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The new TV etiquette: When is a spoiler not a spoiler?

Kristin shot J.R.

“Newhart” was all a dream.

And that book the Kanamits are toting around on “The Twilight Zone”? It’s a cookbook!

I come to reveal spoilers, not to hide them.

Modern television viewing, which allows us to watch nearly any show ever made, pretty much whenever we wish, has come upon us so quickly that social convention is still catching up.

The critical question still to be settled among polite society: Where does discussion end and spoiling begin?

Lately, it seems that the pendulum has swung to the favor of people who feel they should be able to approach a series unsullied, castigating those who might – however innocently – dare to try to discuss a show they are still watching, or even thinking about watching.

Who hasn’t tried to analyze the latest episode of “Game of Thrones” with the office fan club only to be shooed away by a co-worker who isn’t caught up? Or been approached by a friend who has “finally watched ‘House of Cards’ ” only to be scolded for revealing a plot point that comes after Episode 1?

A colleague recently was castigated by a reader for writing about Emily Kinney and “spoiling” that her character had died on “The Walking Dead” – seven months earlier.

I say it is time for the pendulum to swing back.

It is time to free the people who watch television to talk about their shows and for those who lag behind to accept that spoiling simply is a risk of a leisurely viewing pace.

Do I need to declare a spoiler alert before writing that the New England Patriots won the last Super Bowl because someone might still have an unwatched copy on their DVR?

Of course not. So why do some viewers believe they must be extended the “courtesy” of universal silence by the rest of the world when it comes to fictional television?

Naturally, there are limits. I believe people can reasonably ask those around them for 48 hours of spoiler-free space after a new episode airs. For series from online sites like Netflix that arrive all at once, a month after the release date is an acceptable cushion, especially for the later episodes.

On the other hand, it is up to the procrastinators to steer clear of social media. Those spoiled by reading their Twitter feeds can only blame themselves.

There are certain elements we have an obligation to be circumspect about, for a few years at least. Plot twists that significantly affect the path of the story should not be blared out in mixed company. The solutions to murder mysteries should be protected.

Still, all this concern about spoilers is largely misplaced. A good television series is more than a plot; our enjoyment comes from how the plot is conveyed: what the characters are like, how the story changes them, how our emotions are affected, how the themes of the story illuminate our own lives.

Does knowing that Miss Bennet marries Mr. Darcy make us like “Pride & Prejudice” any less? Were you able to watch “The Empire Strikes Back” a second time knowing that Darth Vader was Luke’s father? I’m guessing you know how Janet Leigh’s shower turns out in “Psycho” even if you haven’t seen the movie. That doesn’t make it any less great of a film.

And so it should be with a television series. Learning of an important plot twist ahead of watching a show doesn’t ruin anything. It removes the element of surprise from a very small moment of a long experience.

A 2011 study from the University of California at San Diego even concluded that spoilers increased readers’ enjoyment of literature.

So let’s ease up on the demand to be spoiler-free. If you are late to a series, accept that you might learn a plot point or two in advance. It might make things better.

Speak freely

Here are 10 “spoilers” it is OK to discuss in public without warning. Listed in reverse chronological order:

• Dr. McDreamy gets bad medical care on “Grey’s Anatomy.” Let’s see: Actor feuds with producers and talks extensively about his desire to leave a show. How did we think this would turn out?

• Walter White dies at the end of “Breaking Bad.” And Hamlet dies at the end of “Hamlet.” It’s what happens at the conclusion of a tragedy. What is important is how Walt dies and what his death means.

• The girls of “Orphan Black” are clones. Yes, it is an important reveal in Season 1. Then again, if you didn’t figure that out weeks before the reveal, then this show is over your head.

• Matthew Crawley of “Downton Abbey” is a bad driver. The death of Dan Stevens’ character was one of the worst-kept secrets in television history. Stevens quit the series to make movies months before Season 3 played in America. We all knew he was going to die, but no one could have predicted the artless way his demise was worked into the story.

• Eddard Stark gets executed on “Game of Thrones.” The entire show rests on Eddard being killed at the end of Season 1 and his heirs scattered. It’s what “Game of Thrones” is about. “Spoiling” this is like spoiling that “Star Trek” takes place in the future.

• There are no answers to “Lost.” Before anyone invests 100 hours or so in watching “Lost,” they should be aware that the many riddles posed in the first six seasons will not be answered in the seventh. What do 4, 8, 15, 16, 23, 42 signify? How did the island lure the castaways? Why was Walt so important? You will never find out.

• “The Sopranos” cuts to black. It is difficult to be alive in the 21st century and not be aware of the final image of HBO’s groundbreaking series. Besides, knowing this tells you absolutely nothing about the 86 episodes that preceded it.

• Carrie marries Big in “Sex and the City.” This was such an unsatisfying and illogical ending to an otherwise fun series that all prospective viewers should be warned in advance to avoid TV breakage.

• No. 6 is No. 1 in “The Prisoner.” This psychedelic ’60s relic was hard to follow, but if you didn’t figure the answer to “Who is No. 1?” by Episode 2, you were doing too many drugs. The real mystery – one still up for discussion – is not who is No. 1, but why is he No. 1? Plus, the reveal happened nearly 50 years ago.

• Series based on history are fair game. I’ve got some bad news: Anne Boleyn gets beheaded in “Wolf Hall” and “The Tudors.” Thomas Cromwell, too. Julius Caesar’s friends stab him to death in “Rome.”

Keep quiet

Here are five spoilers you probably should still keep the lid on:

• The rest of those “Game of Thrones” deaths. This show kills off regular characters with alarming regularity, and rarely with warning. Best to let the uninitiated go wander as unspoiled as possible – although there has been so much talk about the “Red Wedding” that most will figure that one out.

• The identity of A. The whole point of “Pretty Little Liars” is discovering just who A is. But it’s OK to tell prospective viewers that the answer keeps changing and you’re not really sure the writers even know.

• The end of Season 2 of “Homeland.” This is the kind of twist that is both a complete surprise and yet intrinsic to what happens afterward. Let the newbies enjoy it.

• What happens between Dexter Morgan and the Trinity Killer. The climax of the fourth season of “Dexter” is perfectly shocking and shockingly perfect.

• Who killed Laura Palmer. Yes, “Twin Peaks” is nearly 25 years old. But just as in “Pretty Little Liars” this mystery is the cornerstone of the entire series – and the information might be important to the upcoming remake/sequel.