Spoiler alert: Romeo and Juliet die, Scarlett doesn’t love Ashley but Rhett walks out anyway, the Ring of Power is destroyed, Moby-Dick wins, Laura Palmer was killed by her father, and Soylent Green is people.
Sorry if you haven’t read or seen the above works and now feel that I have just ruined them and possibly your life by revealing the endings, but I’m trying to make a point. Endings are just as important as beginnings and as such are fair game for commentary and opinion without having to hem and haw and insert childish “stop reading here” warnings to avoid being slapped around by the spoiler-alert police.
Traditionally, “spoiler” referred to key plot points revealed about a film, novel or television show before it went public — something critics know not to do when reviewing a new work. When the makers of “The Crying Game” asked audiences and the media to keep the climactic twist to themselves after the film was released, the request was so unusual that it made news.
But now a spoiler means having the temerity to discuss things that some people haven’t gotten around to watching or reading.
This is particularly true in television, where technology has sped things up and slowed things way down. The Internet has created a new genre of re-cap commentary, in which every episode of a show is parsed for later-that-night consumption and season finales are regularly reviewed while the end credits are still rolling. Twitter is even more insidious — people don’t even have to take the time to think of a catchy lead or transitional phrase before they blast off crucial “Can you believe???” information. Meanwhile, the DVR, Netflix and other forms of delayed content delivery gave birth to a generation people who are not about to schedule their lives around some TV show. Not even a Really Important episode that they don’t want spoiled.
The irony is, many of these do-it-yourself programmers are also heavy Internet and Twitter users who don’t appreciate having to forgo their high-speed pleasures to preserve the mysteries of their TV dawdling.
One critic of my acquaintance (OK, it’s me) was recently chided on two occasions for, among many other things, writing about season finales that had aired several days and, in one case, several weeks previously.
Come on, people. You can’t “spoil” something that has already appeared on national television. That is the purpose, the definition, of national television — the fast and widespread dissemination of information, including that the police may have gotten the wrong guy on “The Killing.”
It’s hard to believe that just a scant four years ago the Internet and every major media outlet in America lighted up with opinion and commentary three seconds after the final scene (or nonscene) of “The Sopranos.” Did anyone scream “spoiler” over the instant and endless deconstructions of that black screen?
Or, more recently, over the hectic response to the “Lost” finale? No, they did not. Because the people who cared about the shows watched the shows in real time, and the ones who didn’t were too embarrassed to admit it.
Obviously the TV time warp is going to get only worse, and with more and more people watching on their laptop, we may have to come up with a whole other term for “television” (Small-screen content? The art form formerly known as TV?). Many cable networks now post cumulative audience numbers, adding viewers who watched after the show’s first-run slot.
And there is no shame in missing out on the real-time airing of a significant episode because you’re busy or you’re just hoarding it for summer. For reasons she cannot recall, another critic I know (OK, it’s me again) was a week behind on the season finale of “The Mentalist,” which was a real drag because if she had been paying more attention, she could have written something about how splendid Bradley Whitford was as Red John. But a week behind is just too late to join in the cultural conversation.
And that is where the solution lies. The conversation is separate from the viewing experience; you don’t have to pay any attention to it. Many sane and wonderful people enjoy and appreciate television without having to yammer on about it or keep up with those of us who do.
But there is simply no denying that the technology that grants viewers time to idle on television’s sunny banks for so long that they’re just now getting to the second season of “Castle” has a raging current at its center. The conversation begins the moment a show airs on the East Coast, whether you are present or not, and while protocol dictates that the mainstream media respect time zones, Tweet-heads certainly do not, so plan your Twitter breaks accordingly. Those viewers planning to catch the last season of “Dexter” or “Game of Thrones” via Netflix should avoid all forms of entertainment coverage or at least keep their key-word aversion list long and varied.
Inevitably some crucial surprise will slip by.... It’s annoying — I still haven’t forgiven the New York Times for running an early article in which a writer compared “Godfather III” to “King Lear,” which meant I spent the whole movie waiting for Michael Corleone’s daughter to die and then — spoiler alert — she did. But keep in mind that if a television show is terrific enough for you to care so much about what happens (unlike “Godfather III”), it will no doubt survive a little spoilage. We know full well that — spoiler alert — Ilsa leaves Casablanca without Rick, but we still cry every time, and then we watch it again.