Saturday, April 27, 2013

Spoiler Warning

As we head into summer movie season and the hyped-up populist hordes (including yours truly) start descending on the theaters en masse, people are starting up the debates about spoilers again. Last week's big title, "Oblivion," is a science-fiction film that features a couple of big twists, and apparently difficult to discuss without getting into the finer details of what happens. Simply comparing "Oblivion" to other films with similar twists was enough to give the whole thing away, so some viewers were understandably sensitive.

I've written before about various tactics I use to avoid spoilers, which boil down to avoiding the places where spoilers are most likely to happen like anonymous message boards and unfiltered Twitter feeds. In the most extreme cases, where I really care about going in with a blank slate, I try to avoid mainstream media coverage too. However, I've been thinking about the situation from the other side. What are the rules for talking about spoilers? How specific do I need to be? When can I assume certain spoilers are common knowledge, or is that the wrong way to think about it? I mean, "Planet of the Apes" may be nearing the half century mark, but there are plenty of people who haven't seen it and don't know that iconic ending. And when is it appropriate to talk about spoilers at all?

Most of the film reviews I've written here are very light on the spoilers because their function is to act as overviews of what I liked and didn't like about the films. In the few cases where I've gotten really into a recent film and wanted to analyze the nuts and bolts, I've ended up writing two reviews, as was the case with last year's "Cabin in the Woods" and "The Dark Knight Rises," making it absolutely clear that the latter articles were very, very spoiler heavy. With "The Dark Knight Rises," so much of my experience with that film was about the years of speculation that went on, I felt the need to acknowledge and address the film in a broader, more meta-y way. "Cabin in the Woods" was a rare movie where its whole premise and structure depended on subversion, so it was hard to talk about it in the depth I wanted to without getting into spoilers.

I tend to be a little more lax on policing myself with retrospective pieces about older movies, specifically the "Great Director" posts. With those, I'm doing my best to highlight a film's best points and to argue why it's the director's best work, so tend to get more specific and more analytical than I would with a regular review. I also admit to being more willing to bring spoilers into reviews of movies that I really didn't like. "The Lorax," for instance, was one I didn't feel bad taking apart point by point, in order to convey the extent of how much I found the film lacking. I didn't spoil anything too major, but I don't think anyone who didn't know the "Lorax" story beforehand was really my target audience for that particular piece, which I made pretty clear.

Where I really have to be careful of warning for spoilers, though, is with the television posts. I don't think I've written a single post related to a specific TV show lately that hasn't started with some variation of "Spoilers for everything that's aired so far," or "Spoilers up to the end of last season." TV shows run for years and most of the big ones lately have been heavily serialized, meaning that the storylines build over multiple episodes and seasons. And what fun is it to engage in the usual water cooler discussions if it's not to talk about the latest developments in the "Game of Thrones" or "Mad Men" universes?

Unfortunately, we're not in the age of three networks and appointment viewing anymore, and people will watch many shows years later than they air, often through other services. Complicating matters is that people don't watch TV shows all at once like they watch movies, so it can take some careful navigating in bigger discussions where you're not sure which participants have seen what percentage of the show in question. After being on the wrong end of a few bad encounters, my rule of thumb is that you shouldn't assume anything. Warn often and warn in detail. However, even a simple "Spoilers ahead!" can save someone from so much grief.

I'm in the middle of "Veronica Mars" right now and reading old recaps and reviews from the AV Club as I go along to get my analysis fix. However, I'm also steering well clear of the comments sections and other discussions, because mystery shows aren't nearly as much fun without the mystery. So you can bet when I do my check-in posts (which are going to be coming up quick at the rate I'm going), you'll know exactly what I'll be spoiling and why.

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