I think there is a difference between film and TV reviews – and I never write the later. But basically, I think when it comes to TV, any time after the show airs (let’s say the next day, because of different time zones in North America) than spoilers are fair game – especially when it’s an established show like Mad Men or Game of Thrones. No one is reading a review of the season 7 premiere of Mad Men or a random episode on season 4 of Game of Thrones trying to decide whether or not to watch the show – they’re already hooked or not (and if they’re not, they probably aren’t reading the review). Now, if they missed an episode and are planning to watch it later that week, than I think that’s the reader’s responsibility to avoid reading that review. I know sometimes if I miss an episode of say, The Walking Dead, I read nothing about the show until after I’ve seen it – I suspect that anything written after the airdate will contain spoilers.
Movies are different however. Many people read movie reviews before they see the movie when deciding whether or not to see the movie. Revealing spoilers, therefore, should be avoided if at all possible – and if not there should be clear warnings – which I try to do when I write my reviews. What constitutes a spoiler differs for many – but basically, any plot developments that are not in the trailers for the movie, I think are off limits. Some probably think I reveal too much – but if you want to know nothing about the movie, than don’t read reviews. The reader does hold some responsibility as well.
I get annoyed by spoilers in reviews when they are not clearly identified – especially advances reviews of movies that haven’t opened yet. I know some critics have complained that analysis should trump surprise – and they aren’t necessarily wrong – but then what harm does it do to throw out a spoiler warning if you want to dig deep in a movie’s ending in a review? One critic last year argued that surprise is only a cheap, fleeting pleasure in a movie – and analysis is more important than that. It’s true that a surprise really is just a fleeting pleasure – there needs to be a reason behind that surprise, which is why I find many twist endings awful as they twist for no reason other than to screw with the audience – but it’s still a pleasure, and should be preserved for the audience. Again, I think writing anything about a movie is fine – but if you’re writing a spoiler review of a new movie, at least let the reader know before they get there so they can decide for themselves if they want to read on.