Tv Casting Spoilers

TV Q: Why Are Surprising Returns Spoiled in the Opening Credits? (Answer: They Don't Have to Be)

Too often, TV’s biggest surprises get revealed… by the show itself, and just as the shocking episode gets underway.

In fact, several times in just the past few weeks, exciting encores that had been kept quite hush-hush were spoiled in the first minutes of the episode, well before the returning characters actually showed up. (Note: No spoilers from the past 10 days appear in this story.)

Eagle-eyed Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. fans anticipated a return Trip

Even Marvel, the king of top-secrecy, recently tipped off Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. viewers to Trip’s imminent “resurrection,” by flashing actor B.J. Britt’s name during the April 18th episode’s second scene — more than 20 minutes before the fallen agent would be spied in an alternate reality. Similarly, Criminal Minds just this week kept a blast from the past from packing as much punch as it might have, by crediting the returning guest star a full 40 minutes before his/her otherwise unexpected appearance.

The actor playing The Mentalist‘s Red John wasn’t credited at all in the reveal episode

And yet sometimes… sometimes, such casting secrets manage to be kept, the actor’s name purposely omitted from the opening credits and instead saved for the end of the episode or in rare cases removed all together. (See: Poor Martha’s return to The Americans, The Mentalist‘s Red John reveal or, say, Victoria Grayson’s return from the presumed-dead early on in Revenge‘s run.)

If you’ve ever been puzzled (or annoyed) by TV shows spoiling their own surprises, here is a look at why it happens, and why it doesn’t have to.

Why must an actor be listed in the opening credits? | Most simply said, Screen Actors Guild (SAG) rules require “top of show” billing for any “top of show” cast (hence the term), including those credited as “Guest Star,” “Special Guest Star” or “Special Appearance By.” “That’s a firm rule, one with many years of negotiating force behind it,” one veteran producer tells TVLine. “And it’s to be respected, as it should be.”

The Americans Season 5 Episode 3 Martha Alison Wright

A “collaboration” between actor/producers caught Americans viewers off guard

How does one work around that, when preserving a surprise is paramount? | First and foremost, the actor in question must agree to having their credit moved to closing crawl — as was the case with Alison Wright’s March 21 return to The Americans. “Giving away a spoiler through credits is a conscious artistic choice, the same way an author might give something away in the title of a chapter in a novel,” The Americans co-showrunners Joe Weisberg and Joel Fields explained in an email to TVLine. “We wouldn’t make that choice without our collaborators, which include the actors.

“In this case, we reached out to Alison and her reps — not specifically to get a SAG waiver, but because we wanted to collectively decide how to present that surprising scene with Martha,” they continued. “We all agreed the best experience for the audience was not to know that Martha would be in the episode until they saw her…. The choice was easy.”

Morgan’s season-ending cameo would be the first of many Supernatural surprises

Eric Kripke often made such choices as the creator and an original co-showrunner of Supernatural — starting with Jeffrey Dean Morgan’s reappearance in the Season 2 finale. “We had this feeling, [co-showrunner] Bob Singer and I, that we’ve gone to all this trouble to break a big surprise in the story, and the opening credits are going to give it away,” Kripke recalled last fall, while making the rounds promoting NBC’s Timeless.

But with the OK from Morgan (and subsequent “back-from-the-dead” actors), SAG granted the necessary, surprise-saving waiver, letting his name appear at the end instead. “It’s no small thing to say, ‘I’m going to remove my credit for something I worked hard on,'” Kripke noted. “You have to say to the actor, ‘Will you let the needs of the story and the joy people feel when they see your face be dampened by the credit? We want to blow away the audience with your return, so are you OK with foregoing that?’ And to all of those actors’ very high credit, they did understand the value of a good surprise.”

Tucking Stowe’s name at the end of a episode helped not spoil a Revenge secret

The Americans bosses echoed that sentiment, saying: “At the end of the day, these long character shows are a giant collaboration.”

Why would a producer risk letting a “top of show” credit short-change a surprise? | S.H.I.E.L.D. declined to comment on letting slip B.J. Britt’s name (a return that those who scrutinize social media might also have caught onto ahead of time), while Criminal Minds did not get back to us at press time on its May 3 crediting of you-know-who. But in defense of any show that has shown its hand in such a way, the blame can often be laid at the feet of the TV business’ fast-paced nature. “You have to have a producer who’s thinking about it, which is hard during the hustle and bustle of the season. You have to step into it and get in front of it,” a source explains.

