In ancient Greece everything was easy: A drama consisted of 3 acts.
According to Greek philosopher Aristotle a drama was supposed to have three acts. This was a strict rule and nobody dared to break it. The protasis was used to introduce the characters and the basic plot problem; the epitasis served to increase tension and to highlight the often ethical problems of the hero; the catastrophe lead to the final resolution of the problem.
Then the Romans came along and complicated the whole issue: Introducing the 5-act-drama.
Now a drama was more than beginning, middle and end. Roman drama critic Horace argued that a play should not be longer or shorter than five acts. The first act was still used to introduce the characters and to describe the core problem. The second act served to build tension by complicating said problem. The third act portrayed the climax, or the turning point of the plot. The fourth act was characterized by the falling action, which means that a solution was already visible or the catastrophe was near and inevitable. Now viewers will already know whether the hero is about to win or lose. The decision has been made. The fifth and final act is called denouement: It is the very last scene of the play. Every plot line has been concluded and the audience will feel a sense of catharsis, that is utter relief. According to Aristotle, the catharsis cleanses the viewer off emotions and will make him/her become a better person in actual life. Catharsis is the aim of all drama.
TV Series; or What Happens After He Met the Mother
The whole issue got me thinking: Are TV shows really different from ancient Greek and Roman drama?
As is the case with nearly every aspect of life, things got more complicated from Ancient Greece to our postmodern, globalized society. There is no longer a clear 5-act-structure to TV shows; instead screenplay writers try to come up with radically new, innovative ways of ending their shows. One of the best known examples is certainly The Sopranos. While many TV programs finish single seasons with huge cliffhangers that will have their audience guess and discuss possible outcomes, David Chase opted for the open end to finish his show. A black screen concluded the epic mafia drama and still has fans wondering about what happened to Tony Soprano and his family. I guess, Aristotle and Horace would have been outraged at this option. The infamous screen fading to black does not allow viewers to reach a state of catharsis, it does not allow for emotional purification. Instead it highlights the nihilism of postmodern life. The black screen signifies tragedy and comedy. With the end being unclear, The Sopranos ultimately defy being pigeonholed. It also stands in for a kind of cultural criticism that shifts the act of meaning production from author to reader: According to French philosopher Roland Barthes, the author is dead. It is the reader who creates meaning and David Chase’s black screen allows us as viewer to come up with our personal ending of the hit series.
While some fans are of the opinion that The Sopranos finished too early, there are other shows that can be said to miss their chance at saying goodbye. Just like in sports, it is best to leave when you’re on top. Having just watched the first episode of the final season of How I Met Your Mother, I would say that this show missed the final stop (which is slightly ironic when considering that a good part of the episode takes place on a train). Again, Aristotle and Horace would shake their heads in disbelief watching HIMYM. Although the show has initially been known for its clever plot twists and unforeseeable plot developments, a clear climax has been lacking. The show’s title promises that the climax would be the final revelation of the mother and countless spoilers and teasers have been offered throughout the years: We knew she would have a yellow umbrella, we knew she was at a certain St. Patrick’s party, we knew she was the roommate of one of Ted’s love interests. However, now that we have seen her face, she is just an ordinary girl. According to Horace’s 5-act-structure, this was the show’s climax. It remains to ask what the last season of the show was there for then. While falling action and denouement are usually fairly short in classical drama, Craig Thomas and Carter Bays offer us a whole season of falling action. After the mother has been revealed, the show is about to verge into the mediocrity of an average rom-com TV show. Pity…
But there’s also light at the end of the tunnel. Few shows still know how to introduce characters, build tension and delay the climax so that the audience will be able to suffer throughout the big final and leave their comfy couches afterwards with a sense of catharsis. I would argue that Breaking Bad is the prime example. Having compared it to Shakespearean tragedy content-wise in an earlier blog post, I would also claim that the series adheres to classical drama rules on a structural level. The last episode will be broadcast on Sunday and viewers know that the ultimate Big Bang is still to come. It is hard to say whether Walt really “broke bad” or will redeem himself. It is hard to guess what will happen to the characters: Who will die? Who will survive? Vince Gilligan certainly knows how to build tension and when to close the final curtains.
Ultimately, it cannot be a coincidence that Breaking Bad is a 5-season-show.