Tuned In

Secret Intelligence: Time to Draw the Line Against Spoiler Paranoia

It's time someone said it: not every bit of information about a show's new season constitutes a spoiler.

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Kent Smith / Showtime

At the TCA press tour in Los Angeles Monday, the producers of Homeland gave out some information about this fall’s season 3 that was significant not so much for what they said as how they said it. Namely, producers Alex Gansa and Howard Gordon talked about who was doing what at the opening of the season–and didn’t hand out non-disclosure agreements or forbid anyone in the room from writing about it.

I’ll let you read Alan Sepinwall’s post from the session if you want to know what those plot details are, not out of spoiler-paranoia on my own part but because the specifics are immaterial to this post. Suffice it to say that the details were sufficiently un-explosive that if security found them in Brody’s backpack, they’d have waved him through the checkpoint.

The first involved which cast members still appear in the third season, information you could easily enough get by reading IMDB or looking at Showtime’s publicity material. The second–hold on to your hat–involved when one of those cast members would first appear in the third season. According to Sepinwall, producer Alex Gansa freely volunteered the information, but apparently critics in the audience were so taken aback that at least one asked if Gansa was sure he didn’t consider it a spoiler.

Now look: I know TV criticism is not exactly national security reporting. But in general, journalists are not in the habit, when a source volunteers interesting information, of saying, “Whoa, hold on, chief–you sure you don’t want to take that off the record?”

But I can at least understand why someone might have had that reaction. Anyone in the writing-about-TV business lately has probably had this thought at one time or another: “That’s totally relevant to discussing the themes and direction of the new season, but if I write about it, someone out there is going to go nuts over spoilers. Ugh. Do I really need that?”

I’ve begun to think of spoilers as something like a disease or allergy that suddenly spikes up statistically in a population. Some of the reasons for the increase are environmental (i.e., there are more actual spoilers leaking out there). And some are a matter of increased reporting (i.e., people have more outlets to complain about them, and other people are taking offense at info that would not have been “diagnosed” spoilery in the past). Among the factors here:

* More actual spoilage–from outlets racing to being the first to leak big plot twists and from commenters dropping plot bombs without warning because they can (see just about any comments thread for Game of Thrones, e.g.), and from bad editorial decisions (like headlines and hard-to-avoid photos);

* Social media like Twitter and Facebook, where tidbits that were assiduously spoiler-alerted in the original get blurted without warning into your newsfeed by your old college roommate;

* The discovery among networks that acting like your show is full of sensitive spoilers makes it sound more exciting and so is good publicity;

* The (well-intentioned but extreme) position by producers like Mad Men‘s Matthew Weiner that those fans most sensitive about spoilers should set the baseline for public conversation, and thus, that revealing whether there is a staircase in Don Draper’s office is an offense against art;

* The rise of post-air episode reviews and recaps, which have led some people to believe that reviewing anything in advance–an old practice, and common in pretty much every other arts medium–is pointless and exclusionary;

* Writers’ SPOILER ALERT-ing anodyne info in news articles and reviews that they would have never treated thus a few years ago–thus legitimizing the idea that absolutely any advance information about a story is de facto a spoiler. (Disclosure: I have been repeatedly guilty of this myself.)

This is part of online culture now, and while I’ve argued before that so-called spoilers can’t ruin a truly good story, I don’t expect any manifesto or set of rules to change it. (And as I’ve written about recently, the growth of streaming series in outlets like Netflix–where some fans may finish the same season weeks before others do–will probably only intensify the Great Spoiler Wars.)

But I applaud Homeland’s producers for acknowledging a simple fact: good TV should be the subject of discussion and argument, and that discussion can’t take place in a clean-room vacuum scrubbed entirely free of data points. If you try to do that, it becomes insipid, unsubstantiated, and usually, little more than promotion.

(Easy for me to say when I get advance screeners of the shows I write about, right? Touché, but not totally. I hadn’t seen the new episodes of Homeland before reading about it, and that didn’t stop me; I routinely read reviews of movies I haven’t seen and books I haven’t read, and I expect them to give away enough plot and character information to make a worthwhile argument.)

I’m not declaring a free-for-all on spoilage; if anything, I’m probably too circumspect in my advance-of-air writing anyway. This is not even about defining what is and isn’t a legitimate spoiler. But it is time, I think, we decided that those people most sensitive to spoilers don’t get to set the terms of discussion for everyone.

If you like going into a season entirely innocent of new information, great; maybe don’t read advance features. If you really believe saying “the new season picks up from where the finale left off” is egregious spoilage, OK; maybe reading advance reviews is not a thing for you. But understand that it is a thing for other people, and that the entire cultural menu does not need to be formulated for your dietary restrictions.

(Again, I know it’s not that easy: I can be as responsible I want in my own articles and I still can’t keep things from getting splashed onto your Twitter feed without your permission. But, call me heartless, expecting there to be no substantive advance discussion of your favorite TV shows by anyone else is not a reasonable solution.)

In any case, I’m sure we’ll go through this all again pretty soon. Breaking Bad’s final episodes begin Aug. 11, and I have a piece in this week’s TIME about it. Do I think it’s spoilery? No. But if you’re that worried about it, we’ll probably all be happier if you skip it.