The same is even more true for episodic press releases, which also run the risk of revealing spoilery guest casting yet sometimes never pass in front of producers let alone showrunners. So for those times an opening credit does foreshadow what’s to come in the hour, “It’s not because the producer doesn’t care,” says our source. “They’re just probably so slammed that it fell through the cracks.”

Editor’s note: The placement of credits (e.g. Morgan’s Supernatural 2×22 return) can change when a show lands on streaming services/other after-broadcast platforms.

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  1. Steven says:

    Interesting Article. I remember when Anthony’s Stewart Head made a surprise appearance in Two to Go they included him at the end as a Special Guest Star.

  2. Angela says:

    I honestly don’t even think to look all that closely at the opening credits much of the time-I might catch bits and pieces of them as they’re flashing the names past, but that’s about it, so I often don’t even realize the guest star’s name popped up until somebody points it out later. In the case of the “Criminal Minds” mention, that one I heard about elsewhere before the episode even aired.
    But I personally don’t get too bugged out about being spoiled for things in general, so even if a surprise guest star gets spoiled for me ahead of time, be it in the opening credits or some other way, I don’t mind. All it generally does is make me even more curious to see why they’re there and what they’re going to do.

    • anon says:

      Same here. Especially since the majority of opening credits are running while there’s a scene going on so I’m paying attention to what’s happening onscreen not what’s at the bottom of the screen.
      I’ve always loved spoilers too so I also have never mad about seeing things beforehand. IA it just makes me want to watch the episode even more (and sometimes it’s nice to know it’s only for one episode depending on who the character is!)

    • Lyndy says:

      Same here I’m too preoccupied with the start of the episode that I can honestly say I never notice the opening credits. What I usually look out for is the end credits for any new music used during the episode that I liked …of which TV shows rarely include music in their ending credits.

      • Andrea says:

        See, I’m totally the other way. I read the credits ALL the time. The actors, the special guest starts, the recurring stars, writers, directors, all of that, so I’d catch a lot of information. It’s nice that SAG, the actors, and the EPs can work together to keep things under wraps when it’s warranted. Great article, Matt.

        • Matt Webb Mitovich says:

          See, I almost never read credits; and I certainly don’t pay attention to them. So in the case of CM, I’ll publish a recap about the surprise return only to have a handful of people say, “Derp, Matt! [Spoiler]’s name was in the credits!”

          • Andrea says:

            Well Matt, if you want to know why I read credits, you can actually thank yourself. Many years ago when you worked at TV Guide, I asked a question about getting Shane Brennan to let Ralph Waite recur on NCIS. Shane was the only showrunner that I knew by name at the time. I think this was very close to when he handed over NCIS to Gary Glasberg. I happened to include Shane’s full name in the question. In your response, you said that many EPs like it when viewers know enough to refer to the EPs by name. Ever since then, I’ve read the credits more closely and learned things like the names of recurring actors, EPs, and directors of many of the series that I watch. So, I’ve become one of those “Derp, Matt! [Spoiler]’s name was in the credits!”” thanks to you

  3. yay says:

    This takes me back to years and YEARS ago in ER when Juliana Marguilea was leaving and I just knew Clooney would come back and I looked for his name in the opening credits but it wasn’t there. They really got me! They really held that surprise. It was awesome.

    • Matt Webb Mitovich says:

      I was reading up on that while prepping this. NBC didn’t even know he was in the episode! WBTV left out final scene from what network approved, then shipped a revised edit for broadcast. (NBC was reportedly angry because they could/would have promoted Clooney’s return yada yada.)

      • Steven says:

        That’s awesome!

      • TheDuck says:

        “NBC was reportedly angry because they could/would have promoted Clooney’s return yada yada.”

        Which is undoubtedly why WBTV did it that way. The same thing happened on an episode of Frasier, when the producers didn’t want to spoil Shelly Long’s surprise cameo at the end of the episode: they added the scene after NBC approved the episode (and, just like with ER, NBC was not happy!).

        • Gospino says:

          I think the original version ended with Carol heading off with the intention of going to Doug. Then the scene where they actually reunited was slipped in at the end. It was one of the he best surprises ever. So glad it didn’t get spoiled. As for NBC wanting to promote Clooney’s return, he was in the last scene for maybe half a minute? And I think he had all of one line of dialogue. A lot of viewers would have felt cheated if such a brief return had received much promotion. It worked partly because it was not promoted.

      • Stacy says:

        God bless WBTV! NBC would have ruined what became an iconic moment in television.

