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Spoiler Alert: I'm About to Rant about Spoiler Alerts
September 27, 2010  | By David Bianculli  | 6 comments

This is getting ridiculous, this "Spoiler Alert" hypersensitivity. Now that VCRs and DVRs and DVDs have given everyone the opportunity to watch what they want to watch when they want to watch it, now some of them want to be protected from their enjoyment being spoiled before they DO watch it. Within limits, that makes sense

But guess what, folks? There ARE limits...


On this site last week, I previewed the fifth-season premiere of Showtime's Dexter, discussing -- in the most general of terms, I thought -- why the new season was starting out as gripping as last year's, and that it picked up at precisely the same moment where last season's finale had ended: With Michael C. Hall's Dexter discovering the body of his wife, Julie Benz's Rita, the final victim of the serial murderer Dexter himself had just killed.

My complete column can be read HERE. And if you care to go back and read it, as Exhibit A, please take special note of how much detail I DIDN'T give -- and how I was more focused on conveying my opinion, and my excitement, than recounting any key plot points.

On this site, which clearly is read exclusively by the most discerning TV fans on the planet, no one complained. But when I previewed the same show last Friday for NPR's Fresh Air with Terry Gross -- which you can both read and hear HERE, in what I shall mark as Exhibit B -- some listeners blasted me for revealing too much. (For that matter, you read those comments in full as well.)

Now, Fresh Air listeners, too, are way up there on the discerning meter, but a few of their comments were so passionate and angry, I feel compelled to respond.


"You have completely ruined a fantastic series for hundreds of thousands of people," said one, upset that I had revealed that Rita had died the season before. "Many of us do not watch shows when they are broadcast," said another.

Okay. BUT... there have to be limits. There oughta be a law about when Spoiler Alerts become outdated, like groceries with use-by expiration dates. And I'm about to propose one.

The fourth-season finale episode of Dexter, the one I raised some ire by describing, was televised by Showtime last December. In 2009.

This is 2010. Not only that, but the fourth-season DVD set, which could be purchased and viewed by people who didn't even subscribe to Showtime, was released in August. It is now September. In four days, it will be October.

So how long, as a professional critic, am I supposed to wait before the pop-culture stragglers finally get around to the wanna-see stuff in their "To Do" piles? Do I have to wait until the slowest runner in the marathon crosses the finish line? And even then, what about Viewers: The Next Generation?

In the case of Dexter, I think -- and I assert, I argue, I insist -- that I'm completely within my rights, when a new season of a TV show begins, to discuss how the previous season ended. How else can it be placed into context? And if nine months isn't more than enough time to keep mum before "spoiling" something, then something's wrong. And not with me.


I'm not insensitive to wanting to preserve, for viewers, the same sense of surprise that I have when I watch something in advance. Monday night at 9 ET on NBC's The Event, for example, viewers who tune in will learn what happened to the plane, and its passengers, and where that all of that fits into the conpiracy-laden, flashback-obsessed plot of this complex new series.

I know already, because I've seen this week's episode (and next week's) -- but all you'll get out of me, for now, is that it isn't surprising, isn't impressive, and isn't worth the wait.


But that's NOW.

In 1988, when NBC's St. Elsewhere concluded with one of the most controversial finales in TV history -- the "snow globe" ending, in which the entire series was explained away as the meandering daydreams of an autistic kid -- critics such as myself were aware of the stunner, but didn't write about it in advance.

We did, however, write about it the next day, once it was broadcast, covering it as a news event worth discussing -- the same as we did for the boldly brilliant surprise ending of CBS's Newhart in 1990, which returned Bob Newhart to his previous TV bedroom, character, and spouse.

These days, technology has progressed so much that news value has, paradoxically, retreated. Decades ago, pre-VCR, no one thought of issuing Spoiler Alerts, because you either saw it or you didn't. But now, the sensitivity has gone the other way, and has gone way too far.

The picture at the top of this column is from one of the most famous movies ever made. If you know the film, you know what it is, and why the image is important. But if not, should there be a Spoiler Alert for a movie that was made more than half a century ago?


