Spoil everything. Give away all the endings and, while you’re at it, reveal all the beginnings and middles, too. As an audience, we’ve become far too obsessed with spoilers: flagging them, evading them, burying them far from human eyes like nuclear waste in Yucca Mountain. We argue spoiler etiquette. Then we reargue it, when new technology makes the old rules obsolete. There is a simpler path. Free the spoilers! You will, in turn, free yourself.
This was my reaction, anyway, after spending a delirious and hypnotic hour or so clicking through Netflix’s new Living With Spoilers site, an ingenious bit of marketing/time-wasting that attacks spoilers in a few different ways. You can find out what kind of spoiler you are (if you are, indeed, the spoiling type) — the Clueless Spoiler, the Coded Spoiler, the Shameless Spoiler, etc. — as well as add your vote to which famous spoilers now belong in the public domain. (The Sixth Sense, yes, of course; Revenge season three, too soon.) But the absolute best, most diabolical part of the site is Spoil Yourself, or what many have called Spoiler Roulette. Click the button, spoil a movie or TV show. Click it again. Spoil another. It’s that easy. And addictive. And terribly, horribly fun.
The spoiler roulette simply reveals to you the climactic moment of a film, show, or season, in which some huge twist is revealed. Some of these [SPOILER ALERT] are iconic spoilers — the untwisting of Verbal Kint’s limp — while some are more recent. (Think “Ricin cigarette.”) I’m sorry — were those spoilers? Maybe you haven’t yet seen that famously twisty film from 1995? Or you haven’t got around to all of Breaking Bad? Or you still think “Red Wedding” is a song by Billy Idol? Which means your whole life is still structured around acrobatically evading those toxic informational tidbits that will absolutely, positively destroy your ability to feel human pleasure from entire films or seasons of television.
See, that right there is the whole problem with spoilers.
Thanks to a climate in which pretty much everything is available to be watched any time we want to watch it — in other words, we’ve achieved total hedonic mastery of when, why, and how we watch — all that’s left to us is what. As in, what’s going to happen? Which is a primal question! It drives all storytelling. But it is not the primary pleasure of storytelling, any more than the primary pleasure of a well-chosen gift from a loved one is the fact that we don’t know what’s in the box before we unwrap it.
Yet our unhealthy concern over twists, turns, shocks, solutions, jolts, reversals, and reveals is slowly spoiling us as an audience. (HOMONYM ALERT: I mean spoiling like milk, not like brats — though it’s kind of spoiling us like brats, too.) Not to mention that it’s also having a detrimental effect on the people who make the movies and TV that we desperately don’t want spoiled. If you don’t believe me, consider the example of Damon Lindelof, who’s clearly still haunted by all the public disappointment over the way that his series Lost ended. [SPOILER ALERT: Disappointingly.]
Speaking of Lost: All six seasons of that landmark show are currently available for viewing on Netflix. (The whole Living With Spoilers site is — SPOILER — a big marketing tool for shows on Netflix.) Last week, on the occasion of the tenth anniversary of the show’s premiere, Grantland TV critic Andy Greenwald made the wise suggestion that we revisit Lost not as the Show That Ended Poorly, but as 121 episodes of immensely enjoyable television. Lost, to be fair, played a large role in the rise of Spoiler Nation, with all its dropped clues and red herrings — it’s like the show itself became dangerously addicted to mystery even as the audience become addicted to the show. Yet, ten years later, Lost stands, like some vast abandoned city, as the greatest monument to the lunacy of spoiler culture. All the blood, sweat, and gaffing tape that went into producing 121 hours of high-quality television has all been reduced to a single, final, unsatisfying, unstuck landing.
Is there pleasure in sticking the landing? Of course. But here’s the thing — it happens so infrequently. Breaking Bad managed it, arguably — yet looking back on last year’s ongoing discussion of the show’s upcoming finale, I’m a little depressed at how much of it centered on speculative How’s It Going to End!?! Once what happened happened [SPOILER ALERT: Nah, I’m just kidding. Go watch it.], we collectively moved on to unwrapping the next great mystery box. Just a few months later, True Detective, for all its interesting strengths and flaws, was swallowed mid-season in a deluge of online gnomic mumbling about what it all meant and where it was all going and what it would all add up to — the Yellow King! THE YELLOW KING! — as if every good TV show is a treasure map to be parsed and decoded and used to eventually locate a bounty, rather than an unfurling story about humans and life.
Those kinds of discussions happen too, of course — all the discussions happen these days — but they happen too often in the shadow of our collective spoiler mania. (And are hampered, of course, by an ongoing sideline chorus of “No Spoilers! No Spoilers!”) I love a good twist (sort of) as much as the next person, but I also understand how waiting for the big reveal distracts me from everything passing before my eyes and ears right now. I don’t think Citizen Kane — to use a shopworn example — is a lesser experience if [SPOILER ALERT!] you already know that Rosebud is a sled. In fact, the sled has nothing to do with what makes the movie great. Or, put another way, the single greatest cinematic spoiler-maestro of our lifetime is M. Night Shyamalan, and he rode his weird addiction to big reveals right into artistic ruin.
Anticipation is certainly one of the pleasures fine films and TV can offer us, but it’s not the only one, and frankly, it’s probably the cheapest. The thrill of a good twist is like artistic flash paper: It excites for a moment but offers little lasting wonder. If you’ve ever seen a good film with a big reveal, you probably immediately had the urge to watch the whole thing again — and, in my experience, the second viewing is always more satisfying than the first. Because you notice all the things you missed while you were busy waiting for the twist.