        • g says:

          give credit it to John Wells – he was the show runner & likely the one who got Clooney to agree to it as long as it was kept secret

      • Playhouse says:

        If I recall, they only brought Clooney, Margulies, two or three tech folks (including the cameraman), and maybe a line producer to Seattle to shoot the scene to keep it secret from even the cast and regular production.

      • fightfan3 says:

        That’s interesting, b/c I remember very vividly an Entertainment Tonight story in about Jan. of that year talking about the Clooney return so I wasn’t surprised by it at all and was waiting for it. Didn’t spoil my enjoyment of the episode at all because I knew about it so far in advance.

        However, when things like Harold Perrineau’s return to Lost are spoiled episodes in advance due to being listed as a permanent member of the cast again even though he didn’t return until episode 7 of the year (just looked it up to state an accurate figure) it ruined his return -> became more of a “When the hell is he coming back?” rather than “Whoa, he’s back!” situation.

  4. BM says:

    I rarely notice the credits unless they’re in NCIS opening credits form and even then I only notice the regulars. I often have to go back to the credits when a guest star looks familiar and I don’t remember the name.

  5. Erick says:

    The awesome one I remember is when Katee Sackhoff as Starbuck was credited at the end of the season 3 finale of Battlestar, after having been taken out of the main credits a couple episodes earlier.

  6. Lauren says:

    I’ve definitely been spoiled by opening credits before, and been super mad about it! You would think since producers take the time to get these surprise guest spots, it would occur to more of them to protect the surprise in the opening of the show.

  7. Brandon says:

    Very interesting. I seem to remember “Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D.” keeping Samuel L. Jackson’s name off the opening credits when he made his surprise appearance a few seasons ago. Likewise, Henry Ian Cusick’s name didn’t appear on the opening credits of “Scandal” when his character Stephen returned at the end of the kidnapping arc in season 4. I prefer it that way so I’m still surprised when they pop up (although I kinda had a feeling Stephen would play a role in Liv’s rescue, despite him not being on the show since season 1). I wonder if accepting a “bumped credit” affects the amount the actor is paid. Does anyone know?

  8. Mike says:

    Matt Webb Mitovitch – Can you please clarity for me the difference between “guest star,” “special guest star,” and “special appearance by”? Neal McDonough is always credited as “special appearance by” on Arrow. I know “special guest stars” are usually returning former series regulars or higher profile names.

    • kalli says:

      It’s decided in the contract negotiations, so the fine details may not be the same in each situation.

      Also starring means regulars who don’t have a credits spot.

      Guest stars are usually booked for a certain length of time – non-regulars who might be there for one episode or a pre-contracted arc, and have enough screen time or plot relevance to not be relegated to Police Officer #2 in the end credits (so, think baddie of the week).

      Special guest stars are more “important”, usually big names or higher paid, but also may have non-defined contracts which are like ‘seven episodes in season four’ rather than ‘episodes 3-10’. They might have more screen time than a normal guest star, or get paid more due to their reputation or history on the show (so, maybe a former regular, name actor).

      Special appearance tends to denote the non-defined, non-locked in contracts, but by not marking it as a guest spot, the actor is free to do other work during that time without carrying the tv commitment as an absolute, since they’re not a ‘guest star’. Edward Herrmann on Gilmore Girls was another one who used that credit. It generally goes along with name actors who have a resume that generally puts them above guest spots, so ‘appearance’ makes it sound like they’re doing the producers a favour.

      Place in the credits is also important and can be negotiated as well – putting the most famous person last, with an ‘and’, is the most common example.

      But all of these are actually decide case by case in the contract – either offered by the producers, or stipulated by the actor, and if it’s important enough to either, negotiated. The only rule SAG-AFTRA has is that they be credited.

  9. Dominique says:

    i’ve been waiting for an article like this for a while, because a lot of shows have done this in the past few months, and it ruined so many things.
    with AoS, it was a d@mn shame they spoiled Trip’s return by having BJ Britt be in the credits. it could’ve gotten a much bigger reaction out of people had they left it out.
    the flash has done this a few times in a row now; they credit a returning guest star, only for that person to show up in the very final scene. it’s such a shame cause it takes away from the surprise.
    i remember years ago, watching the series finale of smallville, pretty much all the returning actors from previous seasons had been announced (michael rosenbaum etc), except for aaron ashmore, who as it turned out would return in one of the last scenes as the grown-up jimmy olsen. it could’ve been such a wonderful last surprise, but they completely ruined it by making aaron’s name appear in the credits.
    oh well. i get worked up about this kind of stuff probably just a tad bit too much. but with so many spoilers out there already, it would be nice if they could keep stuff like this a surprise.