Should I keep quiet about what happens at the end of Moby-Dick -- the movie OR the book -- because some people haven't gotten around to it yet? Is it fair, yet, to commit to print any discussion of the twists in The Crying Game (20 years old next year) or The Sixth Sense (11 years and counting), or should we protect those secrets for those who have yet to experience them?

There has to be an end to the absurdity. My personal opinion is that once something has been broadcast, printed, exhibited or otherwise made available to the public, it's fair game. If I want to talk about the ending of Lost the day after it ended, I can, and will.

As for the issuance of Spoiler Alerts, I have my own sense of when to be sensitive -- and if you haven't gotten around to watching a show two months after it's come out on DVD, then, sorry, I don't have much sympathy for you. In fact, I don't have any. Once something is out there, if you don't want to know about it, then it's your responsibility to avoid discussion of it, not mine to avoid discussing it.

By the way, here's one last Spoiler Alert:

Ding-dong, the witch is dead. Which old witch?

You don't want to know.

Or do you?




John P. Speno said:

Several months ago, I heard that Julie Benz was doing a new show this season. That was long before I watched Dexter season 4. That fact set off alarm bells in my head, but I muffled them as best I could and was able to enjoy the show despite that knowledge.

Of course, a character she played in the past has come back from a much worse fate (and wasn't that fun?). I hope readers who haven't seen Buffy and Angel will forgive me for that spoiler. :-)

It's nearly impossible to be completely spoiler free in this world, but feel free to try your best.

Comment posted on September 27, 2010 10:52 AM

ericg said:

Rosebud was the nickname of Kane's sled.

Ahab is killed by the whale.

The female of desire in The Crying Game is actually a pre-op transvestite.

Bruce Willis is actually dead, but doesn't know it.

There is a tiny shred of spoiler alert consideration because of the new age of full seasons available on DVD (for those who want to see everything in short order, together), and the DVR. But it's tiny, and it's a shred.

-- Call me Ishmael...


Comment posted on September 27, 2010 11:03 AM

katy said:

I hadn't watched the last episode of last season's Chuck (our DVR deleted it before we could), yet I found out about Chuck's dad dying and his mom being alive during the summer. That did not spoil the episode when I finally watched it On Demand. I certainly did not blame the writer of the article on what's in store for this season that I read in SEPTEMBER (2 1/2 months after the episode aired). Once the episode airs, you have every right to comment on it.

Did the listeners know that the actress [Julie Benz] was in another show this season? Wouldn't that have been a clue?

Anyway, keep up the good work. I usually agree with you and Matt Roush from TV guide on shows. I read both of you religiously.

[Well, thanks, a lot. Really. But I think I speak for Matt as well when I say, get off your knees, please. Religiously is no way to read us... -- David B.}

Comment posted on September 27, 2010 11:50 AM

Tausif Khan said:

Spoiler alerts for me are tricky because I actually like being spoiled so that I don't have to watch for minor details. This allows me to figure out what the artist is trying to say. That's me personally.

It is hard to point out a discernible time to give spoilers because of DVDs/BluRay etc.

One helpful hint is that spoilers can be announced ahead of time. For example on the Firewall and Iceberg Podcast (Alan Sepinwall and Daniel Fienberg of Hit Fix) discuss Mad Men the night after it airs. On their blogs they note and mark at what time each segment is going to be discussed. Mad Men they save until the end of the podcast. They tell listeners if you have not seen last night's episode, skip this part of the podcast and come back when you have.

This brings me to my final point. I don't think it is fair for critics to have to defend reviewing something that has been broadcast. If a person has not seen a show and would like to watch it unspoiled they should avoid all news or reviews of that show period until they have finished their viewing.

Many a time we have seen characters on television (in the early 90s) talk about how they had taped a sports event or a program they watch. They make sure that no one talks about that program until they view it themselves.

If you want a pure viewing experience without commentary, watch it by yourself and then join the conversation. The blog posts will be there when you have finished.

I agree with you, David.

[Thanks. That's one more vote in the Common Sense category! -- David B.]

Comment posted on September 27, 2010 11:56 AM

Neil said:

If you remember back to high school, much less any college-level statistics course, there is a concept known as a bell curve (or a "normal" distribution). To generalize, in any representative sample of people, there will be some small number of "high achievers" at one end, and a similar number of "pinheads" at the other, with the vast majority falling in the broad middle of the bell graph.

