CULTURE & ARTS

Can Reality Be Spoiled?

We expect every story to surprise us. Even reality television.
Will these two slippery love-fish wind up together? You could find out right now... but why bother?
Will these two slippery love-fish wind up together? You could find out right now... but why bother?

Last Monday, the 20th season of "The Bachelor" premiered on ABC, and I'm looking forward to live-tweeting every moment, as I have during past seasons.

This season documents boyish Ben Higgins’ quest for a suitably sweet young thing to make his Denver bride. He’s already found -- or failed to find -- said sweet young thing, and if he succeeded, he already proposed to her. Taping wrapped up weeks ago, before the show even started airing. And somewhere out there are plenty of people who could tell me who won Ben’s hand, in addition to a gem-studded Neil Lane monstrosity presumably designed to strengthen her left ring finger muscles.

I know that. I know that specifically I could check the blog of Reality Steve, a long-time spoiler specialist who has a pretty good track record at publishing the endings of "Bachelor" franchise shows well in advance. Reality Steve, whose real name is Steve Carbone, fills a vital niche for the industry, though ABC doesn't care for him. People who have information about who's won know exactly where to send it, and people who want information about who's won know exactly where to find it. 

Perhaps more importantly, we know exactly what sites to avoid if we don't want it. I'm a media professional, and I can't exactly avoid every entertainment blog out there during each "Bachelor" season, especially as that would be roughly all of the time. (It feels like those shows never stop.) And reporters and bloggers know full well that most readers either a) care approximately zero percent about who won "The Bachelor, or b) do not want to find out because they enjoy watching the show in suspense.

Reality Steve funnels all of those spoiler-y urges into one convenient place, allowing other media outlets to punt on publishing spoilers and readers to make the choice whether they see the results early or not. It's a public service, really. No one feels that way more than Carbone himself, as became clear from the three major interviews with him that dropped last week, to coincide with the show's season premiere. 

"I feel sort of an obligation that this is what I need to do because nobody out there on the Internet is doing it," he told Jezebel's Kate Dries. "I don’t have any competition out there for spoilers because the major entertainment sites ... they’re all in bed with ABC. So the second they start spoiling as a headline ... they’ll be cut off from everything."

Carbone went on to explain that he realizes not everyone reads "Bachelor" spoilers -- because we don't know about them. "I understand ... there are still way more people out there that don’t know of me and of spoilers than do in terms of the viewing audience of the show," he conceded. 

Dries noted in the interview that she does read spoilers to inform her writing on the show -- but oddly, Jezebel is not in the habit of publishing them. The Gawker Media sites, of which Jezebel is one, are known for being scrappy, uncourteous toward the powerful, not into playing nice for access, and, in fact, ABC doesn't exactly bring exclusives about "The Bachelor" stars to the women's blog.

So why isn't Jezebel, and other such independent entertainment sites, publishing spoilers? I'd venture to guess that it's because their readers don't want to know them, even if they could. I asked one "Bachelor" fan named Ainsley Burton whether she worries about members of her two "Bachelor" fantasy leagues cheating with spoilers, and she barely gave it a thought -- fans, she pointed out, joined the leagues for the same reason they didn't check spoilers: to enjoy the show more. 

Carbone's conception of "The Bachelor" -- which he says he wouldn't even watch were it not his job -- seems to be that it's basically a vast conspiracy perpetuated by ABC on an audience who doesn't even realize we could find out ahead of time who won. All those viewers choosing to enjoy the competition to the fullest, are dupes, not active consumers. Meanwhile, the rest of the media, held hostage by the network's threats, can only dream of publishing spoilers in his carefree way.

This might be the only context in which spoilers are so valorized.

In fact, increasingly we live in a spoiler-phobic world. Spoiler alerts litter our conversation, our Twitter feeds, our reviews and news articles. We can spoil movies that came out 10 years ago, or TV episodes that aired last week. With the rise of DVRs and streaming services, as Buzzfeed’s Ariane Lange argued last year, it's never been easier for people to simply watch shows and movies on their own schedule. The day after the "Breaking Bad" finale airs isn't a safe time to publicly announce what happened anymore. 

Perhaps we're even overdoing it. While certain art forms -- competition, mystery, suspense -- thrive on the audience's lack of knowledge, many don't require it. There was a time when few stories contained surprises, when retellings of familiar stories were enjoyed for their narrative magic, artistic expression, and psychological complexity. Most of Shakespeare's plays weren't new to his fans; he pulled his stories from history, folklore, and preexisting tales.

Now, we spring to hiss, "Shhh, spoilers!!", even when an episode of "Empire" would still be inherently gripping without a suspense element. We expect every story to surprise us.

You could avoid "spoilers," also known as pre-existing news articles about the case at hand, in order to enjoy "Making a Murd
You could avoid "spoilers," also known as pre-existing news articles about the case at hand, in order to enjoy "Making a Murderer," but it might be more important to be more informed, rather than more entertained, when watching.

When the hit docuseries "Making a Murderer" dropped on Netflix last month, some critics urged people to experience its immersive pull and tense pacing "without spoilers," for the full effect. The "spoilers," of course, would be news articles about the all-too-real, all-too-horrifying case at the heart of the documentary. The case isn't a mystery or a competition; it's a real situation profoundly affecting the lives of two traumatized families, the Halbachs and the Averys.

Avoiding knowledge of the actual events in order to wholly enjoy watching a documentary about them -- there's no more solipsistic way to consume a work of true crime, an art form that many have worried is inherently ethically troubling. When it comes to real life, spoilers don't apply. To fixate on our desire for the stimulation of suspense and shock in such a case only commodifies a painful tragedy, as well as the broader questions about the justice system raised by Steven Avery's trial. Watching "Making a Murderer" informed might actually make for a more thoughtful and engaged viewing experience, rather than the kind of emotional, semi-informed experience that led fans to circulate petitions asking President Obama to pardon Avery (which is simply impossible). 

Still, when it comes to fluffy competitions and suspenseful fictions, it's hard to see the valor in ruining the enjoyment for the audience. Sure, you might say "The Bachelor" is real life ... but is it? Like, really? No one knows it's not real life better than those of us who watch it like a soap opera, well aware that these adult people chose to make their love life temporarily part of a competitive drama to entertain the masses. Spoilers? Why ruin my fun, for no other reason than to learn some information that is irrelevant outside the show, and which I'll learn anyway in just a month or two? If my "Bachelor" live-tweeting buddies have taught me anything, it's that you can be aware and critical of how problematic and staged the show is -- while still allowing yourself the pleasurable tension of some speculation. 

Hear more about "The Bachelor" in this week's episode of HuffPost's podcast "Here to Make Friends," including a visit from Jezebel's Kate Dries, below!

You can be highbrow. You can be lowbrow. But can you ever just be brow? Welcome to Middlebrow, a weekly examination of pop culture. Sign up to receive it in your inbox weekly.

Follow Claire Fallon on Twitter: @ClaireEFallon

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