I have nothing to add, except: he makes a lot of points that I agree with!
We're fine with giving spoiler alerts. Just don't push it, OK?
Wednesday, January 17, 2007
Warning -- there are no spoilers in this story. Then again, there might be.
It used to be that producers (and the networks that aired their shows) were ultraparanoid about critics giving away too much information in reviews. They still are -- but the producers are now joined by a demanding group of television viewers who, aided by TiVo and DVD box sets -- are crying foul over alleged slips of information.
This season, as the first four episodes of "24" were shipped to critics, the producers sent along a letter urging restraint (such a letter is now regularly wrapped around the advanced copies of most series): "Last year, you complied with our request that you not reveal the most explosive plot twists in your reviews and we genuinely appreciated it. As a result, we're pleased again to offer all four of the opening episodes for your review," wrote Howard Gordon, an executive producer.
He put "all four" in bold type so we'd be excited. But did you also notice the threat? "As a result." Through the thin veil you get the point -- mess up this year and you might not get previews next year.
For his part, Gordon added more bold letters and even underlined for emphasis that critics shouldn't give away key points, "specifically the exact nature of how Jack is expected to 'sacrifice' himself, and what happens in the final minutes of the first and fourth hours."
Fair enough. At least two of those points were big twists.
Though what constitutes key points is certainly up for debate, most critics did not reveal the three elements that Gordon asked be kept secret. That said, some critics revealed almost nothing, barely writing about the plot at all, and others trod heavily in their descriptions of other scenes, blithely revealing what are now commonly referred to as "spoilers." The Los Angeles Times was particularly informative about what happens to certain characters.
This week, ABC sent out the next episode of "Lost," which has been off the air for what seems like eight months (and returns Feb. 7), noting in an accompanying press release -- in helpful italics: "We kindly ask that you use your discretion in reviewing this show by not revealing any plot details that contain spoilers."
What, we can't tell everyone that Jack kills Ben on the operating table? (Kidding.)
Of course, this advice from ABC conveniently ignores the fact that "Lost" is so confusing that nearly everything could conceivably be a spoiler. Serialized dramas are a minefield for critics, and some viewers believe that there are myriad clues in "Lost" that will provide answers to the "mythology" now playing out. What those clues are depend on what viewers choose to believe. Either way, the end result is often a barrage of angry e-mail as critics across the country unwittingly step in it, so to speak.
(One reader was annoyed at my "24" review because she had avoided Fox's many previews for the coming season and when I mentioned a plot point already revealed in the promos, she was livid.)
These are dicey times for critics. I'm a believer that a lot of television is terrible, so why take away whatever joy a viewer might get from a surprise twist? I've read reviews from some critics and thought, "Why not just print the script?" But it can be equally annoying when little or nothing is written about the plot.
Now, I've certainly let out a few spoilers by accident. I'll admit to that -- but roughly half of what picky readers say are spoilers do not, in fact, qualify as such. Not everything that happens in an hour is a secret that needs to be kept.
The current danger in reviewing -- of setting off the spoiler alert police -- involves technology and the changing nature of how people watch television.
First there's TiVo -- or any other DVR. (I'd include VCRs here, but most people can't use them effectively enough to tape and store.)
Some people will record a show on Monday, then another on Tuesday, three on Wednesday, etc. -- until they are digitally stacked up, ready to watch. Now, let's say that on Friday I write a column about Show A that televised the previous Monday, but that hasn't yet been watched by Picky Viewer from San Francisco. Perhaps, to tap into this new media thing, I even blogged about Show A on Tuesday. Either way, Picky Viewer in San Francisco reads some spoilers online Tuesday, or in the paper on Friday, and fires off a letter.
Normally, in this TiVo Age, I've been trying to employ a one-week "spoiler alert" policy on shows that people may have recorded but not yet watched (an event I call TiNo). Often, this is not good enough for people. They want spoiler alerts lasting beyond one week. Or they vilify me for not using a spoiler alert (for a show, I should remind you, that has already aired).
I try to do better. I try not to get annoyed about doing my job in a timely fashion.
And while getting dinged for lacking a spoiler alert up to a week after the original airing of Show A is sometimes aggravating, it pales in comparison to getting lectured because Picky Viewer in San Francisco has read a deconstruction of Show A on my blog. You know -- on the Web. Where people smirk at you for not live blogging. Soon is often not soon enough -- but sometimes way too soon for others.
Honestly, I got a few e-mail messages once when I deconstructed "The Sopranos," and the e-mailers read the spoiler-laden recap (all the way through, plus reader comments, it became clear), and demanded that I put up some kind of warning. And here I thought the headline might have been a red flag.
(Hey, even I have shows stacked up like planes over La Guardia on my three TiVos. People ruin plot points for me all the time.)
But where I draw the line is the DVD spoiler. You'd be surprised how often this comes up. Let's say I'm reviewing Season 6 of "24" or Season 3 of "Lost" and trying to adhere to the pleas of producers not to give away twists and surprises. I write the review and then receive five or eight e-mail messages from readers who are using Netflix to plow through the first two or five seasons and they complain that I dared to mention something that happened three seasons ago.
I think it's great that more and more people are buying DVDs or renting them and going on huge marathon benders by the fireplace (and through cold weekends) with lovers and friends. But expecting me to hide secrets revealed two or three years prior? Unacceptable.
And yet, I can also understand. You may have noticed that I adore a little show called "The Wire." Well, while deconstructing Season 4 on my blog recently, a lot of people happily wrote that after years of prodding (from me and their friends who were diehard fans) they went out and rented the previous seasons to catch up (great!) and were then rudely informed by me that a major character was killed off in Season 3 before they got to that episode (sorry!).
See, even now I write "major character" instead of the character's name. I've been scarred. So I give you this kind reminder: Please watch your television in a timely manner.
I agree. On wikipedia, they put spoiler warnings for almost anything. In, for example, Return of the Jedi. Jesus Christ, the movie's almost 25 years old. If my revealing that Darth Vader is Luke's father ruins it for you, then that's too bad. There has to be a statute of limitations on these things.
Whedon was right, this episode was a big step up from the previous five. It was so good, in fact, that if the series reverts back to the Echo-on-assignment format of the first few weeks, it'll be kind of a letdown.