Why I can live with TV show spoilers

I just returned from a week-long vacation to the House of the Mouse (aka Disney World), and during my hiatus, several new episodes of my favorite TV shows aired. Links to recaps of these shows have been popping up in my Facebook and Twitter feeds, and it’s been nearly impossible to avoid “spoilers” about what happened. But I am not the type to stick my fingers in my ears and start singing loudly to drown out plot developments.

A few years ago, researchers at the University of California – San Diego published a study that found that readers’ enjoyment of stories with plot twists were not diminished by learning of those developments ahead of time. In fact, they found that these spoilers actually enhanced reader enjoyment. The study didn’t investigate why, but the researchers had a few ideas:

…one possibility is perhaps the simplest one: that plot is overrated.

“Plots are just excuses for great writing. What the plot is is (almost) irrelevant. The pleasure is in the writing,” said Christenfeld, a UC San Diego professor of social psychology.

It’s also possible that it’s “easier” to read a spoiled story. Other psychological studies have shown that people have an aesthetic preference for objects that are perceptually easy to process.

“So it could be,” said Leavitt, a psychology doctoral student at UC San Diego, “that once you know how it turns out, it’s cognitively easier – you’re more comfortable processing the information – and can focus on a deeper understanding of the story.”

I’ve found this to be true of my favorite TV shows as well. I certainly don’t go looking for spoilers, but when I stumble on them, I often find that I can still enjoy the show, because of great characterizations and emotional resonance. Knowing what happens to my favorite characters doesn’t lessen my enjoyment of watching their reactions to it. And in some cases — like with one of my new favorite shows, the CW’s Arrow — learning about spoilers actually increases my enjoyment of the show, because it deepens my understanding and appreciation of the comic universe on which it is based. Knowing ahead of time that (SPOILER ALERT for previously aired episodes) the show would guest star Grant Gustin as Barry Allen, who would eventually become The Flash, helped me better enjoy that character’s place in the show’s mythology. It was just more fun to watch.

The one exception to all this? Reality shows. There is rarely “character development” in the traditional sense, and many shows — particularly reality show competitions such as American Idol and Top Chef — are easily spoiled by the simple knowledge of who went home that week. In fact, the final two episodes of the most recent season of Top Chef sitting on my DVR will probably go un-watched, as I inadvertently spoiled myself while browsing an entertainment website. Once I knew the winner, the allure was gone.

Perhaps spoilers serve an important purpose, as a barometer of the quality of our favorite TV shows. If we can be spoiled and still want to watch, I’d stay that’s some pretty good television indeed.

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Snowed in? 5 TV shows to stream right now

Everyone from Denver to Boston seems to be snowed in right now, and cabin fever will soon set in. If you’re all caught up on your DVR and your street still hasn’t been plowed, perhaps now is the time to try out one of those shows your friends have always been telling you to watch. Here are my top picks.

Veronica Mars: Don’t let this show’s high school setting and spunky blonde heroine fool you. This show is classic noir, covering dark topics including murder and rape. But it’s also wickedly clever and features one of the best father-daughter relationships ever to hit the screen. This beloved series ran for just three seasons, so picking it up now won’t feel like a lifetime commitment. Plus, the Kickstarter-funded Veronica Mars movie comes out next month, so this is the perfect time to join the fun. All three seasons are available to stream for free for Prime users on Amazon Instant Video.


Orphan Black: A woman runs into her doppleganger in a train station, only to watch her lookalike commit suicide. This kicks off what has become one of the most thrilling sci-fi series in recent history, starring Tatiana Maslany as the protagonist — and as the cloned versions of herself. The second season comes to BBC America in April, and the first season is available on BBC America On Demand, as well as for purchase on Amazon and iTunes. I was able to watch the first episode for free with my Prime membership, and I was so instantly hooked that I didn’t hesitate to pay the $9 to watch the rest.


