You didn’t have to watch “The Jinx” on HBO to know how it ended. If you were on social media at around 8:37 p.m. EDT Sunday night, or if you have the New York Times app installed on your phone, you had it thrust at you Robert Durst, long a suspect in the 1982 disappearance of his wife, as well as two 2002 murders, had confessed. “Killed them all, of course.”
Immediately thereafter came the complaints, most from people outside the Eastern time zone, some from people still catching up to what, with Durst’s arrest earlier that day, had suddenly gone from a cult hit series to a major news event. SPOILER!
— Sean Campbell (@Melanism) March 16, 2015
At Cultural Learnings, Myles McNutt wades through the issues around what he calls “reality spoilers,” which is what happens when the unrelenting pace of online news meets the timed release of serial drama. HBO rolled out “The Jinx” with the kind of secrecy they normally reserve for “Game of Thrones”: Only two of the six episodes were available to critics in advance, and even its screening at the True/False Film Festival last weekend was short the climactic episode. Jarecki may think documentaries are “the most interesting” when they have “real-world impact,” but there were moments when the promotional push seemed to overwhelm the onscreen investigation, especially when it was revealed “The Jinx” had simply been holding back information to manufacture additional drama. (The series never mentions, for one, that the Los Angeles Police Department submitted the incriminating, now-infamous “cadaver note” to handwriting analysis in 2003, and the results were inconclusive.)
“The Jinx,” of course, is not “Game of Thrones”: The murders of three real people is not the Red Wedding. As Bert Williams wrote at Vulture:
The Jinx isn’t fiction. It is a docu-drama about a real man who is very probably a murderer multiple times over and whose cases have been covered in the media for decades. When a famous murder suspect all but confesses, it is news, and the fact that the confession happened within the confines of a television show does not mean that that news becomes subject to the same etiquette as the latest “Game of Thrones” killing. Because that’s fiction, and it doesn’t really matter.
But McNutt counters that, while the newshounds have a point, so do the spoilerphobes.
I would argue that this trend toward “reality spoilers” as I call them is less spoiler culture at its most absurd, and more a reminder that spoiler culture is tied to the increased agency audiences have and expect over the content they consume; the fact that this would extend to non-fiction narratives is not absurd in the least, even if the end result certainly underlines the incompatibility of this psychology and social media connectivity.
The problem with a series like “The Jinx,” for spoiler culture among many other areas, is that it blurs the distinction between journalistic investigation and entertainment. It now seems clear that Jarecki deliberately misled his audience about the order of events in “The Jinx’s” finale episode, presenting Durst’s willingness to sit down for an interview in 2012 as a result of an arrest that didn’t happen until 2013: He clammed up when pressed on the subject in an interview with the New York Times, then canceled the rest of a full day of press, right down to an appearance on “The Tonight Show,” which may be the first time anyone has balked at Jimmy Fallon’s hard-hitting interview style. That sort of timeline-fudging wouldn’t be a big deal in most documentaries: The substance of Durst’s final interview isn’t really affected by his reasons for being there, and it helps give some structure to what, in spite of its bombshell last act is “The Jinx’s” loosest, most scattershot episode. Spoilerphiles like to argue that great art can’t be spoiled, but after the cliffhanger of “The Jinx’s” penultimate episode, suspense was most of the last part had going for it.
Newspapers had a duty to report that Durst had confessed, or “confessed,” even if they’re reporting on a TV broadcast of an interview given nearly three years earlier. But after five episodes of having real life packaged as drama, it’s not absurd to feel a twinge when it suddenly busts out of that package.