A little while ago I was quietly relaxing after overcoming the crippling self-doubt that accompanies pressing the publish button on the new post page when it suddenly occurred to me.
“Oh no,” I said to the room at large. “I forgot to spoiler tag that post.”
“Go now,” my sister replied, with just enough feigned solemnity to register the simultaneous seriousness and ridiculousness of the situation, “before it’s too late.”
Spoilers used to be of fairly limited concern. Watching a TV show was an essentially regulated experience tied to a specific time of the week, so that everyone could reasonably be assumed to possess the same amount of knowledge about a show’s plot. And without the possibility of discussing new films on the internet, the sources for movie spoilers were limited to overly revelatory journalistic criticism and indiscrete fellow moviegoers.
The advent of PVRs and streaming services, however, has given us a great deal of freedom in deciding when to watch our choice of shows, and our seemingly insatiable desire to register and discuss our opinions of everything we watch on social media has opened up an array of new spaces for spoilers to lurk, making them increasingly difficult to avoid. “One social-media click,” Doug Gross laments, “and you can spoil some of television’s biggest moments for other people who may be enjoying the same shows at a more leisurely pace.”
Like countless other commentators, Gross outlines a series of tips to guide both “the potential spoiler and the potential spoilee” through an environment in which the rules of discretion for talking about movies and TV shows have yet to be set. There is a wide range of definitions of what constitutes a spoiler, and an equally wide range of approaches to dealing with them both on social media and in everyday speech. But there is a growing sense, even among the least spoiler averse of us, that we have to watch what we say. Even some of my professors seemed reluctant to spoil the plot points of certain movies before screenings, despite the fact that academic writing on film tends to assume familiarity with the movies in question and is therefore quite cavalier when it comes to spoilers.
This widespread spoiler consciousness hasn’t arisen solely due to the hazards inherent in the technological innovations that have allowed us to watch and discuss TV and movies in a wide array of new ways, but can also be traced to a shift in the type of plots that tend to be the focus of those discussions and have therefore become more prominent in both mediums.
Increasingly, a great deal of TV shows and movies rely on surprise as their main narrative effect. Shows like Scandal and How to Get Away with Murder – and anything else that stems from their creator Shonda Rhimes – have built a brand identity around their ability to surprise their viewers, on the fact that each week will bring a new and startling twist. The TV spots promoting the recent Grey’s Anatomy season finale on its Canadian network, composed entirely of a montage of extreme gestures and expressions, with a voiceover declaring that nobody could possibly predict what was going to happen next, tried to draw viewers in on the promise of shock.
This emphasis on the twist has led to the idea that surprise is one of the most significant emotional responses a film or TV show can elicit. As Darren Franich argues, “the idea that the most important reaction to a movie or TV show or anything really is visceral gut-punch ‘did NOT see that coming!’ astonishment” has become one of the principle evaluative criteria for the media we consume. And since surprise is dependent on restricting audiences’ knowledge, making sure they don’t know or can’t guess the revelation before it’s revealed, spoilers and their regulation become ever more crucial.
The difficulty is that, due to the basic extremity of the experience, surprise makes us want to discuss what we just saw, and this in turn puts a great deal more importance on the period of time immediately following the release of a movie or show. If surprise is paramount, and a plot can be spoiled by an indiscrete tweet, then you sure as hell better see the thing as soon as possible or risk not only being spoiled, but also being left out of the cultural loop which has become increasingly focused on the moment of release because of the incredibly tenuous nature of surprise.
This immediacy effect is compounded by streaming services that allow viewers to choose how much of a show to watch when, so that the flow of story is no longer scheduled, no longer subject to strict viewing habits. A great deal of television studies centers on the idea of the communal mass audience, born from the limited choices of network TV and the need to watch each episode as it aired. Spoilers were less of an issue in the network era before VCRs and PVRs, when the viewer’s choice was limited to either watching a show at a specific date and time or not watching it at all, whereas streaming and DVRs open a much wider array of temporal choices – watch it when it airs, record it and watch it later, record the whole series as it airs and then watch it all at once, download the whole series and binge watch, watch one episode at a time whenever it’s convenient, etc.
