Tuesday, December 01, 2009

Spoilers Ahead! Deal With It

When I first got online in college back the mid-1990s (before there were even pictures on the Web, kids!), the main interactive destination was the USENET newsgroups. Organized by topic and dedicated to a bewildering array of human interests, newsgroups provided a way for fans of particular arts, artists, hobbies, sports teams, whatever to talk to each other in semi-real time. Web-based forums have displaced the newsgroups over the years, but they’re still out there.

On the sports groups I frequented – soccer and Formula 1, naturally – a common bit of courtesy developed when it came to discussing results for games or races while they were in progress or shortly thereafter. If, for instance, you wanted to talk about Tottenham’s 9-1 demolition of Wigan a couple weekends ago, your subject would be something like "Tottenham/Wigan [R]". The "[R]" meant there were results in the thread. If you didn’t want to know how the game turned out, come back later. That was opposed to a header something like "OMG, Tottenham Hammers 9 Past Wigan!"

In modern terms we call such things "spoilers" and people are routinely castigated for giving them away. Yeah, well, quit yer' bitchin', says one British critic:

Lately, I've witnessed adults sulking over someone pre-revealing that the house actually goes 'up' in the children's Pixar cartoon Up. Or that True Blood is about sex and vampires. And most heinous of all – SPOILER ALERT – that The Wire features a drug-dealer called Stringer Bell. ('Oh my God! I was saving that box set for sometime in 2011 once our youngest kid started day-nursery! You have totally sprayed me with SPOILER SHRAPNEL!') The bleating never ceases, and Wire fans are the worst offenders. I could tell Wire fans I'd driven home four times over the limit and parked vaguely west of my next-door neighbour's sofa, and this would not elicit the same horror as accidentally saying that Angry shoots Cracky in season blank. Spoiling someone's sacred experience of watching The Wire – which is a very good TV show, but let's be clear, just a bloody TV show – is a grave, unspeakable sin.
I agree completely, at least in terms of general Internet conversation.

Going back to the USENET example, in spite of the general policy against putting results in headers folks would regularly do just that. Swept away in the joy of a big win (or the pity of a crushing defeat), someone would do the unthinkable and be roundly criticized for it. On occasion, someone would post a result in a header just to piss people off. Their defense - if you don't want to have the result of a game or race ruined for you, stay the hell away from a news group until you've seen it.

That makes eminent sense. Really, if you want to wait on pins and needles to see what happens on this week's edition of Flash Forward, but you can't watch it until the weekend, just stay away from the places where the show will be discussed for the next few days. Why should everyone else on the plant conform to your TiVo schedule? That's not even getting into shows or movies that have been around for years. Dent has it right, it's those folks who are "spoiled to the core."

As always, there are exceptions to that general rule. For one, published reviews of movies and such should generally give as little of the plot away as possible. But that's because reviews are generally read ahead of time (though not always) when making the decision whether to see a flick or not, not comprehensive breakdowns of who does what to whom. Another exception would be among friends and family, if you know someone hasn't seen something and really wants to, simple courtesy dictates not being a dick and ruing their fun.

But there's more to it than courtesy or what have you. Fact is, if the only thing that moves you about a movie or TV show is the mechanics of the plot, you're pretty much beyond hope. Brazil gets repeated viewings in my house, even though I know that Sam ends up tortured by best friend and goes insane (Gilliam's "happy ending"). I watch The Prestige over and over even though I know how all the false identities play out in the end. I know that Buffy blows up her school to defeat The Mayor at the end of the third season, but that doesn't stop me from rewatching it. Because there are things to be gleaned, even on repeated viewings, beyond the mechanics of who lives or dies.

For the record:
  • The Wizard in The Wizard of Oz is really just a feeble old man behind a curtain with some cool effects at his disposal;
  • Darth Vader is not only Luke's father, but Leia is also Luke's sister (which makes the chemistry in Episode IV just a little creepy, no?);
  • "Rosebud" is the name of Kane's sled; and
  • Tommy "sure plays a mean pinball."
If the knowledge of any of those things really ruins, nay spoils, your appreciation of those works, well then you're a dolt. And you deserve it.

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