This weekend, I was at Hamlet and an elderly woman in the next row whispered loudly, "do Hamlet and Ophelia get married?" A rarity in our spoiler-troubled times! Lately, spoiler alerts - or lack thereof - have been raising hackles:
This is a modern problem. In the days before all this technology, everyone watched the same things, at the same time. If you missed a TV show, you were SOL - but you didn't miss it. And should you, you didn't risk running into anything more hazardous to the enjoyment of a plot twist than a mouthy coworker. Of course, there were still twists: Psycho's publicists went to famous lengths to keep the plot secret, and a recent trailer I saw for Spencer Tracy's 1941 Dr Jekyll and Mr. Hyde requested that the audience not "tell their friends" about the actor's dramatic transformation.
But clearly, it's become an issue, especially with must-see series like Mad Men, that people are as apt to watch a few days or even months after airing as not. It's something we run across a lot on this site: how much to give away? What's fair game? How much is universally known? January Jones has gone on record in her belief that, once aired, the term "spoiler" isn't applicable. And this increasingly rigid definition is gaining ground amongst those who are sick of tiptoeing around the viewing habits of others.
Point: In a recent essay on the blog Televiosinary, Jace Lacob asserted his argument thusly:
I firmly believe that, once an episode has aired across the country, all bets are off. It's a free-for-all, as far as I am concerned. Writers, critics, bloggers, whoever, should be free to discuss the episode's intricacies and plot developments with abandon. There's no need to label a post, an interview, or anything as a "spoiler" because it's not spoiling anything.
Sums up one of his commenters, "The simple rule should be: Before the fact, spoiler. After the fact, public. Those of us who write/blog/talk about TV on a regular basis can't be expected to know the viewing habits of all our readers."
And another, "Asking that writers, editors and sites label something that's already aired as a "spoiler" is essentially asking them to tailor their coverage to the individual reader who has not seen it. I know people time delay their viewing. The simple solution, as stated above, avoid the sites."
Counterpoint: The retort of Slashfilm's David Chin, however, is equally straightforward. "Really, how difficult is it to just throw up a sentence at the beginning of the post explaining what exactly you'll cover/spoil?" Furthermore, he argues, the notion of "airing" is arbitrary nowadays.
The world of broadcast and cable television is rapidly moving away from the idea of fixed schedules for television shows. Very few of my friends and colleagues watch shows on TV when the air, and if they do, they also use things like DVD, DVR, and Hulu to supplement the episodes they don't see. On the one hand, I question how realistic and reasonable it is to expect people to know exactly where a show is in its timeline. If you're catching up with a show on DVD/DVR/Hulu, it's entirely possible that you will have no idea what episodes have recently aired. And while you would be a good, well-behaved TV watcher if you kept informed, it's a lot easier for me to take five seconds to write a one-sentence spoiler warning than for you to find out where exactly a show is in its release schedule.
Weighing in, NPR's Linda Holmes takes a middle ground, but feels the silent treatment is, ultimately, unrealistic. "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." A wild-card view comes from the Guardian's Peter Robins, who argues that sometimes - as in the case of a highly sexual movie one sees with one's elderly mother - a spoiler is not just appreciated but necessary.
Of course, a lot of the argument boils down to common sense. Robins is talking about content, not plot. No matter when it runs, a story should try not to reveal a major spoiler in the title, especially if as in the case of our layout, one can stumble upon it in the course of a casual scan. A year later is not the same as a day. By the same token, don't read a post about a show you're saving because you had a dinner with your boyfriend's family. Understand that some things are common knowledge. And also know that (with the exception of various horror films) the pleasure does not all lie in the twists. For instance, I was still able to enjoy Hamlet.
Why Talking About An Episode That's Already Aired Isn't A "Spoiler" [Televiosionary]
Spoiler Alert: The Responsibility Of Online Writers In A Hulu/DVR World [Slashfilm]
Film Spoilers Can Be Good For You [Guardian]
The Spoiler Problem (Contains Spoilers) [NPR]