Monday, June 08, 2009

Five act structure and The Apprentice

Ever wondered why certain reality shows are so compelling, despite their apparently formulaic nature? It could be argued that formula is one of the things that make watching them so addictive. The British incarnation of The Apprentice finished last night, with Yasmina hired by grumpy boss Sir Alan Sugar. After a glut of firings on Wednesday's semi-final [and an over-stuffed aftermath show], the finale was far more satisfying.

One workshop I've attended looked at five act structure for TV. Examples cited were reality shows like The Apprentice. Put simply, the five acts are: 1 - set up and call to action; 2 - things go well, initial objectives achieved; 3 - things start to go wrong, forces of antagonism gather; 4 - things go badly wrong precipitating crisis and final confrontation with antagonist; 5 - final battle with anatagonist, matters resolve for good or ill.

So, how does this apply to The Apprentice? The set-up and call to action is clear: opening titles voiceover and the 'Previously on...' section provide set-up, while Sir Alan assigning this week's task is the call to action. Act two: things go well, initial objectives achieved - each team has ideas, gets things moving. Act three: things start to go wrong as forces of antagonism gather - candidates bicker, task goes awry, failure looms.

Act four: things go really badly wrong, etc - one team loses, gets a dressing down from Sir Alan, and the project manager selects two candidates to accompany them back into the boardroom. Act five: final battle with antagonist, matters resolve for good or ill - three candidates face Sir Alan, one of them gets fired, the survivors live to fight another week while the loser gets into a black cab for their departure interview - vanquished.

It's amazing how closely this show hews to the five act structure. However, each act doesn't always end with a twist that transforms the protagonist's fortunes for good or ill. The absence of a single protagonist complicates matters. Even if you treat each team as a group protagonist, the show still follows two groups. But it reaches the boardroom, the number of protagonists rapidly narrows as the final confrontation crisis looms.

Watching The Apprentice, there are times I'd like to see a lot more of the task. But a strict adherence to the show's structure means this section is only acts two and three of the five act structure. The stakes aren't truly raised until the candidates are heading for the boardroom, facing the prospect of being fired. Now half an episode can be devoted to the last two acts, plus the slow curtain epilogue - and trailer for the next episode.

Sigh. As aftermath show host Adrian Chiles said last night, it's going to be a long nine months waiting for the next series of The Apprentice. The good news is Celebrity Masterchef starts afresh this week, so at least I've got that to enjoy. The five act structure is even more explicit there...


Adaddinsane said...

Mornin' :-)

They do the same on Britain's Got Talent (and the rest of the talent shows).

Personally I loathe these false stories and I wonder how people can not notice. Do people fail to see it week after week?

In our house we all groan when they start the "but things are not going well". Time to make a cuppa and turn the sound off.

I like to watch - but only to see real talent, not the freak show.

(Never watched "I'm Big Brother's Apprentice: Get me out of here" etc

laurence timms said...

I don't know much about the creator of The Apprentice, Mark Burnett. I wonder if he knew the five-act structure before he designed the show, and whether he sold it to NBC more like a story than a reality show.

Hm. I'll have to track down some interviews with the guy.

laurence timms said...

Yeah, should have done my research before commenting. The guy knows all about story: "When he describes his reality shows, he references philosophers like Joseph Campbell, Machiavelli, and game theorist John Nash." -