the take

Spoilers: In Defense of the American Watercooler

Who will survive??? Courtesy of Fox, ABC, NBC, HBO, Warner Bros.

BUFFY DIES. That’s right, you heard us. At the end of Buffy the Vampire Slayer, season five, Buffy Summers leaps off a platform into a dimensional rift, saving the world (and her sister Dawn) but killing herself in the process. Oh, and later, she comes back to life, but then her mom dies, and then she has a lot of hate sex with Spike, and Tara gets shot and Willow turns evil and Anya is ripped to pieces by ancient vampires.*

Oh no! Did we just spoil things for you? It may seem ridiculous to tag these events, which first aired on television between 2001 and 2003, as spoilers, but surely there are people out there who are interested in Buffy but haven’t gotten around to watching it yet. Hell, maybe someone just dropped 99 bucks on the complete seven-season DVD package, is halfway through season four, and just had everything spoiled for her. Nevertheless, most likely no one is going to yell at us for revealing this information five years after the fact. But what if we’d revealed it in 2004, when DVDs of the final season were released? Or a week after these episodes aired? Or the day after they aired? In the era of DVDs, Netflix, BitTorrent, and iTunes, how soon is too soon — and how late is too late — to discuss the plot of a TV show or a movie?

To put it another way, when are you allowed to talk with your friends about what happens on Lost tonight?

Once upon a time, we all watched TV together. When we learned who shot J.R., we learned at the exact same time as 41 million American households. When we watched the end of M*A*S*H, we saw those choppers fly away with 106 million Americans. Even less popular shows, like, say, Buffy, were a shared experience for fans in a pre-DVR, pre–On Demand, pre-DVD age. In the old days the plot twists of beloved TV shows were news, because they happened to everyone at the same time.

Now, as the distribution model for television fractures, the window in which a show can be watched has expanded in every direction from the one-moment-on-one-night model. Want to watch a Wire episode a week in advance? This season, thanks to HBO On Demand, you could. Want to watch tonight’s episode of Lost some other time? Fire up the DVR, or order it on iTunes, or watch ABC’s “enhanced” version a week later. Interested in Big Love, but too cheap to order HBO? Get the DVDs from Netflix. These days, the only shows that are treated as day-and-date viewing are season finales, or competitive reality shows like American Idol — because those shows are not about plot, they are about results, less like a movie than like a sport.

At the same time, the outlets for discussion of our favorite shows have never been so rich or rewarding. It used to be that if you were a fan of The X-Files who wanted to talk about Mulder and Scully’s adventures on Monday morning, you needed to hope that someone else in your office was also a fan — then you two could huddle by the watercooler, exchanging theories and marveling at the sexual tension. If no one in your office watched The X-Files, you either needed to get someone into the show, or else talk to your dog. Now, dozens of Websites exist to discuss your favorite shows — there are, in fact, thriving message boards even for older shows like … The X-Files.

So it’s unfortunate that the maturation of the virtual watercooler has coincided with the death of watercooler culture. The Internet offers plenty of places to discuss your favorite shows, but they’re fiefdoms of debate, hidden behind walls of spoiler warnings, and the conversations suffer as a result. The office isn’t safe either, full of people giving themselves earmuffs the instant you bring up a recent fictional death. In a way, the people who don’t watch the shows on time, but still demand that we respect their right to remain strategically ignorant, are the real spoilers — the ones whose slow pace keep us from enjoying the postshow discussion as much as we enjoy the shows themselves.

We’re not calling for an end to the freedom that DVRs and DVDs and On Demand bring. That’d be like fighting against sunshine. And we’re not making the Rosenbaumian argument that knowing a story ahead of time does not in any way detract from the pleasure of watching it, because it does. But we’re making a simple request: Start thinking differently about the shows you love. Stop taking them for granted. Start treating them like sports.

You wouldn’t DVR the Super Bowl and get angry at someone the next day if they asked, “How ‘bout those Giants?” By the same token, if you love The Wire so much that you’d be angry to find out who died before the DVDs get released, it’s time to pony up for HBO. If you love Lost so much that accidentally reading about a plot twist the morning after an episode runs breaks your heart, it’s time to stop DVR-ing the series and start watching it live. You’ll be happy you did, and you’ll be happy to return to the cultural conversation. Let’s bring a return of watercooler culture to the offices, chat rooms, and entertainment blogs of America. We’re not arguing for spoilers; we’re arguing against letting yourself get spoiled. Suck it up, America. Watch the damn shows.

Is our take on this totally off-base? Are we being heartless? Are you pissed at us for spoiling Buffy? Let us know in the comments!

Related: Spoilers: The Official Vulture Statutes of Limitations

Follow-up: Academic Blogger Takes Vulture’s Spoiler Policy to Task, Condemns Us to Hell

* Hilariously, we got several of these details wrong. It’s been a while since we watched Buffy all the way through, so we forgot that her mom dies before the end of season five. Also, the thing about Anya is wrong in some way we don’t understand. Anyways, maybe we didn’t spoil you!

Spoilers: In Defense of the American Watercooler