  10. ScottJ says:

    Little bit hypocritical since this very site routinely puts major spoilers in its page titles. What is wrong with just using the episode number?

    • Dominique says:

      except they do this AFTER the episode airs, and even write down urls in their twitter account that mask said major spoilers until after you click on it. this last part also goes for spoilers that are released before an episode airs.
      also this is a website known for giving out spoilers. people can choose to click on their articles. we can’t choose if we want to be spoilered by an actor’s name appearing the credits. network and/or show executive producers make that choice for us.

  11. Stacy says:

    Look, I want all actors to receive their due. They should appear in credits by the end, and after the episode airs the appearance should be listed on IMDB. BUT – the story should always, ALWAYS, come first. I think it’s ridiculous they have to obtain a waiver in situations like these. I wouldn’t be on this website if I didn’t appreciate the occasional spoiler, but the best TV is the stuff that leaves me involved and surprised. I don’t want to guess or foresee every twist and turn.
    One of my favorite, truly gasp worthy TV moments was when Josh Charles left The Good Wife. I was so glad I didn’t know in advance. It would have completely changed my reaction to that scene.

  12. Eran says:

    Terrific article! I for one, will never ever forget the epic OMG moment, many many years ago when Falcon Crest brought back Abby Dalton’s presumed-dead Julia Cumson and as she appeared at the very end of the episode, they did a freeze frame and then came the credit – Special Guest Star: Abby Dalton.
    I have never seen it done that way before or since and if you ask me, that was by far the best way of doing it because the surprise was absolute and credit WAS given.

  13. kate says:

    This started bothering me on Teen Wolf a few years ago because the nick of time return is a thing on the show but, you go and throw J.R. Bourne there, Chris is going to save everyone’s bacon (to solve this, they just made him a regular even though I swear we saw him more when he was a guest star) and you got your eyes used to avoiding the bottom of the scene, so if Megan Tandy appeared, I would be pleasantly surprised to see Braeden. I sometimes wish they just used kind of a yellow font which oddly wouldn’t stand out any more than the white font does on even these dark shows. I must say, I was spoiled by lots of things about Martha’s return. Hell, I haven’t even watched that episode of the Americans yet but as she did pop up earlier, I anticipated she wasn’t just a one off. I think I had heard about B.J. Britt from the social media world ages ago (though Brett Dalton was a surprise at the end there), but interestingly, in the last three episodes, I will be trying to avoid them because if either of them show up in the guest star before the credits, I will know that they reaccessed the Framework and that my hope that they use Aida’s machine for the three characters we want (Trip, this good version of Ward and Hope) to become real people will heighten so much that I will be disappointed otherwise.

  14. Cas says:

    I don’t pay that much attentionto opening credits. I am not sure who returns in CM (but my guess is SM)but Ifeel like I read he was returning for an episode which I feel like often happens instead of an opening credits spoiler

  15. Raana says:

    Homeland did a great job with an appearance by Damien Lewis S4E7 that was not indicated until the end of the episode as a “Special appearance by Damian Lewis”

  16. Meri says:

    The same goes for the time Buffy FINALLY added Amber Benson to the credits and then killed her off!

    Personally I always notice it in the credits and I go out of my to not read/see spoilers. It’s super annoying!

  17. Meri says:

    The same goes for the time Buffy FINALLY added Amber Benson to the credits and then killed her off!

    Personally I always notice it in the credits and I go out of my to not read/see spoilers. It’s super annoying!

  18. Trey says:

    I was disappointed in the Criminal Minds reveal in the credits this week and was pleasantly surprised to see this story explaining how this happens in general. Thanks for the info!

  19. James says:

    wait what is Kripke talking about? i remember Jeffrey Dean Morgan being credited in the SPN season 2 finale ep quite well. i also remember them promoting it in spoiler news and stuff also that he would be returning so it wasn’t like it was a big surprise.

  20. Mo says:

    The opening credits on Scorpion sometimes take 20 minutes to play out. Cast is always first, though.

  21. Playhouse says:

    I wonder if productions are limited by the number of waivers they can file in a season, as well.

  22. My favorite example of this was NBC’s Profiler. The serial killer “Jack” was credited as a regular. It wasn’t until Jack’s true identity was revealed in S3 that Dennis Christopher was finally credited.

  23. My favorite example of this was NBC’s Profiler. The serial killer “Jack” was credited as a regular. It wasn’t until Jack’s true identity was revealed in S3 that Dennis Christopher was finally credited.

