Spoiler Alert: This post contains references to several TV and movie surprises, all five years old or more. If you are spoiled by any of them, you need to be a little more current.
Let’s get the bias out of the way up front: I love spoilers.
When I buy a new novel, I often flip right away to the back page. I watched Star Trek II knowing Spock would die, Return of the Jedi knowing Darth was Luke’s father, and Godfather II knowing Fredo was going to get it in the end. Didn’t bother me at all. The last time a movie development caught me genuinely by surprise was when Bruce Willis turned out to be a ghost — and that, probably only because I saw The Sixth Sense on opening night.
Some people may call this a character flaw. I’d rather think of it as knowing how to enjoy the journey instead of the destination.
Quite a few of you feel differently. When Philly Mag on Thursday morning posted news to Facebook about the winner of Top Chef — revealed on TV the previous night to be Philadelphia chef Nicholas Elmi — editors decided to pull the post after rage-filled cries of “spoiler!”
Foobooz posted the news, too, where it was greeted with a similar “thanks for ruining tonight’s DVR!” response. Art Etchells, the Foobooz founder, wasn’t bothered: When Elmi emerged as the show’s winner, that became more than a show’s storyline — it became news of Philadelphia interest, to be reported and shared.
I’m hesitant to reward the behavior of folks who beg to be shielded from spoilers. Society has grown increasingly fragmented over the last few decades, and pop culture is no exception. But at least viewers of, say, The X Files could chat about an episode by the water cooler without worrying about giving offense. Every discussion of last night’s TV has now become fraught, another opportunity to give or take offense in a world where we’re already primed to argue, anyway.
The fragmentation is happening, though, so we might as well have a few rules. Here are mine.
• SPORTING EVENTS/REALITY SHOW COMPETITION FINALES: No grace period. People can talk about it as soon as they want, without sanction. I couldn’t understand why people would gripe about knowing that Elmi won the show — it seemed the same to me as saying “You spoiled the Super Bowl for me!” Some events are simply made for real-time viewing. Elmi’s victory was news (in Philadelphia anyway) that demanded a headline saying as much.
• SCRIPTED TV: Nielsen has several different ways of measuring the ratings for TV shows. One of them is “Live Plus Three” — that is, it measures everybody who watched the show when it was broadcast, plus everybody who watched on DVR over the next three days. That gives executives their best initial overview of how popular (or unpopular) a show is. That seems a fair rule of thumb for the rest of us, too: If you’re revealing important plot details from an episode more than three days after the fact, you’re not spoiling it for 99 percent of people who wanted to see it.
And yes, it penalizes people who binge-watch a show years after the fact. Too bad. Just because you’re getting around to Battlestar Galactica, now, 10 years later, doesn’t mean I should pretend I don’t know Starbuck is a ghost.
• MOVIES: This is the most difficult, because it’s not quite as tied to time-sensitivity as the previous categories. Shows generally air at a certain day and time; sporting events the same. But a movie can still be “new” for the first several weeks of its release.
My suggestion: A year is actually a fair grace period here — and I think I'm being generous: Everybody eager to see a flick in the theater or on video will have seen it by then. If you’re a straggler, well, that’s a pity. Again: Pop culture provides common reference points. Don’t get mad at me for revealing Luke Skywalker’s parentage now, more than 30 years after it was first depicted onscreen.
• ADDENDUM! After this originally posted, a reader sensibly asks what we should do about Netflix, which posts entire seasons of original series at once. Do the binge-watchers get the nod here, or the rest of us who might watch one or two episodes at a time?
Seems like this is a good spot to just say: "Use your common sense." But that never works. So my rule is: You are free to spoil after the Emmys in the year the show would be nominated. What that means? House of Cards' first season is free to be talked about without screaming "SPOILER ALERT!" at everybody in earshot; Orange Is The New Black, on the other hand, still hasn't seen its Emmy season yet. My inclination would be to talk about it, since it's been months and months now since the show appeared and everybody was talking about it in what amounts to real time. Fair's fair, though.
There are exceptions to this. It’s not nice to spoil old stories for children who are now encountering them for the first time. Nobody should ever go out of their way to spoil a show or movie for somebody who hasn’t seen it — that’s just jerky. Generally speaking, though, the burden should be on pop culture fans to avoid spoilers rather than make the rest of us tiptoe through our conversations about our favorite shows and movies.
Really, though, life’s too short to worry about all this. SPOILER ALERT: We all die in the end.
Follow @JoelMMathis on Twitter.