Jeff Wells often pisses off the readers of his blog, Hollywood Elsewhere, by blatantly spoiling films that he’s seen very early. Recently he caused a ruckus by discussing an aspect of the ending of No Country For Old Men, which he saw at Cannes. This week he had his readers in paroxysms of rage when he opened a blog entry with a spoiler about the finale of The Sopranos.
It’s a good thing those readers don’t live in New York – the finale of The Sopranos (and the widespread disappointment and frustration with it) made the front pages of the Daily News and the New York Post, and not just in small banners. We’re talking the main front page. Anyone who was saving the finale for DVD, or had it on their TiVo probably had it ruined.
Here’s the thing: there’s an upside to all the devices that allow us to consume our entertainment when we want, and I certainly can’t imagine a world without my TiVo. But while the convenience is there, these devices and the ability to ‘time shift’ are killing the gloriously communal aspect of television. When The Beatles were on Ed Sullivan, crime went down in New York City. Today the hoods would have just downloaded the appearance from YouTube the next day and spent the night stealing hubcaps.
There’s something special about sitting in front of your TV and having an experience with millions of other people, even if none of them are there with you. I remember the old days when, after a particularly great episode of a TV show, I’d be on the phone in a flash to discuss it with friends, when you would go to school the next morning and everyone would be talking about the same thing. Hell, one of my favorite TV memories isn’t even in front of a TV – it’s coming to class the day after the finale of the V mini-series and everybody talking about it.
Now we’re a staggered society; a lot of people see shows on TiVo, or wait for DVD, and the same goes for movies, even big ones. I’ve seen the trend on the CHUD boards of fewer and fewer people coming online Friday night and discussing whatever film they just saw. Maybe they’re waiting for DVD, maybe they’re waiting out the crowds, but either way, that excitement of the moment isn’t there.
And as we become a staggered society we become spoilerphobes. The day after the finale of M*A*S*H, you could talk to everybody about what happened; if they didn’t see it they wanted you to recap it for them, since they wouldn’t get a chance to catch the repeat for months. Now you go to the office or to school and mention last night’s kick-ass show or this weekend’s great movie only to be met with, ‘Hey, I haven’t seen it yet!’
Besides how much this lack of audience cohesion bugs me, I find myself going back and forth on spoilers in general. I know the endings to most classic films before I see them, but that doesn’t change the pleasure of watching them; the reality is that for most great narrative art the joy isn’t the final twist or the shocking revelation, it’s the little moments that take us there. ‘Jack’s flashback is actually a flashforward and we find out that he and Kate got off the island’ sums up the last minutes of the season finale of Lost (bet I get an angry email about spoiling this episode from weeks ago), but it doesn’t give you the tension and the mystery of the moment – tension and mystery I experienced even though I had been spoiled on the episode a week earlier. While I wasn’t as gobsmacked by that finale as much as others in the audience were, I don’t think my enjoyment of the episode was necessarily diminished all that much because the episode featured good storytelling, not gimmicks.
We’re past the point of no return when it comes to the way people consume entertainment – it’ll never fully revert to that communal experience that it once was. But I don’t think that means we have to live in some kind of spoiler-free world once the entertainment in question has been unleashed. If you couldn’t catch The Sopranos on Sunday night, that’s too bad, but don’t expect me to hold my tongue on Monday morning. Half the fun is talking about it.