Sherlock: If you’ve been on the internet lately (or, ever), you may have noticed that people are uncontrollably giddy about how much they love the BBC’s Sherlock, starring Benedict Cumberbatch as the eponymous detective, and Martin Freeman as his Dr. Watson. There’s good reason for all the chatter. This series is, like Holmes himself, about as clever as it is smug, but the two lead characters have such excellent rapport and chemistry that it’s a delight to watch. Each episode is 90 minutes long, and there are 6 episodes (2 seasons) available to stream for free on Netflix. The third and most recent season just finished airing on BBC America, so if you missed them, you can buy them on iTunes.


Misfits: I stumbled on this lesser-known show via a recommendation from Hulu Plus, which knows my affinity for British dramas. And it has been my favorite “new” show in the past year, even though the first season aired in 2009. It is the story of five juvenile delinquents in the U.K. who are suddenly gifted with special powers after a freak hailstorm. The concept is straight out of comic books, but the execution is sublime. These teenage characters both hilarious and endearing, and the greatest moments come not when they are using their powers, but when they are getting to know each other and themselves. Five seasons (each 6-7 episodes long) are available to stream on Hulu Plus.


House of Cards: This critically acclaimed political thriller makes my list because it seems to have grown on me over time. Kevin Spacey’s performance as a power-hungry Senator from South Carolina is campy, but in the best possible way. Despite Spacey’s energetic performance, the show feels as though it moves a bit slowly, which is why this is a series made for binge-watching. No single episode will stick out in your mind, except perhaps Chapter 8, making the whole first season feel like a very long (but very good) movie. The trailers for Season 2, which will be released on Valentine’s Day, hint at some serious political and personal upheavals, so if you’ve been putting off this show, now is the time to give it a shot. The first season is free on Netflix.

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Game of Thrones effect vs. Scandal effect: To focus, or to Tweet?

Pop quiz: You sit down in front of your TV to watch a new episode of one of your favorite shows. Do you, A) Keep your phone in your lap so you can easily Tweet your reactions to every Oh-Em-Gee moment, or B) Commit everyone within a 5-mile radius to total silence so that you can focus on every word spoken by your favorite characters?

(stock photo)

(stock photo)

A new study by TiVo suggests that for most of us, the answer is closer to B than A. The digital video recording company asked both TiVo users and non-users about their watching habits and found that a full 3/4 of them (76 percent) prefer focusing on the tube than on any other distractions, including social media. The findings seemed to signal a win for the TV industry, which has in recent years tried (and sometimes failed) to provide interesting “second screen” experiences for viewers — from live polls to suggested Twitter hashtags. Perhaps no show has succeeded so thoroughly in creating a second-screen audience than Scandal, ABC’s political drama starring Kerry Washington that’s chock-full of more twists and turns than a Tilt-A-Whirl. Every week, thousands of fans live-Tweet the show, including its own stars, who are encouraged by the network to participate in the discussion. The show is so heavily live-Tweeted on Sunday nights that TV critic Willa Paskin at Slate was able to understand almost everything that happened in one episode just by following along online.

So is Scandal an anomaly of multitasked viewing? Perhaps. TiVo calls its findings the “Game of Thrones effect,” noting that HBO’s hit fantasy series has so many characters and such a complex plot, that viewers are loathe to turn away, even for a moment. A fully 73 percent of those surveyed said they agreed with the statement: “There are certain shows that are so important to me or so tricky to follow, I make sure not to do other things while I am watching them.”

Perhaps an explanation for this phenomenon is the DVR effect. Scandal is a show that has become one of the rare few that I will watch live, mostly because my Facebook and Twitter feeds will be full of spoilers regardless. That live viewing is a massive, shared experience, and it lends itself to community participation in ways that our more focused, private viewing does not. Other big, live TV events often see similar social media responses — think of the Super Bowl, or even NBC’s Sound of Music production in December. No one wants to read your shocked reactions to the Game of Thrones Red Wedding when you watch it three days later at 1 a.m., so you might as well put your phone down. You’ll need both hands to pick your jaw up off the floor anyway.

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