The three act structure and reality TV

It’s almost too obvious to repeat: every story has a beginning, a middle and an end.

For a story to feel satisfying each of these three stages has to perform its own function.  If you’ll forgive some simplification to fit this into a daily blog rather than a dissertation, the beginning sets up a scenario and its protagonists, the middle creates complication in the situation or jeopardy for the characters, and the end draws the strands to a pleasing conclusion.

Dressing up for Tea

Sound familiar?

Once I’d started thinking about it, I see it everywhere; it seems especially strong in every reality television programme I’ve ever managed to sit through.

If it’s home improvements, it always has to be completed against the clock, and if no disastrous structural problem is uncovered during the work, then there has to be tearful, stand up knock down row over the choice of paint colour; but in the end it all gets finished and everyone is smiling for the hands to face ‘Oh my God’ reveal moment.

Conflict between the participants and the added spice of extreme time pressure are key to the creation of the tension in the middle section of the show, and the teary eyed moment of completion is key for the audience to be satisfied sufficiently to watch again next week.

It’s a clever design, based entirely on ancient principals that can be traced back to Aristotle’s ‘Poetics‘, and the TV production teams squeeze every last viable ounce out of it.

I’ve been thinking about it recently as I’ve been watching the UK television version of  ‘The Biggest Loser’.

I’m not even going to attempt to explain what I find so oddly compelling about it – but I have been drawn into the stories of the participants, their self delusion, self destruction and self pity, and ultimately end up rooting for their success as they shed some of their personal myths along with the pounds.

In Act I we were introduced to the participants and the set up.  Several very overweight couples will stay in a big house and be trained by two determined, whippet thin physical instructors.  Each week, based on a weigh in conducted in a crucible of dimmed lights and serious music, and following a vote by the participants, one or more contestant will be eliminated and sent home.

The end of Act I was marked by the joyous loss of at least half a stone by each person.

In the first part of Act II, one couple was identified as not eating enough and were reprimanded by a serious faced trainer.  It wasn’t long before they were eliminated by their fellow house mates who felt they had failed to gel with ‘the group’.

The next major complication was a week in which most of the contestants lost hardly any weight.  Shocked faces on the screen; tears.  ‘I’ve worked really hard, I couldn’t have done any more’ all round.

‘There must be a problem with the food intake.’

Hmm.  Those of us who were paying attention in Week 2 know that they’re all meant to be putting all their food consumption into ‘The Biggest Loser’ computer application so the trainers can monitor them all the time.

But clearly it’s much better television to leave chronic over eaters to their own devices, to ramp up the narrative tension and create a real risk of on screen failure.

Up until now, there has been very little personal antagonism between the participants, the usual bread and butter of reality telly, so I am anticipating that the next phase will be to create a rift between the two teams.  One will feel the other has been shown favouritism of some kind, or they will accuse each other of underhand behaviour, put up to it by the trainers….

Or maybe I’m just too cynical.

Whichever way it turns out, we can be sure that Act III will culminate in a hands to the face ‘Oh my God’ reveal of a transformed person, who started out wobbling with excess, but who will have developed a neck, cheek bones and a waist.

Can’t wait.

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  1. Ben Johnson

     /  June 8, 2015

    Just curious, when you refer to the three acts is it within the context of a series arc? What are your thoughts on the act structure of an episode?

    • I think the three acts are evident in each episode. Think of all the fake jeopardy that is injected into ‘reality’ tv shows: that’s to satisfy the desire for a narrative with a beginning middle and end.

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