  24. Frank Leppard says:

    LOST suffered from this SAG requirement a few times…

  25. Gerald Christie says:

    Between the Match Game and this one, I’m just loving this articles so keep them coming. Great job and thanks Matt.

  26. Karen MT says:

    That reminds me of the 200th episode of Stargate when they mocked surprise returns like that.

    “Wow, I don’t think anyone will see that coming.”
    “No, but there’ll be spoilers.”
    “Are you kidding? It’ll be in the commercial.”

  27. Ben says:

    Leonard Nimoy in Fringe, I seem to remember.

  28. Kim R says:

    This week I just happen to catch an episode of Little People Big World. It was about Zach and his wife, who are expecting their first child, finding out the baby’s gender. A big party was planned and the entire episode was leading to the last 5 minutes and the big reveal. They decided to be surprised along with all their guests so they gave the results to a friend who then packed balloons of either pink or blue into a break away box to be released at the end of a countdown. Of course, right at the end of the countdown the show broke for commercials for dramatic effect. The first commercial was a promo for the next episode where Zach and his wife were thinking of the name Malachi. Yeah. So. Blue balloons. :)

  29. joefromwb says:

    I’ve been rewatching Twin Peaks, and Piper Laurie wasn’t in the credits at all for the first few episodes of Season 2, even though she was in the episodes in disguise as Tajimura. Her name didn’t show up until the end credits of the episode she was finally revealed as Catherine-in-disguise.

  30. Matthew says:

    Daredevil was similar to Revenge for Vincent D’onofrio’s brief return as Fisk in Season 2, by not showing his name until the final credits.

    What was funny, was that Stan Lee’s name wasn’t shown in Big Hero 6 until AFTER his Post credit scene.

  31. Nerdbot says:

    Revenge did a great job hiding surprising returns. Besides Madeleine Stowe’s return in the second season premiere, they did the same when Lydia Davis was revealed as Margaux’s source and, if I’m not wrong, when Mason Treadwell appeared at the end of one episode.

  32. mooshki says:

    It’s funny to read this article here when TVLine is so notoriously bad at spoiling things in titles and URLs. :) (I love ya, but…)

  33. SJ says:

    Happened on this week’s The Catch too! I hate it when they spoil things like that.

  34. dsrbroadway says:

    I’m almost alway looking at the opening credit for who’s in the show, just by force of habit. But is there a rule that says dramas have to have opening credits, but comedies don’t? As as an example they can follow, look at Last Man on Earth – they don’t show guest credits until the end, and special guest stars have their own card.

  35. Allen says:

    I remember in the final season of Friday Night Lights, Julie decided to make the u-turn to Chicago and ended up at Matt’s doorstep — supposedly a stunner as we thought she was going back to the grad assistant. However, Zach Gilford’s name had been in the opening credits, so we were waiting all episode to see him — right until the final three seconds. Surprise ruined!

  36. JJ. says:

    great article matt, like you (and some others) I rarely pay attention to the opening credits so if I had been spoiled by opening credits in the past I wouldn’t have known. Nonetheless these behind the scenes decisions are interesting to think about

  37. canadian ninja says:

    What about when they *sort of* spoil a surprise return in the “previously on” scenes. You know, when they recap an episode from three months (or seasons) ago featuring a storyline they want to remind you of for … no reason at all, but hey remember when Soandso died mysteriously…

  38. tatjanav2 says:

    More often it’s the trailers and “exclusive” press releases that spoil rather than opening credits … I’m looking at you Fox for ruining that perfect X files episode 3, when I think of it they spoil every single show with their promos

  39. E. D. Boddy says:

    I don’t recall if his appearance was pre-publicized, but when Patrick Duffy returned to Dallas in the last scene of a season finale – he was identified in the closing credits: “Patrick Duffy as”.

  40. Phil says:

    OUAT is especially egregious at ruining their twists by the actors’ names in the opening seconds. Really wish producers would put more effort into this recurring situation to protect the integrity of their storytelling. It’s like buying or creating a beautiful present, wrapping it with all the trimmings, and then putting it under the tree with a giant rip front and center down the middle.

  41. dude says:

    I remember the season 7 finale of One Tree Hill ended with Crazy Katie returning from being institutionalized and shooting Clay and Quinn which would have been a great surprise…had Amanda Schull not been billed in the opening credits.

  42. So did The Leftovers have to get a waiver in order to put all the credits at the end of the episode of 301?

  43. Scott says:

    Let’s not forget the placement of “Introducing John Hurt as The Doctor” was at the very damn end of the episode! As it should be!

    (The episode is turning 4 years old this Thursday. WOW.)