Confessions of a Spoiler Whore

The pleasures of participatory TV.

I know too much. Each Tuesday night, as I scurry to my friends’ apartment to watch Buffy the Vampire Slayer, I carry more information than could possibly be good for me. I know the title of the episode to come, the name of the writer, often the basic plot. Occasionally, if I really can’t resist, I’ve already read the “wildfeed”—the transcription of the episode pulled down from the satellite dish. And while I try to avoid the spoilers—plot revelations that ruin surprise twists—it’s hard! Harder than Willow trying not to use magic! My friends and I watch the show together, and I struggle not to be too annoying.

Then the next day, it’s over to the VIP archives board—the storage Web site for online posts by the Buffy writers and directors. Especially prized are the rare days when creator Joss Whedon shows up, making inside jokes about goats and hinting at (or lying about) future developments. And then to the official news group. If I’m really feeling crazed, I cruise the Buffy recaps at Television Without Pity (a community of gimlet-eyed TV viewers, covering about 40 different shows)—or visit one or two other Buffy sites, each with their own flavor of fan analysis, from teen gush to hyperintellectual. Finally, I read the original shooting script, checking for stage directions of the sex scenes and lines that were cut in editing.

In the early days of the Web, there was a lot of chatter about how it would supersede television—that supposedly bland, passive art form. But instead of replacing television, the Web has embraced it. And without anyone really paying heed, the viewers at home have become two parallel audiences: the isolates and the plugged-in. And God help me, plugged-in is better. It’s hard, at first, to think of television as a participatory habit. It’s supposed to be solitary and disposable. But being plugged-in turns television into a shared event, much like movies or going to the theater. Like literary criticism, it provides tools of analysis that alter the whole experience of watching: giving access to the process, not just the results. At the most basic level, being plugged-in means becoming invested in the creation of the show, rather than simply a passive recipient. (It might also mean becoming an obsessed nerd, but then, powerful medicines always have side effects.)

The resources aren’t hard to find. On the most obvious level, there are news groups and Web sites for every show out there: Just search Google for ER or Ed, or name your poison. You can start with the official site, but the really good stuff is put out by fans. (A few official sites are worth checking out—the HBO Sopranos site, for instance, contains “FBI files” that supplement the show itself—but most are just PR.) Fan sites generally contain basic info (a summary of each episode), interesting apocrypha (a list of phrases Bart has written on the blackboard in TheSimpsons), insane apocrypha (photos of real-life people who resemble Simpsons characters), links to other sites, offers to purchase “swag” (merchandise) and bootlegs, fan fiction, analytical essays, and discussion threads.

But these sites are just the gateway drug. The real action online comes from access to the writers, directors, actors, and staff of the shows—as well as to scripts and other behind-the-scenes materials. Not every creator goes online, of course, or posts online. (Although some lurk under pseudonyms.) But when they do—as with Freaks and Geeks, where creators responded regularly to fans on the official Web site during the show’s run—it’s a jolt of electricity. Discussion groups usually ban fan fiction, so writers can lurk without risking legal issues about “stealing” ideas. Aaron Sorkin has posted online; so have members of the production teams of ER, Friends, The Simpsons, and pretty much every Trek spinoff. Sometimes the feedback is instantaneous: On the official Buffy site, a writer will often drop in the night a show is aired, answering questions about an ambiguous line or a matter of “canon.” These appearances can set off waves of debate, as when Buffy scribe David Fury made remarks comparing one character to a serial killer, creating speculation among fans about internal disputes within the Buffy creative team. Or they can be unsettling, as when formerly anorexic Sopranos star Jamie-Lynn Sigler posted a plea for fans to stop harping on her weight. I doubt The Honeymooners’ cast and crew had to face this type of meshugas.

Such access leads to one peculiar side effect: the tendency to imagine oneself as a part of the team producing the show. Indeed, some fans seem to believe that they are being unfairly cut out of the creative process—”Didn’t we tell them not to use that word?” raged one Television Without Pity post when Angel’s latest episode overused the word “champion.” Whole sites are devoted to lobbying for one plot twist or another. If on one level this is slightly nuts, on another, it actually creates a heightened recognition that the show is not simply a polished, finished project created by an invisible committee. Reading an edited-out line in the shooting script—such as Buffy character Tara’s recent cut statement, “I’m a fag, sweetie”—can offer a level of insight into the writer’s original intentions, much like scanning an original manuscript for the editor’s hatch marks.

And indeed, the online fan base does occasionally have a direct effect on the show, in the convention known as the “shout-out”: a character named after an online poster, a playful reference to an Internet joke, or occasionally, a direct satire of the online herd. (“Worst! Episode! Ever!”) The most startling such shout-out occurred just last week, when Aaron Sorkin, The West Wing creator who sparred with posters on Television Without Pity (back when it was called “mighty big tv”), struck back at his tormentors—by enlisting them in a subplot on his show. When White House Deputy Chief of Staff Josh Lyman discovers a critical Web site devoted to him, he becomes tangled in its byzantine internal politics, then (like Sorkin) sees one of his posts end up in the newspapers. Lyman’s special tormentor, the moderator of the site, is portrayed as a muumuu-clad, chain-smoking dictator—a nasty slap at Sorkin’s own nemesis at Television Without Pity. The majority of the site’s posters were amused, but a few took umbrage. “Glark” (the technical director of TWP) responded online: “If ‘we’ at TWOP are the TV critic terrorists and we’ve gotten under his skin enough that he’s changing the way he writes and shoe-horning these plots into the show then—ladies and gentlemen—the terrorists have already won.”

For better or worse, no TV writer had that kind of intimate access to viewer reaction 15 years ago. Such accountability between writer and audience might in time make television better—or it might just make the creative process messier. A TV episode discussed on the Internet begins to shred into discrete pieces: a script, a stage direction, a chunk of a larger story arc, a segment of a particular writer’s portfolio. There’s a loss to this—online viewers may turn into mere sourpusses (just as some academics find it hard to take pleasure in reading anymore), and writers can be swayed by ephemeral opinion. But there’s a gain, too: a truly enthusiastic, demanding audience—one that takes television seriously enough to expect it to be excellent.