Entertainment Geekly: The New Rules of Spoilers

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Entertainment Geekly is a weekly column that examines pop culture through a geek lens and simultaneously examines contemporary geek culture through a pop lens. So many lenses!

The great thing about the internet is that everything can talk about everything, and the worst thing about the internet is that everything has become a spoiler. Or maybe it’s more accurate to say that the internet turns everything into a spoiler. Maybe it’s because we all watch television and movies in our own special way now — OnDemand, at the theater, on our iPad, in season-long binges — but you get the weird sense that even things that aren’t twists can now be considered “spoilers.”

2013 was the year of Unnecessary Secrecy. Star Trek Into Darkness pretended Khan wasn’t Khan. Anyone who said anything on social media about Breaking Bad would inevitably suffer some kind of “spoiler” accusation. Complicating matters, Game of Thrones became ever more popular — making it more difficult than ever for those of us who read the George R. R. Martin books to carry on any kind of meaningful conversation about the series. (Whenever I talked to people about Game of Thrones during season 3, I invariably found myself doing the same thing: Half-smirking, shrugging my shoulders, saying something like “Yeah, Robb sure does seem like an important character!”)

There used to be a generally-accepted rule for TV spoilers — the rule of thumb for Lost was a 24-hour grace period — but then Netflix came along. Last week saw the binge-release of season 2 of House of Cards, which featured such momentous events as That Thing That Happened In Episode 1 and That Other Thing That Happened In That Other Episode. Likewise, there used to be a generally accepted rule for movie “spoilers” — somewhere between a fortnight and a month had to pass before you could start talking about how Ben Affleck was a ghost the whole time in Argo — but even those rules become hazier in this era when everything is based on something else. (Lots of people know who the Winter Soldier is, but it’s not entirely clear whether that is supposed to be a twist in Captain America: The Winter Soldier.)

And all of this has been more complicated by the fact that we all use Twitter and Facebook and Tumblr and other social media, often while watching television or immediately after seeing a movie. It doesn’t do much good to put “SPOILER ALERT” in a tweet if the rest of the tweet is a spoiler.

Portlandia already presented us with a basically-accurate depiction of what all this spoilerphobia has led to: A complete inability to talk about anything. This is terrible, for all kinds of reasons. Humanity will never advance to a higher state of being if we treat all interactions as potential threats to our precious unique experience of a work of entertainment. Obviously, one solution to this would be for Hollywood to make films and TV shows that don’t depend on inane hashtag-worthy “talking points” and overplotted narratives that reduce the spiritual process of “telling a story” to what amounts to a content dump. But lacking that, here is an attempt to define the new rules of spoiler culture:

For TV Shows That Release A New Episode Every Week
The 24-hour grace period still suffices for the classical episode-a-week model. No putting the name of the character who died in headlines or in tweets. However, I would add an addendum to this rule: You are allowed to use codenames or hashtags or otherwise non-specific descriptors that refer to The Thing That Happened, like “The Red Wedding” or “Six Minute Tracking Shot” or “Tread Carefully Lightly.” After 24 hours, it’s open season.

For TV Shows That Aired Months Ago in Britain
A growing problem, given the popularity of Sherlock and Downton Abbey, to say nothing of the rise of direct foreign remakes like House of Cards or the upcoming Broadchurch remake. If you are the kind of person who watches the shows when they first air — presumably totally legally, when you’re visiting your British cousin specifically just to watch British television — then it is incumbent on you to presage anything you say about unaired episodes with “Well, I’ve already seen the season, so-” at which point everyone you’re talking to will cut you off. However, it is also incumbent upon American viewers to use the internet defensively. Don’t go to the Sherlock wikipedia page. Don’t read any British websites. Don’t speak to any English people at all.

For TV Shows That Release All Their Episodes At Once, Like Netflix
Everyone binge-watches at their own pace. But let’s be honest: If you were any kind of House of Cards fan, you probably at least saw the first episode within 24 hours of the show’s release. Hence, I would propose that we maintain the 24-hour grace period for the first episode of any all-in-one season. From there, it gets a bit more hazy. Plenty of people watched all of House of Cards the weekend it came out. Plenty more are still watching it. I think it’s fair to assume, however, that anyone who enjoys a show like House of Cards will watch it at a faster pace than the usual once-a-week TV model. So let’s give a one-week grace period for the first four episodes, two weeks for 5-8, and three weeks for the full season. After three weeks, if you haven’t watched the full season of a House of Cards or an Orange is the New Black, you’re on your own.

For TV Shows Based on Books or Comic Books
A huge problem with Game of Thrones, an occasional problem with The Walking Dead, and a potential danger zone for AMC’s upcoming Preacher adaptation. The problem here is that everyone on either side of the reader divide comes off badly: Anyone who read Storm of Swords and spoiled anything about the Red Wedding is undoubtedly a douchebag, but anyone who pretends that Game of Thrones isn’t based on a popular series of novels and gets offended when they accidentally read a “spoiler” from a thirteen years ago is just being childish. Let’s say for argument’s sake that readers can talk about everything EXCEPT for character deaths. Also for argument’s sake, let’s say that everyone does their best not to be a douchebag.

