does mean something to other people. It’s not cheap when done right, like the aforementioned Magic Knights Rayearth. I keep mentioning that series because it’s how you do a twist ending properly. Even when you know it’s coming you anticipate it, seeing how the heroines react when the whole secret is revealed, and it’s only a secret because nobody bothered to tell them, not something done on purpose. However, by revealing that secret you ruin the experience for everyone. Heck, just by telling you it exists I feel like I’m ruining something because not expecting it (how a good twist works–kept The Twilight Zone on the air for years as well as numerous comeback attempts) is part of the experience.
The difference is I’m not trying to tell you how to experience things, Mr. Sternberg. You are most welcome to have everything ruined if you want. However, that reveal is part of the viewing, listening, or reading experience for some. Spoiler warnings, spoiler space, using a spoiler tag if the forum allows, isn’t some horrible thing. It’s common courtesy to others so that they have the storytelling experience they want. Is that really so bad?