Idiot Box: Snape kills Dumbledore

October 31, 2012

It’s a trauma we’ve all experienced—you’re sitting on your couch, having just hit the “play” button on Netflix/Megavideo (R.I.P.)/whatever other illegal site you use, geared up for the season finale you’ve been dying to watch. Your roommate comes in, and glances at the screen. “Oh, is that Dexter? I couldn’t believe it when Trinity killed Rita!”

The semi-murderous rage we feel when someone ruins the big twist in a TV show—you might be feeling it right now, if you happen to be planning on watching the fourth season (and last one worth your time) of Dexter—is something that can destroy friendships and lead one into a hermetic lifestyle. There’s something about that moment when the shocker happens, whether you were completely floored or totally called it three episodes ago, that really gets us television-watchers going. And when someone takes that away from us, intentionally or not, it makes us wish we could selectively erase that knowledge from our brains just to get the experience the director intended.

Back in the day, when bread cost a nickel and toasters were a luxury, television was a shared experience. Sure, you could spoil movies and books, but TV shows aired at one time and one time only and everybody watched their plots unfurl simultaneously, making events like the death and subsequent reincarnation of J.R. on Dallas part of America’s collective memory.

Then came VCRs, DVRs, and finally Internet streaming, which allows anyone to watch any television show ever aired at whatever pace he or she feels like going. Suddenly, we’re all experiencing shows at different times, and unintentional spoiling becomes easier than ever; I had that Dexter finale ruined for me before I’d seen a single episode of the show, because some jackass television commentator had to rerun the scene where her body is found.

The reason why we hate spoilers is how they affect our viewership; rather than paying attention the way we’re intended to, we’re looking for clues about what we know is going to happen, we’re analyzing characters’ actions and relationships with that in mind, and we’re just not as overcome with emotion when the twist finally takes place. It makes the show less engaging, less riveting, and less worth the time it takes to watch it. Right?

Maybe not. Researchers from UC San Diego found earlier this year that people for whom short stories of various genres had been spoiled reported enjoying the stories more than those who didn’t know about the endings.

While this research may seem like an unbelievable twist in the tale of your enjoyment of books, movies, and television, think about your own spoiler experiences: I, for one, didn’t give up on Dexter once I knew about Rita, nor did I turn off The Wire during season five when I found out that Omar—okay fine, I’ll spare you that one.

Point being, we don’t watch television solely for plot; if we did, we’d read synopses online rather than spending hours actually watching the episodes. And granted, there are some shows structured a little like mystery novels, where the fun of watching them is trying to figure out who the killer/criminal/father (for you Maury fans) is—think about how much an episode of Law & Order sucks when you know who did it and what the verdict’s going to be. But for other shows, at least ones that are well executed, the story is just a small part of why we keep tuning in.

Television, unlike books or movies, is a multisensory, long-term affair, with plenty to engage us besides just plot. And unless it’s the series finale that’s been spoiled—in which case, at least you’ve had the whole rest of the show to enjoy it—ruining a TV twist isn’t like finding out the killer in an Agatha Christie book or that Batman doesn’t actually die at the end of The Dark Knight Rises. It might inform the way you take in the storyline for a little while, and then the twist happens and the show moves on. There will be more plot turns to come, and hopefully you’ve put enough fear into your roommate that she won’t tell you which Mad Men character kills himself at the end of season five.

Spoiler alert: It’s Lane.

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Mad Men fan

Dammit Leigh!


Although he was shot, JR Ewing did not die and resurrect. Rather, his brother Bobby did. Even if it is possible to be a spoiler 30 years after the episode, you didn’t spoil Dallas; I did.