For Movies In General
Anything that happens in the first half-hour in a movie is not a spoiler. It’s fine if directors like J. J. Abrams and Christopher Nolan prefer to keep everything about their movies under lock and key. But moviegoers should feel no such compulsion: Such secrecy threatens to turn our greater culture of film discussion into an endless conversation of “Have you seen this movie? You should see it. That’s all I’m gonna say. NO SPOILERS.” So, for instance, if you walked out of Star Trek Into Darkness and immediately said “Oh, Christopher Pike dies,” you would have been within your rights, partially because he dies early and partially because every version of Christopher Pike is totally lame. However, since The World’s End and You’re Next both purposefully take their time building up to the insanity, you would not have been within your rights to say much about them beyond “it starts out as a pub crawl comedy/family drama, and then becomes an action-comedy/horror film.”

For major movie releases, everything after the first half hour should be clearly marked with a SPOILER ALERT until two Mondays after their release. That gives moviegoers two weekends to see the films. For movies which initially open in limited release, the rules are slightly different — after all, not everyone lives in a city with an arthouse theater. I’d argue that such films should get a one-month grace period from their opening — although you could also argue that any talk about small movies could help those small movies be seen by more people.

For Movies Based On Things
Again, the “don’t be a douchebag” rule comes up. Movie adaptations are actually less problematic than their TV counterparts, since lately there’s been a rather exciting trend of films departing wildly from the source material. (See: The Mandarin in Iron Man 3.) But speaking as someone who has read pretty much every comic that is being turned into a movie, I think one ought always to err on the side of not ruining the movie experience. So, basically, we can’t say anything about Amazing Spider-Man 2.

For Videogames
Basically every major story-based videogame has had some kind of controversial ending in the last few years — Mass Effect 3 (an ending I actually liked), BioShock Infinite (an ending I really didn’t like). Making things more difficult, these games tend to be long. I would argue for the same three-week SPOILER ALERT grace period as the season finales of binge-released TV shows. Not that it matters much, since there don’t seem to be any videogames coming out anymore.

For Books
Or really, just for the kind of books that tend to light up spoiler wars online: Young Adult Fantasies. The Divergent series recently ended with an ending that was the endingest of endings. A two-week SPOILER ALERT grace period should be granted, since some readers have to go to school and do their homework, while other readers have to go to work and suffer from the crushing certainty that they should probably be reading a grown-up book.

And A General Rule
We as a consuming culture have reached the point where we place entirely too much value on the notion of the Completely Surprising Movie/TV Experience — and, in turn, the idea that the most important reaction to a movie or TV show or anything really is visceral gut-punch “did NOT see that coming!” astonishment. And I totally feel that way, too. I purposefully avoided reading anything about Before Midnight last year because I wanted to experience it totally fresh. But after it came out, I didn’t go see it immediately. The following week, a friend tweeted something about it (a revelation from the first ten minutes of the movie). Also that week, a website I visit frequently had a headline that constituted a sorta-spoiler for the ending.

I was furious, furious! I raged. And by “raged,” I mean I quickly closed my internet explorer and made a fist and kind of slammed my fist against my desk, but not too hard. It’s no fun being spoiled. But “spoiled” has multiple meanings, and you can’t help but feel like people who complain about “spoilers” are living up to the other meaning: The image of an overindulged brat who wants everything to go their way. (“Blast you, Twitter, you’ve ruined my experience of The Walking Dead once again!”) I didn’t see Before Midnight until weeks after it was released in theaters; I can’t expect the internet to stop and wait for me.

It’s worth pointing out that the really great movies and TV shows are the ones that reward rewatching: That depend on more than just that first-viewing visceral reaction. Filmmakers and TV producers who prefer secrecy often talk about Psycho as an example of some Platonic Ideal of The Surprise. First of all, none of them are old enough to have seen Psycho in theaters. Second of all, everyone at this point knows that Psycho is The Movie Where Janet Leigh Gets Killed In The Shower, just like how everyone knows that Planet of the Apes isn’t set on Mars. But Psycho and the original Planet of the Apes are still classics — indeed, you could argue that they are movies that actually get better when you know the plot twists.

I’m not saying that it’s open season on spoilers. I love being surprised at movies; part of the reason why I watched Breaking Bad live was that I didn’t want there to be any risk that I would know anything about it. (When Lost was on, I never watched the previews for the coming week, because I loved the shock of recognition at the start of each episode when I figured out which character the episode would center on.) But I do think there needs to be a greater recognition of the fact that spoilers go both ways. It’s the responsibility of the Person Who Knows not to release major plot points during the grace period; it’s the responsibility of the Person Who Doesn’t Know to acknowledge that, if they do get spoiled, there are more important things to get upset about.

Also, If You Live In California
Don’t go on any social media for three hours before your favorite show airs. Because we’re watching it on the East Coast, and we’ll probably talk about it. Get over yourself, you got all the good weather in this deal.

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