mabfan (Michael A. Burstein) (mabfan) wrote,
mabfan (Michael A. Burstein)

Spoiler Expiration Dates

[There will be no actual spoilers in this discussion. Please refrain from posting any real spoilers of your own.]

In my last post, I discussed the impact that the death of John Spencer would have on the TV show The West Wing. As part of my discussion, I made reference to plot elements that took place last season and in the opening episode of this season. Although it's mostly led to a few replies regarding my speculation, one reply got me thinking in a different direction. One friend politely suggested that I should put the "spoilery bits" behind an LJ cut:

i'm very slowly working my way through West Wing (having just acquired Seasons 1 and 2 on DVD a couple months ago), and i've been trying to avoid hearing too much about what happens in later seasons...

Which leads me to open up a question I've been considering for a while here -- what's the expiration date on a plot point being a spoiler?

To begin with, a little historical perspective. In the "olden days," defined by me as before people frequently used the word "spoiler," the idea of spoiling a TV show was almost unheard of. In fact, because rerun schedules were spotty and there were no mass market VCRs, people tended to have the opposite feelings about spoilers. If you missed an episode of a favorite TV show, you would go to work the next day and ask someone what had happened. After all, you wanted to be up to date for next week's episode.

With movies, this was not the case. Movies would be available in the theaters for a long time, and people tended to go see a film over a period of many weeks. If you got together with a friend who had already seen the movie, people understood if you didn't want to discuss it. After all, you're going to spend good money to see the film yourself; you don't want to know what happens. You want to be surprised. But by the time the movie was showing up on television or being discussed in film classes, it was assumed that most people wouldn't worry about having the plot spoiled for them.

Of course, this was also long before the the VCR, the Internet, the DVD Player, the Digital Video Recorder, and file-swapping. Today, we tend to time-shift our viewing a lot, watching TV shows when it's convenient for us, not for the networks. (For example, Nomi and I have not had the time to watch a single episode of Smallville yet this season, but we have it all on tape.) And because we watch our TV shows and movies on different schedules, we now have a very different perspective on spoilers. I don't want someone telling me what happened on an episode of Lost that I missed two weeks ago, because I now have it saved and can watch it for myself.

But what happens when you're catching up with either a TV show or a movie that was first released months or years ago?

Nomi and I had an experience like this when it came to Buffy the Vampire Slayer. We hadn't bothered with the show when it first came on the air, but in the fourth season we caught the episode "Hush" and found ourselves wanting more. But we didn't want to start in the middle; we still wanted to get in on the ground floor. Fortunately, we knew people who had recorded the first three seasons on videotape and were willing to lend them to us. And because we wanted to maintain an element of surprise, we made sure to avoid all discussions, electronic and otherwise, about the first three seasons of the show. (We did the same thing with The X-Files, as I recall; when the movie came out, the FX Network broadcast the series from the beginning, and we took advantage of that to catch up from the start.)

Screenwriter and novelist William Goldman (who wrote The Princess Bride and many other wonderful things) has an interesting take on the statute of limitations on spoilers. In a column he published just before the 1993 Oscars ("Year of the Dog," March 22, 1993, reprinted in his collection The Big Picture: Who Killed Hollywood and Other Essays), Goldman discusses the movie The Crying Game and says the following:

There has been a lot of coyness when people discuss this flick. "Skip the next paragraph if you don't want to know the secret." That kind of thing.

To which I say, horsepucky.

[Goldman then reveals the big secret of the film]

There. Secret out.

Now why was I such a crummy spoilsport?...By the time you read this, the movie will have been playing in town well into its sixteenth week. If you haven't seen it by now, then you're not a movie fan, and you wouldn't have gone anyway. When does the statute of limitations on surprises run out? I say at sixteen weeks.

Of course, as I noted above, the world has changed a lot in the past twelve years. Am I at fault if I reveal the secret in the movie Citizen Kane (1941)? Should a discussion of King Kong (1933) be kept under wraps? What about movies based on books, like The Lord of the Rings and The Chronicles of Narnia? Is there anyone out there who is still unspoiled as to the identity of the man behind Darth Vader's mask, and would be legitimately upset if the name were revealed?

Which leads me to yesterday's post. As noted above, I casually referenced an event that took place last season on The West Wing. The main spoiler I mentioned in passing came from the beginning of season 6 of the show, and we're now deep in the middle of season 7. In other words, my friend quoted above feels that plot points from an episode broadcast in October 2004 -- a full 14 months in the past -- should still be placed under a spoiler warning. what point is it my responsibility to keep spoilers hidden, and at what point does it become your responsibility to avoid spoilers? After one season? Two? Three? What's the current culturally accepted norm? I'm genuinely curious.
Tags: books, movies, personal, television

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