Spoiler Alert!

For several months, I’ve been chewing on the idea of how a “spoiler alert” has changed in television now that we’re all watching whatever we want whenever we want to watch it. Since I finished the second season of House of Cards this weekend – fans of the show seem to be walking on eggshells to avoid having the show spoiled for them, or spoiling it for someone else – I thought about what the concept means for that show and for TV viewing habits in general. (Actually, this topic got some media play last month when Jennifer Lawrence had Homeland spoiled for her, but I still feel like there’s a lot to it.)

Not to be meta, but I guess this IS a spoiler alert if you haven’t finished House of Cards. In the very first episode, Zoe Barnes, a journalist who figured prominently in the first season, is pushed in front of a D.C. Metro train and dies. Just like that.

When I first saw the episode, I did not believe she really died. Honestly. I thought she was going to miraculously survive with severe injuries, or the show was going to take some strange supernatural turn and have Zoe come back as a ghost. Kate Mara had been everywhere promoting the show’s new season. On TV, in GQ…I thought there was no way Netflix would let her promote the show so heavily only to have her killed off in the first episode. How could she have done all that press and kept the secret to herself?!

(Seriously, props to Kate Mara. I could never keep a secret like that for so long.)

Technically, any show could use a star to promote a new season and then kill him/her off right away. House of Cards just seems even more prone to spoilers, with its all-episodes-released-at-once distribution model. I was talking about the show with friends tonight, and one person had to leave the room voluntarily because she hasn’t finished and doesn’t want anything to be spoiled. Googling “House of Cards episode recap” turns up dozens of articles with headlines that basically read: “SPOILER ALERT HOUSE OF CARDS SEASON 2 EPISODE 5 OH MY GOSH DON’T READ IF YOU HAVEN’T WATCHED BECAUSE SO MANY CRAZY THINGS HAPPEN!” Which, as a fan of the show, I appreciate, because I really would like to discover surprises for myself. House of Cards doesn’t air at 9pm EST/8pm CT like most other shows. Since no one really knows when others are watching it, people are taking caution not to spoil anything. With a show that airs on actual television, there’s little concern for spoiling because, hey, you could have watched it at 9pm EST/8pm CT like the rest of us. If you find out something you didn’t want to know, that’s your fault for not avoiding the Internet.

Spoiler alerts reach a whole new level now because Netflix, HBO Go, Amazon, etc. give us instant access to shows that ended months, years, or decades ago. Last spring, I started watching The West Wing and inadvertently had the show spoiled for me right off the bat when I looked at the show’s Wikipedia article. I knew from the get-go that the President had multiple sclerosis, that Josh and Donna became a thing and that Zoe Bartlet was kidnapped.

That, of course, was my own fault. I should have known the article would spoil a lot for me. But at what point do we expect that everyone has the same frame of reference for TV shows? Who’s already finished a series, and who’s just discovering it?

I don’t think every television review needs to come with a “SPOILER ALERT!” headline. I don’t expect anyone to keep The West Wing a secret from me because most people finished it eight years ago. This whole concept is just fascinating – the way it changes our viewing habits and the way it alters our conversations about what we watch. In one circle of friends, you could have two people who binge-watched House of Cards, one who’s halfway through the series, and a handful who don’t care at all and have a different TV obsession altogether. Instead of one big conversation about the same show, we’ll have a few tiny conversations about a few shows. And as long as the people who are still working through House of Cards don’t find out that FRANK BECOMES PRESIDENT, I suppose that’ll have to do.

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