Monday, January 7, 2013

The Downton Abbey Spoiler Challenge

•••NOTE: there are NO Spoilers in this article.•••

Shirley MacLaine, as Fran Kebelik in "The Apartment"
(1960). I just caught this on TCM a few days ago, and
it's still a huge favorite of mine. MacLaine was never
after quite as adorable as she was in this film, short
hair and all. Has anyone ever written a scholarly thesis on
the semiotic meaning of Miss Kubelik's boy-like bob?
The long-awaited Season 3 of "Downton Abbey," ITV's extremely popular 1920s melodrama/ meditation on class harmony/ Edwardian nostalgia fest, aired in the US last night, introduced by an overly excited Laura Linney. Special guest Shirley MacLaine showed up as Cora's mother, American-ing the place up for a spell. The familiar storylines started up again, and a few new ones cranked up as well.

I forgot who pointed this out, but there is an aspect of "Downton Abbey" that should be noted by every aspiring film writer, director and editor-- a trick Julian Fellowes uses throughout the show that sets it apart from most others, something that adds energy to a potentially dull subject. As you watch the show (and you should!) make note of how long an average sequence lasts. They rarely last longer than one minute. There are something like fifty sequences in each hour-long episode-- each one dense with plot. An effective editing trick: the viewer becomes a restless eye, hovering ghost-like throughout the humongous estate, flicking upstairs and down, taking in all events occuring therein. This minute-sequence editing gimmick also pays off in reverse: in scenes where something truly momentous happens, the clock gets turned off. The extra time spent in these big sequences registers at a subconscious level, underscoring their importance.

It's a nifty show, even an important one. And I've seen every single episode of Season Three. Through the incomprehensible scheme of airing the season premiere of "Downton Abbey" in the US a week and half after the conclusion of the same season in the UK, combined with the magic of the Internet, we were able to enjoy the series on the UK schedule. So I have the power and ability to thoroughly ruin it for all of you.

I won't do it, of course.

But this brings up something else, a notion that has been batting around on sites like Slate and Vulture and elsewhere: Spoiler Etiquette.

"It's the story... of a man named Crawley...
who was bringing up three very lovely girls..."
We've all been in a situation at work or a social gathering when someone is about to discuss a recently seen TV show.* "Spoiler Alert!," someone will say. "Shush! I DVR'd it! Don't give anything away!" The potential spoiler, so eager to share a good show, is quashed, and the subject is awkwardly shifted to something else.

The question at hand: who is the villain in this little scene?

 It would seem like the "spoiler," is the social transgressor-- but he or she just wanted to share thoughts on something, to join in what likely is the national water-cooler discussion topic.

The new realization is the villain is actually the "shusher," the one who didn't see it. After all, the "spoiler" made the time for a viewing appointment-- and actually watched the show as it was being broadcast. This is how the creators of the show, the broadcasters of it and even the advertisers who paid for it want you to watch it. Even the "water cooler" discussion the next morning is a strong social positive, playing up the cultural commonality of every participant.

The "shusher," on the other hand is, intentionally or not, selfish. He or she is obviously enthusiastic about the show about to be discussed (or else why bother shushing, right?) but has recorded the show for later viewing at their own convenience. Sometimes, they don't even do that (it is cheaper, after all, to watch "Boardwalk Empire" nine months late on Netflix than subscribe to HBO). Not too long ago it was impossible to "time-shift" viewing: If you missed the last episode of "M*A*S*H" or the "Chuckles Bites The Dust" episode of "The Mary Tyler Moore Show" you just had to patiently wait for summer reruns. Technology has changed all that, of course-- but it has not changed the nature of storytelling, hence the ever-spreading spoiler etiquette crisis. Shushing stifles open discussion, smothers cultural commonality, and drowns the water cooler conversation.

Yet we are a painfully polite sort of people (well, most of us are) so we make a strenuous effort not to spoil anyone's potential enjoyment. We back down from spoiling every time. The problem is, by doing so we spoil our own enjoyment.

 So please, watch every superbly edited minute-long sequence of "Downton Abbey"-- safe in the knowledge I, for one, won't give away any of the absolutely shattering, mind-blowing events that will unfold in the yet-unaired episodes. I'll take one for the home team.

*I'm talking about the phenomenon of TV Show spoilers here, one that has been abetted by new technologies like DVRs and DVDs. Movie-ending spoilers have been around for a hundred years, and I think there is a special level in cinematic hell for those who chronically spoil movies.

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