If a TV Show Has a Spoiler, Chances Are It’s Already Spoiled

Real masterpieces don’t have conclusive answers, but new sorts of questions

Douglas Rushkoff
Dec 10, 2020 · 4 min read
Image for post
Image for post
Image: Boris SV/Getty Images

The rise of digital media and video games has encouraged the makers of commercial entertainment to mimic some of the qualities of post-narrative work, but without actually subjecting their audiences to any real ambiguity.

Movies and prestige television, for example, play with the timeline as a way of introducing some temporary confusion into their stories. At first, we aren’t told that we’re watching a sequence out of order, or in multiple timelines. It’s just puzzling. Fans of ongoing series go online to read recaps and test theories with one another about what is “really” going on. But by the end of the series, we find out the solution. There is a valid timeline within an indisputable reality; we just had to put it together. Once we assemble the puzzle pieces, the show is truly over.

In a nod to the subscription model of consumption — where we lease cars or pay monthly to a music service — the extended narratives of prestige TV series spread out their climaxes over several years rather than building to a single motion-picture explosion at the end. But this means energizing the audience and online fan base with puzzles and “spoilers.” Every few weeks, some previously ambiguous element of the story is resolved: The protagonist and antagonist are two parts of a single character’s split personality, the robots’ experiences took place a decade ago, those crew members are really androids, and so on.

Spoilers, as their name implies, must be protected lest they spoil the whole experience for someone else. They’re like land mines of intellectual property that are useless once detonated. We are obligated to keep the secret and maintain the value of the “intellectual property” for others. The superfan of commercial entertainment gets rewarded for going to all the associated websites and fan forums and reading all the official novels. Superfans know all the answers because they have purchased all the products in the franchise. Like one of those card games where you keep buying new, expensive packs in order to assemble a powerful team of monsters, all it takes to master a TV show is work and money.

Once all the spoilers have been unpacked, the superfan can rewatch earlier episodes with the knowledge of what was “really” going on the whole time. No more damned ambiguity. The viewer gets to experience the story again, but with total knowledge and total control — as if omniscience were the desired state of mind, rather than a total negation of what makes humans conscious in the first place.

A show’s “loose ends” are its flaws. They prevent the superfan from maintaining a coherent theory of everything. They are not thought of as delightful trailheads to new mysteries, but as plot holes, continuity errors, or oversights by the creators. In commercial entertainment, where the purpose is always to give the audience their money’s worth, submission to the storyteller must be rewarded with absolute resolution. This same urge is driving such entertainment to ever higher frame rates and pixel counts — as if seeing the picture clearer and bigger is always better. We don’t make sense of it; the sense is made for us. That’s what we’re paying for.

Loose ends threaten to unravel not only the fictions upholding an obsolete Hollywood format but also the ones upholding an obsolete social order: an aspirational culture in which product purchases, job advancement, trophy spouses, and the accumulation of capital are the only prizes that matter.

Loose ends distinguish art from commerce. The best, most humanizing art doesn’t depend on spoilers. What is the “spoiler” in a painting by Picasso or a novel by James Joyce? The impact of a classically structured art film like Citizen Kane isn’t compromised even if we do know the surprise ending. These masterpieces don’t reward us with answers but with new sorts of questions. Any answers are constructed by the audience, provisionally and collaboratively, through their active interpretation of the work.

Art makes us think in novel ways, leading us to consider new approaches and possibilities. It induces states of mind that are often strange and uncomfortable. Rather than putting us to sleep, art wakes us up and invites us to experience something about being human that is in danger of being forgotten. The missing ingredient can’t be directly stated, immediately observed, or processed by algorithm, but it’s there — in the moment before it is named or depicted or resolved.

It’s alive, it’s paradoxical, and it’s the exclusive province of Team Human.

This was section 62 of the new book Team Human by Douglas Rushkoff, which is being serialized weekly on Medium. Read the previous section here and the following section here.

Image for post
Image for post
From ‘Team Human’ by Douglas Rushkoff. Copyright © 2019 by Douglas Rushkoff. Used with permission of the publisher, W.W. Norton & Company, Inc. All rights reserved.

Team Human

Team Human is a manifesto — a fiery distillation of…

Douglas Rushkoff

Written by

Author of Team Human, Present Shock, Throwing Rocks at the Google Bus, Program or Be Programmed, and host of the Team Human podcast http://medium.com/team-human

Team Human

Team Human is a manifesto — a fiery distillation of preeminent digital theorist Douglas Rushkoff’s most urgent thoughts on civilization and human nature.

Douglas Rushkoff

Written by

Author of Team Human, Present Shock, Throwing Rocks at the Google Bus, Program or Be Programmed, and host of the Team Human podcast http://medium.com/team-human

Team Human

Team Human is a manifesto — a fiery distillation of preeminent digital theorist Douglas Rushkoff’s most urgent thoughts on civilization and human nature.

Medium is an open platform where 170 million readers come to find insightful and dynamic thinking. Here, expert and undiscovered voices alike dive into the heart of any topic and bring new ideas to the surface. Learn more

Follow the writers, publications, and topics that matter to you, and you’ll see them on your homepage and in your inbox. Explore

If you have a story to tell, knowledge to share, or a perspective to offer — welcome home. It’s easy and free to post your thinking on any topic. Write on Medium

Get the Medium app

A button that says 'Download on the App Store', and if clicked it will lead you to the iOS App store
A button that says 'Get it on, Google Play', and if clicked it will lead you to the Google Play store