I had some mental gymnastics when I was writing my recent Walking Dead review when it came to talking about the events of the season. When I write reviews I generally try to avoid spoilers, but on this occasion I just didn’t think I could write an honest review without giving away key twists and turns of the plot, all the way up to the last few minutes of the season. Very specific events and twists and turns were absolutely pivotal to my opinion on the quality and enjoyability of the show and I decided to post hefty warnings and have at it.
The acceptability of spoilers in reviews depends on why people are reading. I like to think that people may read my reviews before watching a series and use that to decide whether or not to watch it. Part of the joy of a new series though is in the discovery. I can’t really get away with saying “it’s great, I can’t tell you why, but you should watch it”. I try to be vague and talk more about theme and style than about specific plot points that might damage the enjoyment of the show. On the other hand, I figure some people read my reviews because they are also watching the shows and therefore want to hear (heaven knows why) what I think of key twists and turns. I know I read reviews for both reasons. I guess in an ideal world I’d do two reviews, one for each audience, but I barely manage to get the few posts out that I do at the moment. So I need to find a line.
It’s not the ‘simple’ spoilers that you have to worry about. It’s easy to avoid giving away spoilers like X getting together with Y on Grey’s Anatomy, or Z dying on The Walking Dead. Those are just facts and parts of the show that you can talk around – “the usual merry-go-round of relationships are to be expected from Grey’s and they’re as entertaining as usual”, “The Walking Dead continues to punch where it hurts with character developments”. The only time events like that cause me some mental anguish about whether to include them is if those events are done badly. Given their history and past relationship, does it make sense for them to suddenly fall in love. Does the character get a good death or are they just a sacrifice to clumsily move the plot along? Do the choices and actions on the screen match the universe of that show as we’ve come to understand it or is it a lurch for the audience? It’s no longer about spoiling a plot, but it’s about the quality of the writing of the show.
Sometimes you can’t even describe what a show is about without spoiling a key moment from an early episode. Many shows use the motif in their pilot of making it look like one thing is going to be case and then twist it to something more surprising. Several pilots have implied that someone is a main character, only to have them disappear by the end of the pilot. Buffy’s an example of that, but I’m going to use The Shield as an example because the twist is not just about characters but about the whole tone. The show ran 2002-2008, I figure if you haven’t watched it by now, you probably won’t, but if you’re in any doubt, skip the next paragraph.
The pilot episode follows a group of police officers being not quite above the board. For the majority of the pilot the audience is led to believe that they’re bending the law for the good of the law; the only way to beat the criminals. Then, in the final minutes of the episode, they shoot a fellow office in the face. No mistake, no excuse. He was a threat to them and they murdered him. It’s an incredibly powerful moment and if you know it’s coming it spoils it completely. BUT without explaining that moment can you really explain what the show is going to be? Its not a show treading the familiar ground of cops occasionally stretching the law to keep really bad people off the street, its a show about criminals with badges trying to justify themselves while they make a lot of money. That distinction is critical to whether you’ll enjoy the show or not (I gave up on the show after a couple of seasons, not because it was bad, but because I just couldn’t take the darkness of it any more). But that moment of shock, desperately trying to work out if there was a reason that the seeming heroes of the show turned into remorseless murderers, that emotional experience is a television moment that has stuck with me a long time. I’ve just spoiled that.
Less frequent, but even harder to deal with, are when things twist or turn at the end. If I don’t tell someone that the end of a season or even series is rubbish, then they could rightfully feel grumpy about wasting their time. The best example I can think of is most commonly seen in film rather than television, it’s the underdog sports film. The no-hope team of lovable losers, somehow get through to the big game… do they win or lose. Without mentioning any names at all, my favourite films of this type are when they lose. It’s more realistic. It’s also more nuanced and allows for greater emotional depth and reaction. But how do you review that? There is no way to obfuscate it – “The film is great, because after all the tension and the build-up the writers don’t go with the easy, predictable ending”. Now it’s like you’re sitting in an M Night Shyamalan film and you’re just waiting for the twist.
I don’t know how well I succeed with my approach to spoilers. Frankly I write more for myself than anyone else anyway and don’t exactly have a huge readership. So I’ll stick with wavering around and erring on the side of caution when it comes to warnings at least. At some point I’ll get around to my thoughts on reading spoilers, which are even more complicated!