I mention this in the context of NPR listeners, Fresh Air listeners, hell, even visitors to this site. No matter what you do, you're always going to get a few pinheads visiting, misunderstanding, misinterpreting, and then getting offended and feeling compelled to comment, even up here in the stratosphere of intellect and discernment.

Just as you can't program a radio network to satisfy the most pinheaded of your listeners, you similarly can't limit your critical voice to avoid offending them.

I never saw the SciFi Channel remake of Battlestar Galactica when it was airing first run episodes. I saw the entire run off DVD's I borrowed from our local library system, and was about halfway through when season 4.5 aired, complete with the grand finale. I read previews and reviews of that finale - including right here at TVWW - while still catching up with the earlier episodes. When the season 4.5 set came out, I pretty much knew the plot points of how the series would end. And that foreknowledge didn't prevent me from enjoying the finale mightily, or going "Wow!" once it was over. Or viewing it a second time.

If people can't mentally juggle more than a single thread at a time, both TVWW and NPR are just the wrong places for them.

[SO nicely put. And, by the way, are you watching "Caprica"? -- David B.]

Comment posted on September 27, 2010 1:38 PM

Laurel said:

I can't believe you were made to feel you had to write this. Those whining babies....You are right--and bent over backward to make your point. And they are ridiculous.

Comment posted on September 27, 2010 3:44 PM

Nathan said:

Frankly you're being too generous with these people by responding in such detail to their complaint. I don't like spoilers either, but I've found it's extremely easy to avoid them. Last week, on a different television related website, I was skimming the comments to an article about the ratings of a show's premiere; at about comment 150 someone complained that comment 100 contained a spoiler ("thanks a lot, you ruined it!"). Someone who hasn't seen an episode taking to the internet, reading an article about the episode, and then scouring 100 reader-submitted comments has no one to blame but himself. Similarly, if you're going to listen to a review of this season of "Dexter," you have to expect that things that happened last season are going to come into play. This stuff is pretty obvious, frankly.

[And your comment was pretty delightful, frankly. Thanks. -- David B.]

Comment posted on September 27, 2010 5:05 PM

Joe said:

I don't mind if you discuss spoilers--in fact, you should be able to discuss the ending of a film or TV show immediately after airing--but I think issuing a spoiler alert is only polite, such as, "anyone who hasn't seen the 4th season yet might want to skip ahead a few minutes, since this review contains spoilers."

Several podcasts I have listened to give the listeners just such an opportunity to fast-forward if the review happens to be particularly revealing.

I know it is not always possible to avoid the media review of TV and film, but had there been a spoiler alert ANYWHERE near this review, I would have happily avoided listening, particularly since I'm only half way through Season 3. I thought you were going to discuss a preview of the upcoming season, so I let it play. Mistake.

It may seem strange to someone whose job it is to watch TV for a living, but for most of us in the real world, TV is a fun entertaining escape for an hour or two here and there. Most of us don't have the time to watch everything there is to watch. There is sooo much TV, and a lot of it is really good and I would like to watch it. And I will eventually, taking care to avoid reviews or spoilers of any series in which I feel like investing my time.

To argue for the right to nakedly spoil an ending without warning is to give TV programs a shelf life. Some producers may argue their products are worth more consideration.

Comment posted on September 27, 2010 6:49 PM

jimM said:

I don't have cable so I have to wait for the dvd's if I want to watch something like "The Sopranos." Dodging info on that show's last season was really tricky since it was such a cultural phenomenon and everyone wanted to talk about it, every writer wanted to write about it and every tv/radio news and talk show wanted to discuss it. For months I had to be ready to quickly avert my eyes and hit the mute button. But you know what? It was my problem. I didn't expect the world to put a hold the discussion until I was ready to participate. Even with all my effort I pretty much knew everything important before actually watching, but "The Sopranos" was so good it didn't matter and that's the lesson here. If the show is good enough spoilers won't matter and if the show isn't good enough, well, then spoilers really don't matter.

