Recently, The Washington Post became the latest lightning rod in the Great Spoiler Alert Debate when it published an article about an episode of Downton Abbey under the headline "Lady Sybil's Shocking Death. Did It Have to Happen?" Commenters immediately lambasted the newspaper for "ruining" the episode for everyone who hadn't watched it yet and complained that the Post had broken the sacred rules of spoiler alerts, reviving the long-running debate over the often murky nature of spoiler alert etiquette.
When it comes to weekly recaps of TV shows, when is it okay to reveal plot details that expose narrative twists and surprises? Most critics and publications adhere to a loose set of self-imposed rules, delving into an episode's "spoilers" roughly one day after the show first airs — but as the reaction to the Washington Post's article showed, people still become infuriated when major plot details are revealed in the opening paragraphs (or even the headline) of a review the day after an episode is broadcast.
These people need to get over it.
It's not the responsibility of critics and journalists to worry about whether readers have seen an episode from the night before, or when fans do plan to watch it, or how much they would prefer not to have it spoiled. Writers are there to provide criticism and analysis — to delve into plot developments that worked or didn't work, character actions that made sense or didn't make sense, and engage a community of viewers in a thoughtful discussion — which literally requires discussing major plot points in detail. It's up to viewers to navigate the web with their own preferences in mind, knowing that people will be talking at length about what happened on the previous night's episode of The Walking Dead or Downton Abbey. Don't want the details to be spoiled? Then stay away from Twitter. And don't go to websites that cover the shows you care about.
In an age in which the distribution model for consuming media is more democratized than ever before, with On Demand, DVR, Netflix, Hulu, and a wide range of comparable streaming services that offer viewers the ability to watch what they want whenever they want it, all "spoiler" rules are irrelevant. Why should critics table their discussions while they wait for the rest of the world to catch up on Mad Men?
At Vulture, Dan Kois argues that before DVR, "the plot twists of beloved TV shows were news, because they happened to everyone at the same time" — but that in the new age, the internet offers only "fiefdoms of debate, hidden behind walls of spoiler warnings," which hinders discussion as critics attempt to address all audiences at once. Critics feel a new pressure to talk with a filter, out of fear that they might be spoiling the story for those who've yet to find time to watch it. In an age of near-total social media engagement, it's preposterous for a fan to log onto Twitter or Facebook and be angry that people are buzzing about the latest plot developments on Mad Men or Breaking Bad as they're happening — but many viewers still cry foul.
There's a final wrinkle to the debate: As it turns out, spoilers aren't actually spoiling anything for anyone. In a recent study at the University of California, San Diego, researchers found that knowing spoilers in advance actually enhanced readers' ability to enjoy stories, and that going into a story without knowing the ending "may even impair pleasure by distracting attention from a story's relevant details and aesthetic qualities." These findings are just as applicable to television; knowing that Omar is going to be shot and killed at some point in Season 5 of The Wire may take away the shock of the moment, but it also increases tension, because of "the disparity in knowledge between the omniscient reader and the character marching to his doom."
It's not just the story that engages people; it's the craft of storytelling. Otherwise, we'd be just as easily entertained by reading synopses of TV shows or movies on Wikipedia. And really: Was Argo any less compelling because you knew the hostages would get out? Was Lincoln any less gripping because you knew the 13th Amendment would pass? Was Zero Dark Thirty any less tense because you knew America would get bin Laden in the end?
Please: Everyone, just take a deep breath and relax about "spoilers." Critics, do away with spoiler alerts and the over-courtesy of protecting your readers; viewers, get past the idea that a spoiler destroys your viewing experience.
Lady Sybil dies in Downton Abbey, Carl kills Lori in The Walking Dead, and Lane Pryce commits suicide in Mad Men.
Now go watch some TV.