Who is John Galt? Who shot J.R.? Who wants to be a millionaire? Anyone born before the 1980s probably has asked or has been asked one or the other at some point (okay, well maybe not the opening line from Atlas Shrugged). The middle one, in particular, is what everyone with a television set was wondering during the summer of 1980. I had one of those inquiring minds, and I was thoroughly disappointed when evil J.R. Ewing’s would-be murderer was revealed to be his sister-in-law and lover, Kristin Shepard, a secondary character. I think having it be a central character (God knows J.R.’s wife Sue Ellen had a long list of justifiable reasons to want him dead and gone!) not only would have made for more compelling drama, but it would have been the gutsy thing to do. Still, I was impressed that the show managed to keep us guessing right up to the end, which was actually several episodes into season three.
Nowadays, thanks to spoilers, we’d all know the identity of the culprit before she even pulled the trigger. We’d have spent months reading endless discussion of the cliffhanger and its resolution on internet chat boards, maybe even throwing our own two cents into the ring. This past week, a major character was killed on All My Children and another on Days of Our Lives was shot in the head. The action kept my eyes glued to the computer screen, but had I not known what was going to happen a week in advance, I actually might have been surprised. For me, the dramatic effect of watching David Hayward drop like a stone in front of almost the entire AMC cast, or seeing Sami Brady pump a bullet into the head of E.J. Dimera would have blown “Who shot J.R.?” away (pun intended).
Many valid reasons have been offered for the ratings decline of daytime soaps (bad storylines, bad acting and TiVo, among other things), but one under-explored idea would be spoilers. With numerous soap websites and publications like Soap Opera Digest and Soaps in Depth detailing the action weeks before it airs, many potential viewers might wonder, “Why watch if I already know what’s going to happen?” Would that big letdown of a resolution to the Dallas cliffhanger have been even more of one had I known about it early on? Definitely. Would the ratings for the third-season premiere have suffered had the internet been around 30 years ago to “spoil” the big reveal? Most likely.
Personally, I’m not a huge fan of surprises, and I like to know what’s going to happen before it does. I still watch because how the action plays out (in particular, the performances of the actors) is as important to me as story. But I might be in the minority here. I remember randomly running into soap opera actors on two different occasions in New York City and with very little prodding on my part, both of them revealed key points in All My Children‘s Miranda Montgomery-A.J. Chandler baby switch from six or seven years ago. I was grateful for the sneak peaks, but I couldn’t imagine having to pursue such crucial information week after week. It’s been suggested to me that the producers themselves leak the spoilers in order to build buzz around their shows, but are they damaging their own ratings in the process?
Remember last season when Nicolette Sheridan’s character, Edie Britt, was killed off Desperate Housewives? Not only did we know it was going to happen months in advance, but the backstage bickering between Sheridan and the series’ powers that be played out publicly as well. As it turned out, fact — oh, the drama of Sheridan’s wrongful termination lawsuit! — was a lot juicier than fiction. Edie Britt’s untimely demise was not particularly riveting, but I wonder if some of that had to do with the fact that we all saw it coming.
Of course, at this point, there’s probably no going back. The internet has changed how we view television in countless ways (without it, I would have only those spoilers to know what was happening on AMC and Days), and this is one of them. Even if the shows didn’t leak their own plot developments, or stopped doing it, the tabloid press would report that a star hasn’t reported to work in weeks, or that he or she is suing the show’s producers, dropping huge hints about things to come.
Those who still like a good shock might not get it from prime time’s current hot dramas, many of which are returning this month after summer hiatus, but there’s always reality TV. Every season, shows like American Idol and Dancing with the Stars keep viewers guessing right up the last moment, with the occasional unscripted dramatic twist thrown in for good measure. I may be one of the few people who wasn’t so astonished when Adam Lambert lost to Kris Allen on Idol, or when Lee DeWyze edged out Crystal Bowersox, but as entertainment goes, both surprise endings sure beat finding out who shot J.R.