People who watch TV when it actually airs and blab about it online can ruin it for those of us who watch shows at our leisure. Their excited Twitter chatter about the great twist in last night’s Mad Men is frustrating if you haven’t yet watched last night’s Mad Men. New Yorker TV critic Emily Nussbaum is a prolific tweeter who began grappling with this problem after Twitter users complained about a phenomenon they called Nussbombing. She talks to Brooke about her evolving system of spoiler etiquette.
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BROOKE GLADSTONE: You know, communal viewers can really wreck things for us time shifters. Their excited Twitter chatter about the great twist on last night’s “Mad Men” can be a little frustrating if you haven’t yet watched last night’s “Mad Men.” Of course, you don’t have to go on Twitter or Facebook, but you can’t ignore the newsstand cover of Entertainment Weekly. This brave new world of ours is lousy with spoilers.
New Yorker TV critic Emily Nussbaum had to face the consequences of live tweeting too enthusiastically while TV watching, giving rise to a phenomenon dubbed “Nussbombing.”
EMILY NUSSBAUM: Well, Nussbombing, which was spelled N-U-S-S-B-O-M-B-I-N-G, hashtag Nussbombing, really, what it came down to is that I enjoy watching the NBC sitcoms that are constantly under threat, that are among my favorite shows. And –
BROOKE GLADSTONE: Like “30 Rock.”
EMILY NUSSBAUM: Especially “30 Rock.” And so, when I watched “30 Rock” I would be seized with fascination with some particularly well-crafted zinger, and so I would tweet those, thus spoiling the show for other people, which is not really how people usually think of spoilers. People usually think of spoilers as basically exposing who shot J.R. or some big plot thing. But this really was a matter of – with a very beautifully constructed, extremely prickly sitcom like that, you can’t tell too many of the lines, without really wrecking the excitement for people.
And so, I have pulled back from this. I actually decided that what I would do with - while watching “30 Rock,” I would choose one perfectly chosen, beautifully designed zinger and I would send that one off. I would basically just spoil one joke.
And this was my compromise.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: And this is part of how your policy on how to handle spoilers has evolved. So when is it ever okay, or is it ever okay to deliberately spoil?
EMILY NUSSBAUM: Only in the case of “Smash.”
No, with “Smash,” which is a horrible show but an incredibly watchable show – it started well, but it quickly devolved into just like a nightmare of terrible narrative decisions and laughable performances. But nonetheless, I watch it with other people, which both heals the wounds of watching it, and at the same time, honestly gives me a different kind of enjoyment, including a way of celebrating the little parts of it that actually do work.
So, while I watch “Smash” I admit that I live tweet it with other people, and we comment on what’s going on. In a strange way, I think it improves the show. And because it really is such a terrible show but also such a delightful and an enjoyable one, I feel like this is a communal experience of “Smash” that in a way respects the kind of show it is.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: Now, we’ve been talking a lot about live tweeting, but what is the statute of limitations on a spoiler? When is it okay to tell people that Rosebud was a sled?
EMILY NUSSBAUM: I don’t know the answer to that, and not only do I wish I did, everybody, certainly who works in media, wishes that they did. There’s a difference between, to me, headlines, tweets, discussion groups, essays that people write, reviews. To a certain extent, there is a point at which the consumer has to protect themselves.
But generally, I mean, I’d like to say that I have a policy on this but my policy is to try not to ruin things for everyone else but, at the same time, do exactly what is pleasurable for me.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: Okay. So with that Solomonic wisdom, I want you to split this baby. We nearly had an office fistfight this week because one producer said to another that the finale of a show she was watching [WHISPERS] – it’s “The Killing” –
- would be a huge letdown. He didn’t think it was a spoiler, he wasn’t saying what actually happened. She said that it was because he’d primed her for a certain emotional reaction.
EMILY NUSSBAUM: To me, that’s not only not a spoiler, it’s actually part of a different phenomenon that myself and Adam Sternberg developed at New York Magazine that was called “the undulating curve of shifting expectations.” To me, that doesn’t actually qualify as a spoiler. That actually qualifies as a gift to another person in which you lower their expectations, such that they enjoy what happens next more, because basically if you say to somebody, Yeah, ‘Cabin in the Woods’ is – yeah, it’s, it’s good, you should see it, but it is not a perfect movie,” that person is guaranteed to take a great deal more delight in the movie.
On the other hand, “The Killing” is such an incredibly fraught subject that perhaps everyone should have just decided not to speak about it at all -
- because people get extremely upset about that show, and so there’s just an emotional price to be paid.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: Now that we’re living in the age of the recap, you know, TV’s really good and online discussions of it are sophisticated and they’re entertaining in their own right, to some extent, having to write around spoilers impedes the conversation. So does out spoiler phobia just seem like a silly hang-up?
EMILY NUSSBAUM: I really don’t think it’s a silly hang-up. I mean, honestly, without exaggeration and realizing that I sound like a lunatic, some of the single best [LAUGHS] moments of my life have been surprises on television. I wrote an article a long time ago, very much pre-Twitter, where I’d interviewed Joss Whedon, and he talked about the idea of surprise as a holy emotion. And honestly, despite the fact that it’s become harder not to be spoiled, and spoilers come in so many different ways, I still do actually agree with that.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: You’ve experienced the holy emotion –
EMILY NUSSBAUM: Yes.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: - from Joss Whedon’s own programs.
EMILY NUSSBAUM: Well, yes. I mean, there are a lot of different shows in which I’ve experienced this kind of ecstatic experience of – especially with television, which you watch for a long time and then basically 20 hours in, something happens that just grabs you by the throat and startles you. You feel this tingling sensation. You didn’t see where it was going. It’s so poignant.
I mean, I can talk about this both on great shows like “Buffy,” like the end of the second season, and the same thing, honestly, is true in a show like “Melrose Place” where I got up and danced during the scene where what’s-her-name pulled off her wig, which I feel is no longer a spoiler since it aired decades ago. But still, that’s something that I feel like people should still be able to experience, and it’s part of a lot of different kinds of television viewing.
That said, I think it’s important for both things to exist. I mean, I, I feel very grateful ‘cause when I write the kinds of essays that I’ve been writing, I feel like there is a buyer beware quality to them. If I’m going to write about a television show, I’m going to write about the episodes that have aired. I do try to bear this all in mind, but it - it’s basically we’re all walking through this universe in which surprise can be spoiled, and we each have to find our own code in order to cope with that.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: Emily Nussbaum, you are guided by integrity and art.
Sometimes they conflict.
EMILY NUSSBAUM: That is so wise.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: [LAUGHS] Emily Nussbaum writes about television for The New Yorker.
[JOE TURNER SINGING BABY MAMA/UP AND UNDER]
BOB GARFIELD: That’s it for this week’s show. On the Media was produced by Jaime York, Alex Goldman, PJ Vogt, Sarah Abdurrahman and Chris Neary, with more help from Luisa Beck and Rob Schoon, and edited - by Brooke. Our technical director is Jennifer Munson. Our engineer this week was Andrew Dunne.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: Katya Rogers is our senior producer. Ellen Horne is WNYC’s senior director of National Programs. Bassist composer Ben Allison wrote our theme. On the Media is produced by WNYC and distributed by NPR. I’m Brooke Gladstone.
BOB GARFIELD: And I’m Bob Garfield.