[Thanks for being so level-headed. So was the ending of "The Sopranos" worth the wait, and that effort? Or was the fact that it ended in the mid... -- David B.]

Comment posted on September 27, 2010 6:55 PM

Mark L. said:

While I agree that there is a limit to the need for discretion regarding spoilers, there is no reason to alienate TV enthusiasts who are still getting around to old tv shows on DVD. I recently watched the entire series of the X-files. Since it took a few months to get through it, I once had to quickly turn off the tv to avoid a tv special that was listing TV's most shocking surprises.

I agree with Tausif that these can be avoided. If you are afraid of learning something you don't want to about a show because you haven't watched it yet, don't click on the link. I would only suggest that a picture giving away a major surprise (even a month after the DVD's release) are dangerous, because you can accidentally see a picture. You can't accidentally read a column or listen to a radio show.

Comment posted on September 27, 2010 9:29 PM

Sherman Lee said:

Both sides (the writers and the readers) of spoilers constitute the no-win scenario (Kobayashi Maru anyone?). One side shares thoughts, the other side seeks them, and there is no pleasing anyone because people disagree on the thresholds for spoilers.

The bottom line is that readers need to adjust for their favorite writers and learn each writer's threshold, be it the day after broadcast, a week later, the end of season or DVD release. If that sounds like a lot of work, then the reader must be disciplined to not read anything until finally watching it. If the writer is worth it (such as our good Mr. Bianculli here, Mr. Sepinwall, Ms. Ryan, and an old-time favorite Mr. Mink when he did TV in St. Louis way back when), it's well worth the wait.

For those who are extremely spoiler-phobic, don't visit websites until having watched the episodes. And if you've waited a long time to watch a series (especially if the "complete series" is available on DVD), it's probably best to stop reading the rest of the column -- until you've watched the series or given up on not being spoiled.

To be fair, Dexter is on my list of "Summer Full Series DVD Marathons" and I accidentally read Mr. Bianculli's plot references. I refuse to call them spoilers because my statute of limitations had run out, and it's my fault for not averting my eyes. It's not that big a deal for two reasons: (1) by the time I finally get to Dexter I will have probably forgotten the his reference (ahh, the beauty of growing "older, wiser and more forgetful"); and (2) truly good TV is worth watching not just because of what happens in the story, but how the story is told. For me the highest praise I can give a TV show (e.g. Mad Men) is a repeat viewing to pick up stuff I've missed and see how the creators structured the show.

And I trust my favorite TV critics that when I get around to Dexter, I'll enjoy it, "spoiled" or not.

[Your argument is even more reasoned than mine, I think. Thanks for the defense -- and the support. -- David B.]

Comment posted on September 27, 2010 10:35 PM

Spork said:

Curse you! I was going to watch the complete St. Elsewhere series this weekend, and now you've ruined it for me!

I completely agree with your sentiment and have little/no sympathy for those that complained.

I DVR everything and can wait years before finally watching a series (I've got all the Mad Men episodes on TiVo and haven't started watching it yet ... that's how much of a backlog I have!). I take it as the cost of this that I can't "live in the moment" and discuss shows, read reviews, etc. if I don't want to know show/movie details. That's the cost of time shifting.

If you feel passionate about a series, movie, etc., then you should get to it right away (and the networks should take full advantage of this!). It's like getting upset because you heard the score of a football game you're time shifting -- it's no one's fault but your own.

[By the way -- I knew you were joking right away, because I don't know HOW you could watch the complete "St. Elsewhere" series -- only season one has been released on DVD. Unbelievable, I know. -- David B.]

Comment posted on September 28, 2010 8:33 PM

Barb said:

I'm sorry but if you haven't finished a particular season yet and you go ahead and listen to a preview of the next season then shame on you. Seriously, what do you expect? Even without real "spoilers" you are bound and determined to hear about something you haven't seen yet.

I do agree with posting spoiler warnings for a brief while after a show airs but I just don't understand people who go to entertainment sites and read blogs about Television shows and then are shocked...*SHOCKED* when they discover the writer mentioned actual details about the show. If you don't want to know then don't visit the site.

Comment posted on September 29, 2010 8:34 AM
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