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spare spoilers strike back
why some tv viewers hate surprises
by jael mchenry (@JaelMcHenry)

If there were money in it, it would be an industry all its own. Nervously trading tidbits of secret information is the basis for more than one industry, of course, but no one has figured out how to make money off this one yet: television spoilers.

Today there could never be a "Who Shot J.R.?" moment, because anyone who wanted to find out who shot J.R. would already know. Because the internet exists.

It puzzles me somewhat. As a devoted fan of three television shows and a casual viewer of three or four more, I enjoy that powerful rush of adrenaline, that loopy wowowowow feeling that comes from being knocked clear out of my socks by an unexpected development on my television set. That I can't believe they just. Half the thrill comes from wondering. Will Wolcott kill Joanie Stubbs? What's in the hatch Locke discovered? Who will be eliminated... next?

Obligatory and illustrative SPOILER WARNING: Those links go to spoiler threads at Television Without Pity. Don't click if you don't want to know!

The thing is, I can't tell you if those threads actually contain the answers to the questions I posed, because... I don't go in there. Like I said, I like to preserve the surprise. (In the local parlance I am "unspoiled.") Spoilers can be anything, though: it's not just "Boone dies" or "William gets trampled by a horse" or "President Palmer totally honks up the invasion of the Chinese consulate." On some boards, casting information is a spoiler. Other even consider episode titles spoilers. Promotional pictures from upcoming episodes can give away key plot points. I know at least one person (let's call him "The Reverend") who refuses to watch the previews for the next week's show, considering that spoiler information. There are layers and scaffolds and shades of gray. Little spoilers and big ones. And of course, spoilers that turn out to be false, and spoilers that turn out to be true.

But whatever spoilers you do or don't read, if you discuss television shows on the internet, you will observe this: people are absolutely, avidly rabid about whichever path they've chosen to take. The spoiler hounds will dig for days to unearth or confirm a spoiler; and the unspoiled will lash out angrily if they feel someone has spoiled their surprise.

I myself -- and I like to think I'm a reasonable, level-headed person, even on the internet -- snapped at another poster to "SPOILER TAG THAT PLEASE," after reading that drug dealers would crash land on the "Lost" island. Turned out to be nothing -- in the next week's episode, Locke and Boone discovered a wrecked plane. Obviously drug dealers had crashed on the island, but in a very different way than the spoiler led me to believe. And after succumbing to temptation last season and clicking into a spoiler thread on "The Amazing Race," I read that the eventual victors would definitely be Adam and Rebecca. (They came in a fairly distant third.)

Spoilers don't really ruin the surprise. They just... change the experience.

And I guess that makes sense. TV viewers already have countless choices, countless ways to experience a show. You can ignore "24" for an entire season, wait for the DVDs, and watch the whole season in one 24-hour marathon. You can TIVO or DVR or download or tape a show and watch it whenever you get the chance. If you get addicted to an HBO show, like "Deadwood," you can catch the rerun at any one of 64 ka-jillion times later in the week or month.

So it should be your choice whether you sit down knowing part of what's going to happen, or none of it. Because you'll never know it all, even if you're spoiled, given that not all spoilers are true.

I guess that's why someone can be a true fan and still a spoiler hound. The process of collecting information on casting, plot, character arcs, etc., is just another way of experiencing the show. And if you happen to read a heck of a lot about "Lost" and knew that they'd definitely be killing somebody off before the end of the season, when Boone's breath started rattling in his chest, you couldn't really see it the same way as someone who didn't read the same articles. But in the weeks leading up to that moment, you had the anticipation, and the wondering, and the endless discussions with other fans on who might get killed and when and how.

It's not better or worse. It's just... different.

What I find most interesting in the world of spoilerdom is the fierce and decisive splitting of hairs. Because fans construct entire websites, like NeptuneSite for "Veronica Mars," and dedicate hours to hunting down spoilers and sharing them with the largest possible fanbase, but make it clear that there are lines they won't cross. To quote directly from the site:

But, with that being said... if for any reason we come across the reveals of "who raped Veronica" or "who killed Lilly Kane," this information will not be posted at Neptunesite. We personally do not want to know, and to post this information may seriously damage the enjoyment of this fantastic show. Hopefully no one is bothered by this.

So maybe we really wouldn't be able to find out who shot J.R. Maybe that would be the kind of spoiler that really, actually, spoils things.


Jael is tired of being stereotyped as just another novelist/poet/former English teacher/tour guide/"Jeopardy!" semifinalist/bellydancing editor-in-chief with an MFA who was once an overachieving oboe-playing alto newspaper editor valedictorian from Iowa. She was also captain of the football cheerleading squad. Follow me on Twitter: @jaelmchenry

more about jael mchenry


procedure, sweet procedure
the poetic justice of law & order
by jael mchenry
topic: television
published: 1.4.06

must-see, but not on tv
should tv lovers switch off the set?
by jael mchenry
topic: television
published: 8.4.10


mike julianelle
5.4.05 @ 9:51a

Some stuff, like Boone's death, is esaily guessable without knowing ANYTHING about the show's plans. Someone had to die sometime. And even when I guess something, without it being confirmed, I'm disappointed, because I want to believe the writers are BETTER THAN ME. But they aren't.

