Let me state up front that this article contains no spoilers for any television show, motion picture, book, play, poem, record album, videogame, or historical event. You’ll be completely safe while reading this, unless you’re one of those tabula rasa types who avoids even the most rudimentary information about a TV series—like, say, that HBO’s fantasy-drama Game Of Thrones features people getting impaled by swords. For those of you who’d rather not have known that, I apologize. As for the more rank-and-file spoiler-haters, let me assure you: I respect your position. Some find the very idea of “spoiler alerts” ludicrous, and believe it’s the responsibility of spoiler-averse individuals to steer clear of any potential article or social interaction that might tell them more than they want to know. I disagree. In a world with RSS feeds and Facebook and Twitter, it’s all too easy to see something you didn’t intend to about a movie or TV show. To my mind, it’s common courtesy in the 21st century—and not too difficult, for that matter—to let people know when you’re about to discuss some whopper of a plot twist in a public forum.
But I’m not a spoiler-phobe myself. I don’t generally seek spoilers, but I don’t consider it a major annoyance when I stumble across one. When I was writing about Lost on a weekly basis, I frequently came across websites that dispensed spoilers—frequently posted by people with sig-lines like “100 percent spoiled and proud”—and was rarely tempted to look further, because the one time I did learn a major Lost plot development in advance, it made the episode in question (“Eggtown”) less enjoyable than it might’ve been. But even in that case, the spoiler didn’t ruin the episode, which was fairly weak to begin with. It just diminished one element of the whole.
Actually, there are times when knowing major plot details in advance can be helpful. I’ve never read George R.R. Martin’s A Song Of Ice And Fire novels, but I’ve been watching Game Of Thrones and enjoying it immensely. This is a dense show, teeming with characters and backstory, and since I tend to lose my way within complicated fantasy narratives, I decided before Game Of Thrones premièred to do some research, even if it meant finding out some major story points in advance. I pored over Wikipedia, consulted fan-made genealogy charts, and read Andrew Leonard’s extremely handy Salon article, which explains the story’s setting and character relationships. The result? Before I’d even watched a minute of Game Of Thrones, I’d already been spoiled for one major character death, one secret romance, and one shocking attempted murder.
And I don’t regret it one bit. For one thing, to say that knowing what’s going to happen on Game Of Thrones devalues the show is to say that no one who’s read Martin’s books could enjoy watching it. But more importantly, by preparing, I didn’t have to spend a lot of time during the first few episodes trying to untangle who was who. What I like about Game Of Thrones is that it’s more akin to The Sopranos or Deadwood than it is to a lot of the other sword-and-sorcery TV shows and movies these days. It’s about subtle power plays and the importance of self-identification, and any given episode is driven as much by relatably human conversation as it is by bloodletting, sex, or pompous proclamations. (Though Game Of Thrones has its share of all that, too.) Often it can take a few episodes for a complex dramatic TV series to develop a world and a cast that viewers enjoy spending time with each week. I found that I was able to fast-forward that process of familiarization.
Maybe I’m deluding myself, and would’ve gotten the hang of Game Of Thrones just as easily without spoilers. But I certainly don’t think they’ve hampered my enjoyment of the show in any way. If they had, I might be singing a different tune, and would have to admit that I was partly at fault. I have a frequent, similar argument with my pal Scott Tobias, about whether newcomers to a serialized TV show should always start at the beginning, or whether they can drop in anywhere. Scott argues that in the age of DVDs and Netflix, there’s no excuse for not starting with season one, episode one—even if a show doesn’t start getting really good until season two, episode six. He argues that great TV is worth the effort, and that viewers will appreciate the payoffs more if they put in the time. I agree in principle, but I also think that even in 2011, TV is still TV: fundamentally an episodic medium. And just as people have been jumping into soap operas in the middle for decades, and picking up on long-running comic series in medias res, so they should be able to watch a random Friday Night Lights episode and decide whether they like it. If they enjoy themselves, I don’t really care what approach they take.
I’m not planning to look ahead any further to find out what’s coming on Game Of Thrones, because I’m acclimated now and don’t think I need to. Plus I do enjoy following a story as it unfolds. I’ve tried to avoid spoilers on Buffy The Vampire Slayer and Angel, two shows I’ve been watching for the first time and writing about for our TV Club. Readers have been thoughtful enough to tag their comment-section discussions when they get too spoiler-y, and I appreciate it. That said, just from being alive in the late ’90s and reading entertainment magazines, I knew some major Buffy plot developments long before I actually watched the episodes. And for the most part, I don’t think the foreknowledge has had a major deleterious effect.
That’s because there’s more to a story than its twists—or at least there should be. Lately, I’ve noticed a habit among some cultural commenters to dismiss some movie or TV show they don’t like by describing its plot in the most simplistic terms. That can be a funny way to rip on something—I’m sure I’ve done it myself more than once—but it presumes that style, performance, dialogue, action, and atmosphere are complete non-factors. And that isn’t the case at all. It’s the same with the impatience some viewers feel when a tightly serialized drama features an episode that barely advances the main narrative. If the episode is entertaining in and of itself, does it really matter how much it fills in the series’ overall puzzle? Is the point to get to the finish line as quickly as possible, or to enjoy the scenery along the way? As far as I’m concerned, if knowing the plot in advance really spoils a TV show, then either the show isn’t that good to begin with, or the spoil-ee is watching for the wrong reasons.