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Let's Get This Straight: My Stance on Spoiler Alerts
July 20, 2013  | By David Bianculli  | 13 comments

Editor's Note: It’s no spoiler to say that we’ve dealt with spoiler issues before, with shows ranging from The Wire to Dexter and, uh, Dexter. Feel free to go back and review previous spoiler columns, and reader responses.

After hosting Friday’s Fresh Air with Terry Gross on NPR, I received an impassioned complaint about my revealing something from a previous episode of Breaking Bad, in connection to that day’s guest. Allow me to defend myself, just as passionately…

The complaint – well-written, obviously sincere, and sent to me via this website – came from Kelly Akins, who wrote this:

“My wife and I, separately, listened to the beginning of your interview today of the actor who plays Hank on Breaking Bad. For the last 2 weeks, we have faithfully been trying to catch up by watching Seasons 1, 2, 3, and 4 of the show before that last (and final) Season 5. Currently, we are starting episode 11 of Season 4. Thus, we were horrified by your cavalier announcement of Hank's discovery of Walt's involvement in making meth, of which had not yet been revealed to us, and, indeed, to many other potential fans who surely will want to start watching the series, especially with so many recent Emmy awards, nominations, and general accolades.

“This is a MAJOR plot element to the ENTIRE series, and totally irresponsible of you to reveal in today's interview, much less even necessary for you to reveal. I suspect the AMC network is displeased, as well. Downer.”

The word “cavalier” was the impetus for me to write this quite serious response about why I did what I did. If I were truly cavalier, I might point out that Kelly, by posting his complaint on this website, was spoiling the same secret for Breaking Bad fans in the same position as he and his wife, who hadn’t listened to my Fresh Air introduction of Dean Norris.

But I take this Spoiler stuff very, very seriously. So here, once again, is where I stand on all this.

1)    I take great pains not to reveal anything substantive when writing or talking about any TV show that has not yet been televised.  When I’m previewing rather than reviewing, I want the viewer to share the same sense of discovery that I did. You’ll find, if you make any direct comparisons whatsoever, that my plot summaries in reviews of upcoming shows are less detailed than almost any others.

2)    I have a different approach once something has been televised, or made available.  This is what used to be the “water-cooler effect,” when people who cared about a show would gather the next day at work to discuss their favorite shows. Take that away entirely, and you’re taking away a lot of fun of watching TV. When Sally Draper walked in on her father on Mad Men, that was a moment that cried out to be discussed soon afterward.

3)    I’ve been a TV critic my entire professional life. At some point, I have to be able to ply my craft. Don’t take that away from me.

4)    If you love a show so much that you’re crushed by “spoilers,” make a special effort to watch it sooner. The most recent episode of Breaking Bad – the one ending with the plot point I described in Friday’s Fresh Air introduction to Dean Norris – was televised by AMC on Sept. 2, 2012. That’s more than 10 months ago – longer than it takes to conceive, gestate and deliver a human baby. The DVD release of the first half of that season, the one culminating with the same pivotal scene, was more than six weeks ago. How long, really, is too long? What’s the statute of limitations on not discussing something?

5)    If you love a show but can’t see it in a timely fashion and want to avoid “spoilers,” the onus is on you, not the rest of the world. I do this all the times with upcoming film releases: If I’m especially excited by the prospects of the movie, or if I don’t see it immediately upon its release, I avoid reading any article, and especially any review, with that film in the headline. In this case, if you were stockpiling Breaking Bad episodes and were behind, turn off the radio. Catch it later on a podcast, or read it on a website, once you’re up to speed. Just because, more than half a century later, you still haven’t seen Citizen Kane, does that mean the rest of us still can’t talk about Rosebud?

6)    There’s a big difference between revealing things yet to come and discussing things already on record. I’ve just previewed the next episode of Breaking Bad, the one that AMC will televise in August, and you won’t catch me spoiling any secrets in advance – not even the big musical number with Cheech & Chong. (Relax. I’m kidding.) But especially, on a website or radio program devoted to a serious and thorough discussion of the arts, those should be the places you go to expect, enjoy and participate in such a discussion – not to avoid any mention, like an ostrich with its head stuck in the sand, and expect everyone else to do the same.

7)    This may come down to a serious difference of opinion, but just know this: I’m not changing my mind on this one. I respect the sincerity, and the civility, with which Kelly made his points. I hope he, and you, receive my own opinions in the same spirit. If, in time, I can’t talk about TV shows, especially the best ones, then for a professional critic, what the hell’s the point?

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The Minister
One Week Later There ARE No Spoilers.

