In Defense of the Phrase ‘Spoiler Alert’

Hey, did anybody else have the Good Wife plot twist spoiled for them last week? Thanks to Google, Time and the Associated Press, I did.

Hey, did anybody else have the Good Wife plot twist spoiled for them last week? Thanks to Google, Time and the Associated Press, I did.


All right. So, here’s the deal: About a year and a half ago, I received the first three seasons of CBS’s The Good Wife on DVD. I had wanted to check it out for a long, long time, but I don’t have cable and until last May. I had spent my entire adult life working a night shift on the copy desk at various newspapers, so who had time for cable TV? Not only have I long enjoyed consuming TV through the DVD distribution model anyway, but even if I wanted to subscribe to the Appointment Viewing mantra that has been nearly obsolete for years now, it would have been impossible for me to do so. 

In January, I finished watching the second season of The Good Wife. I’ve since received the fourth on DVD, but because I knew House of Cards was set to release its second run in February — and because I also keep a blog about Internet television for my day job — I thought it best to just wait until I waded through Frank Underwood’s world before moving on to The Good Wife‘s third season. Why? Because to me, the CBS drama is the best thing going on TV these days. I simply didn’t want to feel rushed into diving back in. 

Monday morning, I checked my Twitter feed to see that #thegoodwife was trending. That doesn’t normally happen for that show, especially when The Walking Dead seems to be the cool kids’ series du jour these days. So I thought, “Oh, something must have happened last night; I can’t wait to get to it.” I then got into work and saw this headline among the “Top Headlines” section we receive from the Associated Press news feed:

“‘Good Wife’ leaves viewers shocked, bereaved”

Oh. OK, then, I thought. So, someone died. A minor giveaway, but not terribly revealing. I’m two seasons and ten-some-odd episodes behind. Maybe it will still be shocking to see who goes. It kind of stinks that I know someone even goes at all, but if you don’t see it coming, you don’t see it coming. And judging by all the reaction everyone seemed to have in Internet Land, nobody saw whatever it was that was coming. 

And then, at about 9:30 that night, quite literally my last stop on the web before going to sleep, I turned to Google News and checked its entertainment headlines. Not even giving my eyes a second thought, I scrolled from the top headline to the very next one below it and saw this:

“Josh Charles Talks The Good Wife Shocker on Letterman”

Are you kidding me? 

That was the sentence that whisked into my mind, save for a string of otherworldly expletives. The italics used in this instance didn’t come close to doing my feelings even a bit of justice. This is the second most important headline? You mean to tell me that less than 24 hours after a major plot turn goes down, Google pulls a headline like that? And more so, an actual reputable, big time media outlet (Time) had no problem writing it to begin with? 

The read-out underneath it confirmed the suspicions: Charles’ Will Gardner, one of my favorite characters in all of TV, had died. How it happened, I don’t know… yet… because I refused to click the link. 

Spoiler alert. It’s a phrase we often ridicule, it’s a phrase almost always uttered while soaking with sarcasm these days. People use it as just another way to denigrate those of us who find great pleasure in things such as movies or television or books. An argument I keep hearing for the phrase’s loss of value? It’s our own fault because if this stuff mattered so much to us, we wouldn’t even be put in a position to have major developments revealed by accident in the first place. 

“In the year 2012 it’s quite rare that anybody watches live TV,” Devin Faraci, of something called Badass Digest, wrote a couple years ago. “Especially not the kind of people who go on Twitter (i.e., the new “water cooler” when it comes to talking about TV) and read blogs and stuff. These are the slightly ahead of the curve types, and they watch their shows on TiVo or Apple TV or through torrents (if they’re really horrible shits, that is). And they whine — endlessly — about getting spoiled. Now it’s time to quit whining about it.” (“It’s Time To Stop Complaining About Being Spoiled On TV Shows”, 26 August 2012)

Faraci goes on to outline how a major twist in the fourth season of Breaking Bad was revealed to him before he actually saw the episode. He noted how he blames himself for having the plot point ruined for two reasons: 1. He could have stayed away from Twitter until he saw the episode. And 2. He could have watched the show in a more timely manner.

Yeah, well I did stay away from Twitter (especially after I happened to notice that #thegoodwife was trending). And as for watching it in a more timely manner, well, what am I supposed to do? I came to the party late. I have a few jobs. I’m not going to crunch in the duration of the series just to say I’m caught up, mowing through three episodes a night for a month or something ridiculous like that. There simply aren’t enough hours in the day. Managing two or three hours a week to get my Good Wife fix is about as good as I can do. 

Such is why still I’m pissed off, days later, after that spoiler. Why the hell did that type of information have to go into a headline? Even the AP did it. The AP should know better. (And why the hell would that news organization even write a story about a plot point on a mildly successful television series and then use the word “bereave” in its headline in the first place?) Why would Time put in big, bold letters that Josh Charles was the one being interviewed, and for Will Gardner’s sake, why the hell would they map out the twist in less than ten words before anyone could even turn away? 

The whole ordeal got me thinking: At what point did the act of having forms of entertainment spoiled before actual consumption begin to fall solely on the consumer?