As for previews, yeah, episode previews are BULLSHIT. They do one of two things: they either show you parts of something that WILL happen, or they lead you to believe something will happen and do the opposite. It's usually pretty easy to figure it out if you watch the previews. And one 24 preview showed a sequence that didn't happen until the ep's last 10 minutes, so the whole time you're watching, you're just waiting for that part you saw in the preview, knowing it's coming. THAT'S CRAP!

jael mchenry
5.4.05 @ 10:14a

But guessing Boone's going to die and knowing he's going to die... it just feels different. And you start trying to outsmart the writers, just like you said -- hoping that there will be something clever, and then when there isn't, you're disappointed. When in fact Boone's death should have been shocking and amazing, instead of a little bit of a letdown.

On one hand, I agree that previews can spoil a surprise. On the other hand, for the TAR episode when Brian and Greg got in a car crash, I rewatched and paused the preview a thousand times to see who was a) driving and b) injured. It's all too easy to get obsessed.

russ carr
5.4.05 @ 11:01a

Is there a statute of limitations on spoilers? The day after the "Boone dies" ep of Lost, CNN had an interview with Ian Somerhalder, the actor who played Boone. Nothing in the teaser headline on CNN's website suggested there would be spoilers in article. I hadn't watched the episode yet, but since I'm a fan, I was curious to read the story.

So, like two sentences in: "So how did you find out your character was going to die?"

GAH! I can't un-see that. So when I finally got to see the episode that night, much of the emotional punch was gone. I would have appreciated a warning. Maybe I would have forged ahead and read the story anyway, but I would have had only myself to blame. Still, I hate the fact that I have to all-but-sequester myself in order to avoid inadvertent revelations. I'd like to read other articles about the cast (did you know that Locke and Sayid jam together on guitars between scenes?) but now I'm too nervous that I'll learn something I don't want to know.

brian anderson
5.4.05 @ 11:32a

And you're in the US, Russ. Imagine what it's like for those in other countries who get these programs some weeks to months after the initial American broadcast.

jael mchenry
5.4.05 @ 11:38a

The way I've seen spoiler defined makes specific reference to the first airing of an episode in the US. And you can't blame the paper, I think -- when something big happens on a Top 10 show, they want all those viewers to be readers. Boone's death was big. So, they talk about Boone's death. Same way they talked about Carrie and Mr. Big, or any other TV thing. The only way to avoid it is, like you said, sequester yourself, or fall in love with a less popular show. I doubt the mainstream press is humming with last night's big VM revelation.

Locke and Sayid jam between scenes? I thought it was Sayid and Sawyer.

Dammit, now I'm going to have that Sawyer song in my head again.

russ carr
5.4.05 @ 11:48a

Thanks. You just started the jukebox in my head, too.

jael mchenry
5.4.05 @ 12:13p

So that everyone else can also hit the juke: The Sawyer Song. Note: watch the volume! Had to lunge for the Back button just now.

I hope someone does a Deadwood version.

mike julianelle
5.4.05 @ 12:38p

I doubt the mainstream press is humming with last night's big VM revelation.

Quiet you!

jael mchenry
5.4.05 @ 12:59p

Why do you think I was so vague? Didn't want to spoil the surprise...

mike julianelle
5.4.05 @ 1:05p

Good ep?

jael mchenry
5.4.05 @ 1:10p

Didn't see it myself, but the fan reaction I've read is 100% insane squee raves. Knowing that they're planning a Season One DVD before Season Two begins, I think I'll wait and watch the whole season in a great big Neptune festival.

I will, of course, be spoiled for it, but sorry -- TAR has been winning the slot. When you know who's eliminated at the end of the leg it's a lot less fun to watch. The truly great moments on TAR are the eliminations you never saw coming -- Ray & Deana, or Lynn & Alex, for example. There are plenty of great moments to enjoy on VM even if you know who did what to whom at Shelly whatshername's party.

russ carr
5.4.05 @ 1:29p


joe procopio
5.4.05 @ 2:15p

Wait. Boone dies?

I'm the oppostie of Russ. I'm starting to tire of the people who can't keep up with their TiVo. A day or two is OK, but after 48 hours your commitment to the show just isn't there.

When I went to see "The Sixth Sense," with my wife, about 20 minutes into it I leaned over and whispered to her "I'll betcha he's dead."

I am no longer allowed to talk during movies.

stephen cook
5.4.05 @ 11:56p


Joe...I see Intrepid People...

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