A key element of the TV sitcom, no matter if its narrative structure is episodic or serial, is the three act structure. The three act is closely associated with film and literature but nevertheless it still present in TV programming after all what these three mediums have in common is their function of telling stories. What the three act structure consists off is a kind of guide, which serves to construct stories around. It follows what seems to be a logical and natural progression of events starting by Act I: the introduction of the main characters and the dramatic problem. Then follows Act II: a series of complications that arise for our hero as he tries to take over the problem and finally it reaches Act III: a climactic point where the hero finally overcomes the obstacles and reaches his goal and everything is resolved. This is in a nutshell what the three act structure is, there are certainly more complications and further ramifications in each act but a simple definition of this story design will do for this analysis. Moreover this structure is found in books, movies and TV shows but it is in TV where the three act structure is modified in order to fit in the highly segmented format that is TV.
In TV sitcoms there is a pause in between each act, due to the fact that the shows have to cut to commercial breaks in order to advertise their sponsors. The production of most of sitcoms is possible by many means, cable subscription etc... But one of the most important factors is sponsorship. Several shows have been pulled off the air because sponsors felt it wasn’t a good investment because they are not pulling enough audience in etc… Nevertheless along with this obligatory pauses in the narrative that threaten the flow and logical progression of the story we discussed before, TV programmers and writers employ a simple technique in order to maintain an interest in the story after all the breaks. What they do is they insert commercial breaks at turning points or also known as plot points. These are the transitions from act to act.
So what you normally see in a TV sitcom is the first act in which our characters are faced with a problem they have to resolve then they cut to a commercial break and the audience is left intrigue due to the curiosity of how the main characters are going to tackle the problem. When we come back to the show, the main characters decide on a plan of action to take on this problem or threat and they go to action. Complications arise and our main characters are sometimes defeated or close to being defeated by the problem and then we cut to commercial break, leaving us the viewers, wondering on whether our characters are going to be able to resolve the problem. Finally when we comeback we reach the climax of the characters journey, they resolve the issue and all ends well. Then after a commercial break regularly shows come back for a kind of epilogue, or aftermath often shown as the end credits roll on screen and we get a glimpse of how our characters changed or the effects of the journey to resolve the problem caused them. Let’s look at an episode from The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air and see this structure in action.
Every episode of The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air often begins with a prologue of sorts. It mainly introduces the basic dynamic that each character has to each other. For example in season 1 episode 22 “Banks shot” Vivian Banks, Will’s auntie, is going to be leaving town for a brief time period and so Ashley Banks, Will’s beautiful but dull-witted cousin tells her that she is mature and old enough to watch over the house but Vivian, knowing her own daughter refuses to let such a responsibility on her, after all her statements of maturity are undermined by the fact that she is 21 and reading a Seventeen magazine. Then our main character, Will the Fresh Prince himself enters the Banks mansion in his own style, dancing and listening to loud music. His auntie tells him that she is going to be leaving and that his uncle Phil will be taking over the household. After hearing this Will begs Vivian to stay after all Will and his uncle are the two opposite sides of the poll. Will is young, immature, hip, extrovert and a free spirit, while Philip is mature, uptight and old-school. Then we are treated to the Opening Song. In sitcoms what the opening titles do is create the necessary backstory to understand the episode even though this is your first one. So in our case the opening song chronicles Will’s move from the mean streets of Philadelphia to the affluent residential community of Bel-air in California.
So at the beginning of the show Phil is in control of the household. Will being the free spirit that he is asks his uncle for the car keys to drive to a pool hall and have fun. His uncle refuses but Will takes the keys and goes anyway. At the pool hall Will gets hustled by sleazy pool sharks and is hold in debt owing much more money that what he has, consequently the hustlers hold Philip’s car hostage until Will pays up the money. We cut to commercial and the viewer is left wondering what is going to happen? How is Will going to pay them and recuperate Phil’s car? Can he pull this off without getting Philip noticing? These questions are bound to pop up on a viewer’s mind and guarantee that if he is interested enough he just might be compelled and stay tune to finds out what happens.
After the commercial break Will returns back home to get money for the hustlers but Philip discovers what happened and is infuriated because he disobeyed him and because of the trouble he got himself in. But Uncle Phil puts his anger away for the moment in order to deal with the hustlers. They return to the pool hall and he demands his car. The hustlers refuse to give up the car easily and Phil is talked into playing pool for the car even though he continuously states that he has never played pool before in his life. Go to commercial break. Now What is going to happen? The only way to get the car back is by playing but none of them are good enough for the hustlers? Even if they win Will is going to get grounded or sent back home disrupting the family and bringing about the end of the show. (This latest statement is overly dramatic, I highly doubt that even a diehard Fresh Prince fan will trip out this way during a commercial break but for the sake’s of this analysis let’s pretend that they do).
Back from commercial break and after losing Phil asks for a rematch and raises the stakes. The hustler agrees and unbeknownst to him, Uncle Phil breaks out his special pool cue and beats the hustlers getting the car back and even some money. In the end all the questions are resolved. Will was able to get out of that pool hall alive. Phil got his car back and he decides to spare mercy on Will as he identifies with him because as a youngster he used to sneak out to pool halls like he did and learn to hustle.
So as we’ve seen all that starts well ends well. Or whatever. In the end the commercial breaks in the sitcom came at the turning points leaving the viewer hanging with promises that everything will be answered and resolved after the commercial break and it did. So you see TV sitcoms keep the three act structure but TV writers have to raise the stakes and design their stories around cliffhangers to ensure that the audience stays tuned after the commercial breaks.