NEW YORK — Now that the television season has officially come to an end and I've emerged, pale and blinking, from the inside of my apartment; now that the stacks of videotapes with episodes of the various CSIs have all been watched and the hard drive on my DVR is happily clean; now that various cliffs have been hanged and plot threads have been dangled; now that all we have to look forward to for a few months are the latest offerings in reality television and comedies and dramas so undervalued by the networks that they didn't even qualify as midseason replacements; now I have the time, the energy, and the sheer unadulterated chutzpah to take on one of the worst phenomena to hit entertainment writing since the press decided to start reporting on the romantic life of Tom Cruise.
I'm talking about the spoiler alert. For those of you too young to remember back to, say, 2003, there was a kinder time, a gentler time, a time when it was possible to read entertainment magazines, newspaper articles, even websites, about upcoming shows, season finales, movies, and so forth, and rely on the humble discretion of the writers not to give away anything that would materially affect your appreciation of the item under discussion.
The members of the press were never contractually obligated to do this, obviously, but it was a kind of unspoken bargain with their readers: I'll tell you whatever you need to know to enjoy the show, but nothing that would hurt that appreciation.
Operating, presumably, under the assumption that the American people wish to be protected from the frisson of emotional turbulence that comes with artistic surprise, many writers have taken a different tack. They feel free to spill all sorts of details, protecting the sanctity of their previous bargain only by means of the words "spoiler alert" preceding the paragraph, or sometimes even the sentence, that contains the revelation.
The problem with this approach is simple: it is almost physically impossible, when you're in the middle of a paragraph, to stop reading once you see the words "spoiler alert."
Perhaps it's just my particular weakness of will here, but I don't think so. Let me give you an example: in the upcoming filmed version of The Fantastic Four, The Human Torch will - spoiler alert! - use his "flame on" powers to reduce America's energy dependence on Saudi Arabian oil, thus putting an end to a disturbing foreign policy trend. Now, obviously this isn't actually in the movie (though, for legal reasons, I should probably say I haven't seen the movie and if it is, I apologize to the producers); but the point is that all of you kept reading on to the end of the sentence and if it was a real revelation, like - spoiler alert! ... Got you again!
You kept reading. You didn't say, "Well, my goodness, I'm really looking forward to the Fantastic Four movie, and so perhaps I should stop reading this column right in the middle and spend my time watching the first season of 'Deadwood' on Netflix." No, you just kept on reading. Because you're human. And it is in that spirit of shared humanity that I beg the assembled entertainment industry to please, please, please stop writing spoiler alerts.
But, you say, what about the people who genuinely want to know what's coming up? "Give us," they say, "the right to ruin our movies in advance!" Well, I would never want to stand in the way of people standing in the way of having a good time, and so here's a couple of suggestions and qualifications to the "no spoiler alert" rule.
First, if a book is over 400 years old, no spoiler alert necessary. This sentence need never appear in a newspaper: "The prince of Denmark, who - spoiler alert! - dies at the end of Shakespeare's famous play...".
Second, any movie (or movie series) that has already made over five hundred million dollars domestic box office, you can ruin the ending. If you don't know by now that Darth Vader is Luke's father, that's your problem, not the writer's. (I mean, really. Where have you been?)
And finally, If you really have to use a spoiler alert for something very recent or even - perish the thought- upcoming, then be sure to do it in a way that will make it hard for the reader to continue rather than easy. For example, use Pig Latin: at the end of this season of "24," for example - spoiler alert! - ack-Jay auer-Bay akes-fay is-hay own-ay eath-day.
Or use a simple numeric substitution code, where the name of the person who meets a significant fate at the end of Desperate Housewives is "24-5-17-6-8-8 6-5-23-3," with each of these numbers representing a letter. Anyone who wants to take the time to figure this out really wants their ending spoiled. (For those of you who do, don't try to decode these; they're random numbers.)
As many of the television writers now go into a frenzy of attempting to tell about summer blockbusters and new fall programs, maybe these few words of sanity may help somewhat. I'm off to see the new Star Wars movie now. I won't say a word about what happens.