When a show is released on streaming services like Netflix, instead of watching week on week with a mass audience, with the communality of that audience built around a specific time of the week, now, with entire seasons of a show released at once, that communality is more restricted to the immediate event of the show being released on the service. The ability to choose when we watch a show makes it impossible to determine the level of knowledge of the people around us, so that social interactions surrounding TV become trickier; the question shifts from “Did you see M*A*S*H* last night?” to “How far into Daredevil are you?” We can no longer be certain how much anyone has seen because watching is no longer temporally dependent, save for the fact that we can only watch something once it has been released. Coupled with our increasing spoiler consciousness, the ability to watch at out leisure has shifted onto TV some of the temporal frontloading that tends to get attached to film releases, in which the opening weekend is seemingly the only thing that matters.
The Grey’s Anatomy TV trailer that touted the season finale’s resistance to being predicted also suggests that the importance of immediacy is not only due to technological innovation and the widespread use of a particular narrative strategy, but to a coincident rise in the importance of anticipation.
Because each new film or TV show has to compete in a market that is full of other choices that might tempt audiences into spending their money and time elsewhere, it has become increasingly important for films and TV shows to make us want to watch them long before their release. The trailers, set reports, tweets from directors and actors, and teasing photos from directors’ social media are all geared toward keeping an upcoming release in our minds and to generate excitement for the day when that release will finally come. As Jonathan Gray argues, the sheer mass of promotional material and its sheer inescapability on billboards, website banner ads, and social media, means that we are constantly encouraged to think about what new films will be like before we choose to go see them.
While we always had to anticipate what a film or TV show was going to be like in order to decide whether or not to watch it based on the information available to us (from trailers and posters, but also from knowledge of cast, crew, and genre), triggering this form of “speculative consumption” has become a central marketing strategy, especially in the case of major blockbuster releases that rely so heavily on the returns of those opening weekends. As a result, Gray argues, a great deal of the “business of media…is conducted before watching, when hopes, expectations, worries, concerns and desires coalesce” into a projection of what the film or TV show we chose might be.
Marvel has elevated triggering “speculative consumption” to an art, by not only cueing anticipation through media surrounding the production and release of each of the studio’s films, but by embedding hints and suggestions about the stories to come in the films themselves, so that each film essentially becomes a trailer for the next. While each successive film comes to an end with its narrative more or less resolved, there is essentially no such thing as narrative closure in the MCU, because we know that there will be another film featuring the characters we have just seen, a sequel that picks up that plot point that wasn’t entirely resolved, or that seemingly incongruous storyline that was hastily introduced and disregarded. We know because Marvel head Kevin Feige has already laid out the next few years of anticipation in the “Phase Three” outline released last October: a timeline of nine films, complete with logos, release dates, and bits of casting information, presented like a tarot reading in PowerPoint. Before the world saw Avengers: Age of Ultron it was therefore already anticipating Captain America: Civil War and Avengers: Infinity War Part 1 and Part 2 (Infinity Wars? Can you have more than one if it’s infinite?).
Because of social media, speculative consumption can also now be a mass activity, as we go online to discuss each new photo or trailer in order to parse it for clues about storylines or character development. The accumulated previews and teases have the curious result of getting us talking intently about something that essentially does not exist yet. No one has seen a single frame of Infinity War, but we’re already building an idea of what it is going to be like, looking back over past films for clues in order to speculate on plot and character so that by the time its release date rolls around a version of the film composed of all the speculative projections of Marvel fans will have already existed for three years. The moment of the film’s release will therefore not only represent the moment when spoilers will start to circulate in earnest, but also the moment when that speculated film collides with the real one.