“The Breaking Bad finalé got spoiled immediately, in all sorts of ways, for every single person who has even a casual relationship with media in 2013,” Vulture’s Amanda Dobbins wrote, “Some of the spoilers were egregious: Entertainment Weekly thought it would be a good idea to just tweet out plot points — like, seriously, “Walt also took a bullet” — as if someone trapped at a knitting convention with his grandmother would rather read a play-by-play recap instead of watching it at home. Everyone was mad about that, and with good reason. (Though it’s worth noting that the expression of said anger probably spoiled the show for some others who never even followed EW in the first place.) Meanwhile, the New York Daily News went old-school, treating the big reveal like a sports score and splashing it across the front page, ‘GIANTS LOSE (AGAIN)’ style: ‘BREAKING DEAD: Walt meets bloody end in series finalé: Page 3.’ If you were saving the finalé for another night and happened to walk by a newsstand, then yeah, you got screwed.” (“Sorry, You Can’t Avoid Spoilers Anymore”, 30 September 2013)

I don’t get it, I don’t understand. Television show twists, movie-endings — these should not be subjects of pieces published by typical hard-news outlets. More so, there should be a sense of common courtesy to at least offer a fair warning (say, oh, I don’t know … maybe the phrase SPOILER ALERT?) when it comes to revealing these types of things in the modern day. Actually, that practice holds more weight now more than it ever has. 

Why? Because never before in the history of the world has there been so much entertainment so readily available for so many. The sheer number of television series on this planet is at an all-time high, and the quality of them has never been better. There aren’t just two or three great shows on a mere handful of networks anymore; there can be two or three great shows on a single channel alone. Are we as fans supposed to be unproductive and useless in every other aspect of life in order to maintain an up-to-date relationship with them all? Impossible. 

Plus, the technology advancement is outrageous. Some of the best things on television aren’t even made for television these days (House of Cards, Orange Is the New Black). The ability to develop our TV-consumption routines around our actual lives is convenient — and addictive. Yet, while some may suggest that such a luxury is abused and compromised by an inherent laziness in the human condition, I would argue otherwise. 

In fact, I would argue that the ability to catch up on TV programming via streaming services, DVDs or DVR technology has actually helped expand the common consumer’s palate. What — because we once loved The Fresh Prince of Bel Air and L.A. Law, we can’t find it in ourselves to digest anything more than How I Met Your Mother and Scandal these days? There’s no rule that says as much. With a higher ratio of content options comes a higher ratio of mixed, passionate, personal tastes. You aren’t limited to political dramas or goofy sitcoms when you have drug-dealing teachers and a women’s prison filled with fascinating characters. Nobody says you can’t fall in love with all those things. It’s just going to take a bunch of time to do so. 

Time we don’t have. Time we’ve never had. From familial expectations to professional aspirations, there simply aren’t enough minutes in a week to fully digest all the great stuff that’s out there. When you add to that equation the simple reality that the average consumer can go back and actually find a series to love that he or she may have missed without the benefit of DVDs (see: me and The Good Wife), reputable outlets such as Google or Entertainment Weekly or Time or the New York Daily News have all set the grounds for an unfair game, they have set the grounds for relative failure, and it’s done for reasons I can’t quite comprehend. I can understand why we should stay away from social media on account of all this — you’re just begging to know stuff you shouldn’t if you peruse those tools at certain times — but the Associated Press? Why don’t you give another 500 words to Crimea rather than worry about what happens on to a main character from a Sunday night CBS drama? 


Arguing that people like me should just stop whining about our shows being spoiled just makes me mad, dang it! Just a bit of good, old-fashioned common courtesy is all that is asked. Plot points in entertainment TV are traffic-generators, yes, but they’re not news. They don’t belong in headlines alongside reports about the missing Malaysian plane. Entertainment writing on what happened in the latest episode of Mad Men or who died on American Horror Story belongs in the entertainment section. And then, keep the spoiler out of the headline, please!

“Essentially,” Media Verum’s Allison Odell wrote in February while discussing the possibility of spoilers regarding the HBO series Game of Thrones, “what I’ve gathered from the internet about this show is that while there is an amazing, thoroughly developed cast of characters comprised of a massive amount of talented actors and actresses in their lineup, the blubbering of everyone after their numerous season finalés and the mourning of all their viewers has steered me from having any interest in manifesting any sort of emotional connection with any of GoT’s cast. It seems very apparent that they will all pretty much die off in some traumatic fashion, take me on a dramatic rollercoaster and ruin my life for a brief moment in time while I get over the death of a beloved character and focus on patiently awaiting months for another season. While I’m not inherently opposed to shows of this nature that conjure deep emotional responses, the spoiling of the plot by the internet ruins the authenticity of my reaction and lowers my anticipation of the outcome of the show in its entirety. … Given that the loss of its dramatic effect is still fresh in my mind, I have chosen to put this title on the shelf until I feel I’ve adequately forgotten the finer points that have been revealed to me against my will, thanks to the internet.” (“Three TV Show Plots the Internet Shouldn’t Have Spoiled”, 18 February 2014)

Yeah, I’ve tried that. SPOILER ALERT!!! You hear something you shouldn’t hear or read something you shouldn’t read and decide to move on to another show in hopes that by the time you pick it back up again, you’ll forget about all that’s been spoiled. It doesn’t work. Never has. Never will. Just look at my third season of In Treatment DVDs that continue to sit in a wrapper because someone told me that Dianne Wiest was replaced by Amy Ryan in the series’ final run.

As for The Good Wife, I don’t know what to do. Will I refuse to watch the remaining seasons I own on DVD? No. Assuming nothing more is spoiled, am I still at least mildly intrigued to see how all of this stuff goes down? Of course. Will I continue to snatch up the DVDs and pay attention to where the series continues to travel from here? More than likely.

But will I have the right to feel the shock and/or sadness that most of the series’ fans felt last Sunday night when the development first occurred in front of their eyes and they were left to wonder how or why such a thing could happen in this show? Nope. That’s about as gone as Josh Charles’ Will Gardner. My only question now? How much of what’s left of the show did he take with him? And while there’s only one way for me to find that out, this fact remains: Whatever he left will be a lot less than what I was anticipating to find once I eventually made my way to season five.