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Week-to-Week: Watch What Happens [In The Middle Of The Night]
Midnight releases, 9pm drops, and the state of streaming spoilers
Earlier this year, the final season of Succession inspired a new dialogue about the timing of spoilers circa 2023, including an installment of this newsletter—when a mid-season episode unexpectedly delivered a climactic moment (which I’m pretty sure I could safely spoil at this point, but that feels antithetical to the theme of this newsletter), we learned a lot about what critics, their publications, and their viewers felt was a fair expectation for protecting plot details about a television show after it aired in primetime.
Not shockingly, given how long we’ve been engaged in this discourse, the Succession incident didn’t really resolve anything. However, it’s nonetheless the simplest version of spoiler discourse in our current moment: the show debuted linearly at a reasonable time in all U.S. time zones (sorry, rest of the world, we’ve determined you are collateral damage), meaning that it was fair (if not necessarily kind) to presume that anyone who cares enough about the show to be worried about spoilers had the capacity to organize their life around watching the show live or the awareness to stay off social media/certain websites if they couldn’t.
When we extend this question to streaming shows, the question of when we should expect someone to have watched something becomes more complicated. I was reminded of this on Wednesday, when I awoke to a tweet from friend of the newsletter Alan Sepinwall about this week’s penultimate episode of Reservation Dogs, “Elora’s Dad.” The tweet linking to his review proclaimed that it was a tour de force from star Devery Jacobs and a very prominent guest star who was cast to play her father, except that Alan—alongside posting a photo from the episode featuring both actors—identified him by name. It was a surprise casting announcement, which FX specifically asked critics not to reveal until the episode aired…at midnight eastern. Alan was therefore well within the informal embargo agreement with his morning tweet.
I need to be honest here and say that when I first saw this tweet, I was annoyed: I was in bed at midnight, and—full disclosure—still in bed at 9:43am when Alan sent it, and usually don’t watch each week’s Reservation Dogs until I have lunch. And that’s as someone who doesn’t work a regular schedule—if I had a 9-5, chances are I wouldn’t be tuning into an episode released at midnight until primetime the following evening. Accordingly, while I understand that the conversation around a midnight debut starts immediately (especially since episodes debut in primetime on the west coast), I would generally err on the side of revealing nothing significant about the episode on social media until at least the following evening. And ultimately, the fact that a very prominent actor appeared as a guest star—you’re running out of runway if you expect me to keep treating this as a spoiler, by the way—would be something significant.
I’m mostly putting this here in case someone REALLY doesn’t want to be spoiled, but if you aren’t already a subscriber to this free newsletter, you should be!
Once I actually watched “Elora’s Dad,” I largely forgave Alan—I don’t think the episode treats Ethan Hawke’s appearance as an enormous surprise, very casually introducing him as Elora is forced to seek him out when applying to college. I can quibble that it would have been a particular thrill to be casually watching the episode with no idea that Hawke was about to appear, but the whole point of the episode is immersing us in the complex emotional dynamics of their interaction, which leans heavily on Hawke’s practiced ability to walk-and-talk his way through a messy history. And from Alan’s replies, it was clear that Hawke’s presence drove additional interest in the show and the episode, something that feels like a net good given that it remains a sleeper hit that may be ending on its own terms, but deserves the largest possible audience as it does so.
But if I had my druthers, Alan and the internet collectively would have waited at least another 24 hours before discussing it openly, but I’ve come to accept that this isn’t realistic. We live in a climate where Vulture is not only publishing reviews of midnight releases like Only Murders in the Building as soon as they finish “airing” at midnight, but they’re also tweeting out links to those reviews immediately, as though that’s a reasonable thing to be doing on Al Gore’s internet in the year of our lord 2023. And as if they knew I was publishing this newsletter today, I checked my phone at 5:45am to discover they had tweeted out their first Love is Blind recap at 5:10am after its 3am debut, which is behavior only explainable as a direct attack to me personally.
Look, I was in the trenches at the beginning of the Netflix era, binge-reviewing Orange is the New Black and publishing every review an hour apart on the first day of release. I understand that there was a time where it felt like the binge viewer was the baseline. But as we entered an era of Peak TV, the novelty wore off, and I don’t think there’s any argument to support the idea that an average viewer of a midnight or 3am eastern release has any intention to watch it before the next day, if not the next evening.
