Fractured TV viewing expands modern definition of a "spoiler" to ridiculous lengths
It may be the biggest annoyance about writing on TV in the modern age. And Portlandia nailed it.
For those who remain unaware, Portlandia is a cute chunk of satire created by eccentric creative minds Fred Armisen (NBC’s Saturday Night Live) and Carrie Brownstein (Sleater-Kinney, Wild Flag). It’s an often-amusing collection of sketches sending up the preposterously politically correct, hippie-tinged liberal-to-a-fault town where twentysomethings go to retire, Portland Ore.
And in one cheeky bit, they managed to encapsulate the one phrase sure to make this TV critic’s blood boil with the rage of a sci-fi geek forced to watch every scene in Star Wars featuring Jar Jar Binks:
The sketch features Armisen, Brownstein and two other actors playing an impossibly yuppie pair of couples trying to have dinner conversation about their favorite TV shows. But no matter which title they bring up – from Breaking Bad to Mad Men to The Wire, which went off the air in 2008! – someone yells “spoiler alert!” because they haven’t gotten around to watching all the DVDs or hadn’t seen their DVR or hadn’t caught up with it on Netflix.
This, my friends, is the unintended consequence of having so much television at your beck and call. At the risk of sounding like I’m ready for an AARP membership, there was a time not long ago when you could talk about a TV show after it aired, safe in the knowledge that those who didn’t see the latest episode had few options for catching up in a different way.
But in a world filled with digital video recorders, online streaming services such as Hulu and Netflix, DVD releases of popular cable TV shows months after they have aired and on demand cable options, people can howl “spoiler alert” when you try talking about a show that aired last year.
A few readers got upset when I revealed that lost child Sophia has been turned into a zombie on The Walking Dead, even though the story was published months after that crucial episode aired. I had to slap a “spoiler alert” warning on a story about how John Lithgow’s Trinity Killer had murdered Dexter Morgan’s wife Rita on Showtime’s Dexter eight months after the episode aired (I bet somebody out there just got mad that I didn’t warn about the spoiler even now)
And the modern flow of television across borders doesn't help at all. Canadian and British TV viewers have had to deal with getting a look at groundbreaking shows such as The Sopranos months and years after U.S. media outlets have discussed them to death.
So it has been a curious sort of turnabout to see American audiences grow so enamored of British drama Downton Abbey, which airs in England months before PBS re-broadcasts it stateside on its Masterpiece series. This year, that's led to a massive spoiler for any fans on the Internet, as fans across the pond reacted badly to the way producers wrote out actor Dan Stevens, who left his role as Matthew Crawley after filming the season now playing on PBS. (don't worry, I won't spoil it, but you can read what happens by clicking here if you can't wait.)
Before long, you’re feeling a bit like the hapless dinner party in the Portlandia sketch, yelling "spoiler alert" every time anyone tries to broach conversation about TV shows that aired years ago, because you haven’t gotten around to watching them yet.
As professional TV explainer, I’ve decided a few things. First, knowing the details of a plot twist rarely ruins the show for me, because so much of television is seeing the action. So relax with the spoiler alert stuff, already.
Second, my statute of limitations for writing on plot twists has to expire when the show airs. The sports page doesn’t sit on game stories because some viewers have the Super Bowl on TiVo; I can’t sit back, either.
It’s amusing that, in a world where movie trailer often give away the entire plot of a film in 2 minutes, TV fans still get upset when you talk about twists such as Breaking Bad’s DEA agent Hank Schrader figuring out that his brother-in-law Walter White is the biggest meth dealer in New Mexico while using his bathroom.
Oh. Um, that was a spoiler alert, by the way.