Most of our engagement with film and television stories is inherently future-oriented. As we watch, we anticipate what’s going to happen next, try to makes hypotheses according to what we know so far, and then make new ones when we’re given new information. While the anticipation of future narrative events is heightened in certain genres (namely mysteries), every type of film cues us to anticipate what will happen next, to try and extrapolate the unfolding narrative from what we have already seen. The emphasis on speculative consumption extends that anticipation well beyond the boundaries of viewing, so that the act of anticipating can now begin well before the film starts to tell its story.
The type of surprise-oriented storytelling that’s typical of shows like Scandal is particularly suited to the process of cueing speculation, because being surprised by a plot point means we have failed to adequately anticipate it, therefore encouraging us to anticipate all the more. A surprise subverts our expectations, forces us to abandon our hypotheses about what will happen next and to form new ones.
Moments of surprise also tend to be moments of storytelling bravura. There is a sense that the writers have pulled something off that’s hard to pull off, either because it’s getting increasingly difficult to keep storylines under wraps, or because in being trained to anticipate surprises we have become harder to surprise.
Seeking out or spreading spoilers, however, is playing against the rules because it denies those writers even the possibility of shocking us.
While long term speculative consumption of the Marvel variety thrives on the continuous release of information, and this can occasionally lead to the feeling that we’ve already seen the best a film has to offer before we’ve actually seen the whole thing, the point of the anticipation machine is that we haven’t seen it. It may seem odd that we are living in an era of both heightened spoiler consciousness and an ever-increasing emphasis on the type of pre-promotion represented by concept art, set photos, teaser teasers (which, if I may digress, I despise beyond all reason. Seriously. If CSI: Cyber has taught us anything, it’s that I can kill you through the internets, so don’t ever send me a link to one if you value your life.), posters, and trailers, but spoilers are the necessary corollary of speculative consumption because they suggest that there is always something left in reserve that is worth anticipating, and therefore worth going to theatres to discover, tuning in for on TV, or ordering a Netflix subscription to see. And also worth seeing right away, so that whatever the film or TV show has to offer remains in reserve until it unfolds before us.
I tend to largely stay away from spoilers and anticipation generating media because I don’t like the feeling of déjà vu that too much exposure to promotional material can generate. This policy only extends so far, of course. I’ll watch trailers with relish, but I never watch clips. If an actor is promoting a film I plan on seeing on some talk show or another I promptly change the channel when the hosts throw to the clip. I’ll look at posters and production stills, and may even read an official synopsis here and there, but I rarely read reviews, and I stay away from all social media rumblings.
But that’s me.
I like to be surprised, to have a film or TV show take me in an unexpected direction. Other people have different rules and different definitions of what constitutes a spoiler. It’s inevitable, however, that we will be exposed to some base level of knowledge about a film or TV show before we see it, because it’s impossible to fully avoid promotional material. Generating anticipation is crucial to an industry that’s constantly competing for our attention, but in order to keep it there has to be the promise of something yet to come. Photos, posters, set reports, and trailers will therefore continue to abound, and so will spoilers.
What’s your spoiler policy? Do you think the level of pre-promotion has gotten out of hand? Spoiler etiquette is still up in the air, so let me know what you think the comments.
Darren Franich, “The New Rules of Spoilers,” Entertainment Weekly, January 18, 2015, http://www.ew.com/article/2014/02/20/spoiler-rules-entertainment-geekly
Jonathan Gray, Show Sold Separately: Promos, Spoilers, and Other Media Paratexts (New York: New York University Press, 2010).
Doug Gross, “Spoiler alert! Negotiating social media in the DVR age,” CNN, February 25, 2014, http://www.cnn.com/2014/02/25/tech/social-media/spoilers-social-media/ [This article ironically features a pretty huge spoiler in the form of a picture from an infamous episode in the third season of Game of Thrones. Click at your own risk.]