We see this in Disney’s decision to reverse course from its overnight debuts with its biggest series—after a trial run with Ahsoka, Disney has announced that Loki will also be debuting at 9pm eastern, a strategy that Apple has been using across its original programming for a while now. And while I don’t know about anyone else, that’s made Ahsoka appointment viewing: we may not tune in precisely at 9, if there’s something else going on, but we watch the episode on Tuesday evenings, and subsequently wade into the discourse. But here at Episodic Medium we’re still waiting to publish reviews until Wednesday morning, both because I consider it more humane for Josh working without screeners, and because the conversation doesn’t need to start as soon as an episode finishes airing.
But even there things can get confusing. Apple does offer screeners for its series, but its embargoes are actually still for midnight eastern, despite episodes going live at 9pm. I’ve never fully understood this—as Ted Lasso’s final season became appointment viewing, my instincts were always to start the conversation as soon as we could, but that was technically in violation of the embargo, which was set that way for…no reason, that I could find (and they never replied to my emails asking about it). But outside of rare instances like series finales, I don’t think your average Apple original has become appointment viewing the night before it “officially” debuts, making it hard to suggest that their embargo is disrupting discourse in any meaningful way.
That said, Disney’s acquiescence to primetime scheduling raises the question of whether other streaming services might shift to the same model. On the one hand, I do think Disney stands alone in terms of eventized programming—Marvel and Star Wars shows place a value on immediacy that simply doesn’t exist with something like Only Murders in the Building. But on the other hand, so long as at two major streaming services are moving in this direction, is there a legitimate reason for Max, Amazon, Peacock, Paramount+, etc. to stick to midnight or 3am releases? Was there ever a good reason for them to be releasing TV shows in the middle of the night to begin with?
Obviously, shifting to 9pm doesn’t solve the problem identified in the beginning of this newsletter: in a non-linear era, more and more people don’t watch things at traditional times, meaning that we’re always going to be having conversations about what constitutes spoilers. But if streaming services abandon their midnight release patterns, there’s at least a clearer sense that the most devoted and invested audience will have at least likely been awake at the time an episode of TV debuted, which would create a foundation for an understanding if nothing else.
I would love to say I’ve settled on a clear time to post streaming reviews, but records will show I’m pretty inconsistent: my usual aim would be 3pm, which is evening in Europe but accounts for morning viewers in North America, but that get shuffled around depending on scheduling, and sometimes I’ll just want to start a conversation ASAP for those who did rush to watch. When For All Mankind returns in November, maybe I’ll settle into something more formal.
My conversation with Alan about this was mostly just exaggerated outrage from me and eyeroll GIFs from him, so if you were one of those impacted by his rash disregard for spoilers, you can text his personal cell at—just kidding, Alan.
I skipped the third season of Sex Education, despite it being one of the case studies in my book Television’s Spatial Capital (order a copy for your academic library!), and so I admittedly don’t know if I’ll get to the fourth and final season unless someone tells me it was particularly great. I nearly started it when I got on the Peleton yesterday, but then Netflix wanted me to try their interactive RomCom Choose Love, and who was I to deny myself the chance to pedal my way through wooing both Cappie and Avan Jogia?
My other Netflix viewing was sporadic bits of the most recent season of U.K. Makeup Artist reality series Glow Up, which my boyfriend introduced me to last year, and which this season (based on the episodes I saw and my scan of the finale) may be the single most ding-dong-lop-sided reality competition I’ve seen in a while.
Speaking of, while I’m still not convinced The Traitors makes much sense as a game, the recently revealed casts for both the second U.S. season and the first Canadian season remind us that the North American focus on casting reality alumni and other celebrity figures has its pleasures. Excited about the Survivor alums in both, sure, but the big draw is obviously MuchMusic VJ Rick the Temp’s presence in the Canadian cast. Real ones know.
In our subscriber discussion of Slate’s Top 40 Stand-Alone episode list, someone brought up the “Racial Sensitivity” episode of Better Off Ted, which was well-timed given that Joe Adalian reports at Vulture that the show will no longer have a streaming home when it leaves Hulu at the end of the month.
Thanks to everyone who has joined as a yearly subscriber during our Subscription Drive (which runs through 9/30). So far, 62 people have either started a new yearly membership or switched over to a yearly membership, which means we’re only eight away from unlocking an additional Episodic Classics show later in the year (check out our Fall Schedule for more info). What will it be? Who will be covering it? Honestly, I haven’t really decided, so if you’ve got any ideas throw them in the comments.