Children, gather around the knee of Pappy Glen, and he will tell you a television story in the old days of his distant youth. It was a time when your basic TV show was just that: basic. It didn’t ask you much, it just happened before your eyes. Sitcoms could be counted on to provide canned laughs (the com), but their setting, characters, and premises (the sit) would return to starting positions every week. Characters from detective shows, doctor shows, lawyer shows, and late-night soap operas can be run through serialized storylines in any given season (“Who Shot JR?”), but they don’t have certainly not grown, deepened, or permanently complicated; that wasn’t why people were watching.
Most of the time, what television offered was familiarity, comfort, pattern recognition. You could ask a friend or colleague if they saw last night Hill Street Bluesand you could lazily speculate on this shocking death on Emergency roombut the remarkable thing about such speculations was how inevitably pointless they were.
When the Internet arrived, this passive involvement became active. Fandoms have grown to fill message boards and chat rooms with a more fervent species of discussion and speculation. The television has changed to reflect this. X filesThe overarching serialized plot became hilarious, dense, and convoluted (which side were those alien bounty hunters on, again?), because suddenly it had permission to do so. Die-hard fans were only too happy to post their own painstakingly researched roadmaps unpacking a show’s dense lore on their web pages. Series like Lost and, more recently, Westworld have been designed to withstand and benefit from this kind of special attention.
But this type of analysis was never intended for a very specific type of high-concept puzzle series like The X Files, Lost, Westworld, Fringe And Dark – shows intentionally filled with hidden secrets and connections for viewers to unravel. But to jump onto social media is to see that same investigative tool applied unilaterally, everywhere, to shows that hide no secrets, that hide no information that only the most observant viewers can uncover.
I’m not talking plumbing subtext, here, which is always fair game. I’m talking about looking for hidden meanings, intentionally inserted where there are none. Shows like Succession, Dragon House, You better call Saul And The Mandalorian come now for the kind of speculation that can’t help but overtake their writers’ rooms. The absence of a character from a given episode is considered proof of his death, when it turns out that the actor has just booked another gig and had to write about it. Tony Soprano spends an episode in a coma, and viewers convince themselves that the rest of the series is actually his coma dream. A hole in the plot The Mandalorian has viewers racing the internet to confess that a supporting character is actually a spy.
To be clear, none of this is harmful. And after all, I’m the one looking for this stuff, ’cause I don’t just show Succession, to choose the most recent example; I’ve read some great recaps and much less great Reddit threads and tweets and listen to several podcasts about it. It’s my fault.
But it’s something I’m gonna stop doing, ’cause Succession is coming to an end, and I want to experience it in real time, without my brain sizzling with competing, well-argued theories. The avid fan speculation isn’t a spoiler, but it does have a spoiling effect. It evokes the simple possible in a way that makes it theoretically real. It creates a lot such possible outcomes – in such numbers and with such conviction that at least a few of them are likely to hit the mark. I had the ends of You better call Saul And watchmen And Leftovers and many other shows “spoiled” for me that way.
I’m curious to see how this experiment – let’s call it a tactical disengagement – will end. If it works, and I’m legitimately surprised and satisfied by the Succession final, I could join the millions of Americans who still watch TV the way I did as a kid – lacking in content, but perfectly content.
This piece also appeared in NPR’s Pop Culture Happy Hour newsletter. Register to receive the newsletter so you don’t miss the next one and receive weekly recommendations on what makes us happy.
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