Tuned In

Vacation Special: Spoiler Alert!

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I interrupt your dream week with Robo-James to bring you a brief word about Tuned In and spoilers. 

I’m staying this week with Mom Tuned In, who has no DVR. Which means that last night I watched the season finale of Better Off Ted, with commercials. Like a caveman. One of those ads was for Modern Family, a promising new sitcom whose excellent pilot contains a plot twist that ABC forswore critics not to spoil. The commercial, naturally, blows the entire twist. Apparently ABC’s marketing department decided it was impossible to withhold the twist (which basically reveals the premise of the show) and still promote the show. So now, apparently, it’s no longer a spoiler. 

Meanwhile, I and other critics have been working on reviews of season 3 of Mad Men, which begins Sunday. Among the details AMC considers a spoiler is the year in which the new season begins—something the new season reveals minutes into the first episode. 

I won’t reveal either of the above “spoilers” in this post, but this is as good a time as any to go over Tuned In’s spoiler policy, such as it is. 

First off: My Mad Men review, which will post at time.com tomorrow or Friday, does reveal the year, and a few other details about the character’s lives that to me are minor but to some readers may be a big deal. I clearly warn in the review–which is based on the first three episodes–when the spoilage begins. But if you’re sensitive to spoilers and want to go into the new season knowing nothing about it, do not read my review. Period. I will take no offense. 

Figuring out what to reveal has always been tricky for a reviewer. It’s even more so now for a few reasons. The Internet makes spoilers easier to spread and harder to avoid. At the same time, publicists try to be ever more controlling of what information is or isn’t acceptable to publish. And frankly, a lot of TV shows today, especially new pilots, rely–I might say overrely–on shockers and O. Henry twists. All this has made spoilers more widespread–and yet more unnecessarily fetishized–than ever. 

The way I deal with it: If I think I need the information to give a full sense of what a show is and why it does or doesn’t work, I use it. I try not to spoil anything egregiously or for its own sake. If anything I write might remotely be considered a spoiler, I warn, explicitly and ahead of time–I never want to blow someone’s surprise against their will. But finally, I don’t believe in ceding someone else the decision of what I am and am not allowed to write about. 

To me, it comes down to the question: who do critics work for? Who do we serve? Answer: not the marketing department. (It boggles my mind to think critics would accept that they’re “allowed” to write about Modern Family because the ABC ad department now says it’s OK. Who cares? If it was wrong before, it’s still wrong, and if it’s OK now, it was OK before.) And not the artists and creators–not even those, like Mad Men’s Matthew Weiner, whom I consider the true geniuses of TV today. I have huge respect for the people who make great TV, but as the line in Almost Famous goes: The rock stars are not your friends

Ultimately I work for my readers, each of whom have different ideas of what constitutes a spoiler and what they do and don’t want to know. Some readers want to know details, others want to know nothing, and one group is not better or more right than the other.

That’s the tricky part. Personally, as a reader, I’m less sensitive to spoilers than most. To me, if a work of art–as opposed to a game, like an American Idol finale–is any good, it should work whether you know the “surprise” or not. To my eye the pilot of Mad Men works just as well once you know Don Draper is married–in fact, frankly, I think it plays better that way. If there’s a movie I want to see absolutely unspoiled, I’ll watch it first and read reviews after, because to me, a review is not mainly a consumer-spending guide. 

But that’s just me. Other people disagree. That’s fine. That’s why I spoil and warn. But there’s no end to the minor, contextual details that some people might consider spoilers. When I wrote on Twitter that I was having a hard time decided whether to reveal the year in my Mad Men review, someone responded that the mere fact that I was debating it enabled him to figure out what year it was. I have no idea how, but I suppose it’s possible.

Mad Men, in particular, is a show that’s especially concerned with the events and ideas of its time and how they reflect and affect the lives of the characters. To leave it out is to leave out one of the show’s most important aspects. So when I reviewed season 2, I mentioned what year it took place. In retrospect, I didn’t spoiler-alert it blatantly enough, but the world didn’t end, and I don’t even recall getting complaints, either from the creators or from fans. What finally makes Mad Men great is not surprises or shockeroos but the richness of the acting and storytelling. 

But if the surprises are important to you, that’s great: stay away from my review. (Alan Sepinwall has a review which is goes lighter on these details and avoids the year, though for all I know even some of the information he gives may be a spoiler to some folks.) And feel free to check back after the first episode airs Sunday, when we can talk about it, “spoilers” and all.