God help you if you spoil for me what happened on last week’s Scandal.
I have cast the person out of my life who told me who Jake Ballard killed before I had a chance to watch the episode. I stormed out of a room and gave the silent treatment to a former friend who watched that Downton Abbey episode “when it aired in the U.K. all those months ago and thought everybody already knew ‘he’ died.” (Hence “former” friend. I DID NOT KNOW.) I have skipped engagement parties and birthday dinners for close friends so as to not miss an important episode of The Good Wife, out of fear I’d be unable to avoid finding out what happened the next day.
I used to think that this was normal behavior. I used to think that we all were the worst versions of ourselves when it came to our beloved TV shows and it was all perfectly acceptable—that I was in good company among people who would forgive a person for skipping their wedding before forgiving someone who told you who died on last night’s Game of Thrones before you had a chance to watch it.
But times are changing. Now I may just be an insane person.
Apparently, a growing number of us actually like spoilers.
The gods of bingewatching themselves, the people at Netflix, along with Harris Poll surveyed over 2,000 people about their relationship to spoilers, and the results are shocking. So shocking that I’m going to spoil them for you. Because apparently we’re all OK with that now!
The study reveals one in five saying it’s “perfectly fine” to share a major plot twist, a starling number in that it is greater than “absolutely no one.” (That number would be bigger had I not murdered the unfortunate souls who it was “perfectly fine” to talk about the ending of Orange Is the New Black around me in the coffee room because they had “assumed” I had watched.)
Even those who aren’t necessarily pro-spoilers seem to be resigned to them, with 76 percent saying that spoilers are simply a fact of life, and, most surprisingly, 94 percent reporting that having a plot twist ruined doesn’t make them want to stop watching the rest of a TV series. In fact, 13 percent say that hearing a spoiler actually makes them more interested in watching a TV show or movie they hadn’t been planning to watch already.
(Oh yeah? Bruce Willis was dead the whole time! You’re welcome, 13 percent of the 3 percent of people who have not yet seen The Sixth Sense! Here’s another shocking spoiler: this is what Haley Joel Osment looks like now! AHHH!)
What’s changed? According to author and cultural anthropologist Grant McCracken, who helped conduct the study, TV’s gotten really good. Really fast.
“Even in just the last couple of months we’ve seen TV shows capture the attention of a family or office place in a way that makes them too important to be removed from the conversation,” says McCracken. “They are the conversation. And everyone is going to have to let us talk about them.”
It’s becoming a situation, he says, where the person who has not yet seen the plot twist that everyone around them wants to talk about is the rude one, not the people who are raring to discuss it in front of them.
“Being told you can’t talk about those TV twists is a little bit like somebody saying we’ve decided to celebrate Thanksgiving a week later this year and everyone else can’t talk about it until then,” McCracken says.
The relationship started to change, McCracken thinks, when Breaking Bad became such a powerful part of people’s lives and office conversation, with a never-seen-before swell of TV fans binging the entire season on Netflix before watching the final season live on AMC each week. Then came the rise of entire-season-at-once dumps of TV shows on streaming services like Netflix—House of Cards and Orange Is the New Black specifically—and the growing number of dramas that are written with whiplash-inducing twists and torturous cliffhangers at the end of every episode each week—think Scandal, Game of Thrones, Mad Men.
“Because of this we’ve seen a shift on who the onus falls,” McCracken says. “As a part of this evolution, people who said the responsibility used to lie with the spoiler not to spoil say it’s shifted so that now it sits with the spoilee. When they understand a spoiler is in the works, it’s up to them to clear out or make their feelings of protest known.”
It’s not that long ago that Hollywood’s greatest case study in Excessive Spoilerphobia, Matthew Weiner, sent television critics a letter along with the advanced screener of the 2012 season five premiere of Mad Men, reading:
“I know you are aware how strongly I feel that the viewers are entitled to have the same experience you just had. My goal every season is first and foremost to entertain the audience, and I know that this is best accomplished when key storylines are not revealed in advance. I am asking you to please join with me to ensure this enjoyment by not revealing any of these answers or other issues. … I truly look forward to your spoiler-free thoughts and insights.”
That’s a polite, totally understandable, not crazy-at-all request. Less understandable and definitely crazy was the note Weiner sent in April ahead of the most recent season premiere that no only asked critics not to spoil the episode, in general, but enumerated in a very specific list the plot points and details that they were not only asked not to reveal, but forbidden from even mentioning.
But this new study indicates that Weiner may be (is definitely) going a wee bit overboard. While I—and apparently Matthew Weiner—become murderously enraged when a headline for a story posted the day after an episode of a TV series I haven’t watched yet but have waiting for me on my DVR reveals a major plot point, one third of the survey’s respondents actually look forward to reading comments that are labeled “Spoiler Alert!” for a show they haven’t, but plan to, watch. Another quarter of respondents actively seek out spoilers.
It wasn’t even a decade ago that we vilified the spoilsports who drove by lines of fans waiting outside a Dallas Barnes & Noble to buy Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince shouting, “Snape kills Dumbledore!” But times have changed.
This is a world where “binging” isn’t a shame-tinged word referring to the tear-soaked box of Oreos sitting in the waste bin. This is a world where the voraciousness with which The Walking Dead and The Game of Thrones kill off main characters is only rivaled by the rabidity with which we all want to mourn them collectively the next morning.
“It used to be all about who shot J.R.?” McCracken says. “For a generation it really was all about the payoff, that big moment. Now that matters less. The journey is as important as the destination. If the destination is spoiled, you still have the journey to go on.”
To that regard, a friend of McCracken had been binging Sons of Anarchy and wanted to know more about one of the characters, so he typed his name in the Google search box. Google autocompleted his typing: “[name of character] dies in Season 3. “I asked if that was the end of the show for him,” McCracken says, “but he said it actually added dramatic tension. Now he was curious about how it was going to happen. It got him more excited.”
That’s fair, and our relationship with spoilers may indeed be changing dramatically as the way we consume pop culture evolves. But I still don’t know who shot J.R. And god help you if you let me know.