That is all. Well, I might also mention that a recent study showed that readers "spoiled" on the endings to books enjoyed them more.
Jul 28, 2013   |  Reply
Donna L Dale
The onus is on the listener/reader to avoid spoilers. If you reserve viewing for a later time, it is also possible to reserve reviews in the same way. I read several UK publications on a regular basis and have no difficulty emailing reviews for convenient reading. I did know Sybil and Matthew would not survive beyond their current season on Downton Abbey, but this knowledge didn't affect my enjoyment of the series. Less appointment TV viewing has shifted attitudes.
Jul 27, 2013   |  Reply
I'm right there with ya!!!
Jul 25, 2013   |  Reply
DAvid-I agree with you completely. I have yet to watch Dexter past season 1 and have not yet started on Game of Thorns. When I started reading comments that included those two shows I ended my reading. If I continued it is my fault. The moment the show airs it is fair game. By the way why did you show a picture of a sled with the word Rosebud on it?
Jul 24, 2013   |  Reply
David Bianculli
Dear Mark -- I presume you're joking. But in case you're not, go watch Citizen Kane sometime.
Jul 25, 2013
Gail Roberys
Excellent. Totally agree. In my book club, if you haven't read the book by the time of our meeting: tough nuggies. We aren't going to NOT discuss the book because you haven't read it!
Jul 23, 2013   |  Reply
A newspaper I used to read daily recently published a huge full page image giving away the major Game Of Thrones event which occurred this season. I watched it on DVR that night already knowing the big deal. I could not avoid the picture! This is different from avoiding a writeup of the episode. A titillating headline about the episode would have been fine, and I could have then avoided reading the article. I think you were always good at this sort of thing when you wrote for newsprint. Please continue to avoid posting pictures of this sort, at least the next day after the showed aired. If we have to delve into the article itself then it's our own fault.
Jul 22, 2013   |  Reply
David Bianculli
I think that's a very fair request, and reasonable guideline... Funny, though, that in the "old" days, when the J.R. shooting was resolved and The Sopranos cut to black, I wrote immediate front-page stories for my respective papers, complete with art. Something's definitely changed...
Jul 24, 2013
Your "Citizen Kane" reference reminds me of taking my then-15 year-old daughter to see "Gone With the Wind" for the first time, with both pre-and-post-screening discussions. Another young woman in the audience also seeing it for the first time took exception to finding out before the screening that one of the characters dies (no spoiler here!), as we heard her whispered complaint behind us. My daughter couldn't believe that anyone would actually make that kind of complaint about a film out for that long.

Good piece, and I thoroughly agree with all your points.
Jul 22, 2013   |  Reply
I completely agree with your point of view...If I am behind on a series, I take great painstaking steps to avoid spoilers (I avoid the internet - especially comments, refuse to read cover stories, etc.). Funny antidote to share - I watched 4 seasons of Six Feet Under and missed the final season. Many people have told me it's the best ending to a series they have ever seen. 5 years after the final season, it got spoiled for me in an issue of EW. I was so pissed that they spoiled the "best series ending episodes of all time" and then I realized how ridiculous that was. I am currently re-watching and on season2. I know how it ends, but I don't think it will make the viewing any less rewarding.
Jul 22, 2013   |  Reply
David Bianculli
Dear Stacey, Not everyone is as sensible as you. But I certainly appreciate your take on the matter. Thanks!
Jul 24, 2013
Listening to reviews with possible spoilers are the price I pay for being able to watch a show I recorded-even if it only aired that day. The same holds true for a show I bought on DVD.

I make the choice-and it is a choice, to listen to a review before I've had a chance to see a show. If I then learn something I wish I hadn't, I have only myself to blame for it. Curiosity is the only reason I don't stop myself from reading or listening to a review. How can I blame that on the critic? And if not for yours and other critical reviews, I would have missed out on many of gems buried in a wasteland of TV not worth watching. I don't want to lose that. Keep on critiquing, please!
Jul 21, 2013   |  Reply
David Bianculli
Thanks to everyone who took the time to write in on this topic, especially since you all seem to agree with me. I truly, truly appreciate the support, because the tide -- of both Spoiler Alert sensitivity and an eagerness to regurgitate plot details in "preview" reviews -- seems to be going the other way. Thanks. This site, in particular, would be a lot less substantive without the ability to discuss. And without all of you as readers and co-commenters!
Jul 22, 2013

You have always been a reviewer I can trust not to spoil plot elements and I *thank* you for that. But can you explain why so many if your colleagues, even in NPR now, think nothing of filing reviews that are 60 percent plot recitation?? I think it's just plain laziness. In college teachers gave us "c's" if we spent too much time rehashing plot during a movie analysis. What's happened to reviewers these days?
Jul 21, 2013   |  Reply
Perzackly right. I have a bunch of shows on my DVR that I haven't gotten around to seeing yet — some of them from last March — but I don't mind you discussing them. And since we all know Walt is a meth cook, it shouldn't be a surprise to learn that Hank finally figured it out.
Jul 20, 2013   |  Reply
I also agree with Jim.

If Dish has aired the most recent season of Breaking Bad, I missed it, so I have not seen it, but still, Hank figuring it out was going to happen - not a surprise.
Jul 23, 2013
Yeah. I totally agree with Jim about it being no surprise to learn that Hank finally figured it out just as many people were right (spoiler alert!!!) when predicting the inevitability of Deborah Morgan eventually discovering Dexter's dark "hobby."
Jul 21, 2013
Well put, David! My personal rule is that once it airs on the west coast (sorry Alaska and Hawaii), all bets are off and the episode and spoilers are fair game for discussion. (Netflix's model throws a kink in this plan, but I think Netflix suffers for this.) Due to the birth of a child, I'm now seasons behind on The Walking Dead, Downton Abbey, and Dexter. While I do my best to avoid reading and hearing things that happened, I don't expect anyone to put their viewing lives and discussions on hold until I can join the discussion. I think your spoiler rules are perfect and deserve a permanent spot on the home page!
Jul 20, 2013   |  Reply
Agreed. If I haven't watched something, I try to stay away from all reviews until I have; or else I choose to take the chance I might find out something I really didn't want to know. But once something has aired, it's up to me to stay away from spoilers if I want to avoid them, and I can't expect others to not say anything just because I haven't seen it already--especially if it's been a long time since something was on TV. Then I can go back and find the reviews after I've had a chance to watch the show.
Jul 22, 2013
I couldn't have said it any better than this; even though I tried to. :)
Jul 21, 2013
right on david, i personally turned off a peggy (from madmen) interview recently because i was scared of spoilers and im only part way in. i did gloss over something about mad men in this blog entry right here, but i'm not all bent out of shape. i take the blame for not having caught up on season 6, it's a show i hold dear and have been slacking on my dvr.

anyway, the letter reeks of entitlement, you are my favorite. <3
Jul 20, 2013   |  Reply
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