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Joss and Four Acts

There’s a comment thread on Whedonesque – the Joss Whedon fan site — about my post aboutEliza Dushku is Echo Dollhouse and the fact that the script is written in four acts. I’d leave a comment there but you have to sign on to do so. I tried to join but the site is not accepting registrations. I guess they can’t handle any more users. And Whedon doesn’t even have a show on the air.

That guy has one big fan base. And I know why.

I read the script. And it’s great.

But back to the four act thing, here’s what I wanted to tell the Whedonesque commenters.

Hour long TV shows are usually 5 or 6 acts. Six is the more traditional structure, I think — teaser, four acts and a tag or short final scene that wraps up emotional lines. Last season we saw quite a few 5 act pilots with very long first acts to really give the story time to hook the viewer before the first commercial break.

Four acts is pretty unusual. Also unusual is that the Dollhouse acts are almost even in length.

I am not going to give away any plot details here. This is a terrific story. I read it knowing nothing about the premise or characters. The pilot is full of turns and suprises and I was completely fresh to everyone of them. Which is the best way to encounter the story. If you want spoilers check elsewhere.
I will tell you about the shape of the story. With only three act breaks to worry about, Whedon doesn’t have to force the drama up into unnatural cliffhanging pre-commercial moments. He gets into the story quickly and rolls it in out in four virtually equal-length segments.

By eliminating the short final scene or tag, Whedon can play out the real story right to the end, weaving together the final beats of the story with the final emotional moments, rather than playing them in separate scenes. This works really well for arced series like this one will be, where a single story is parsed out over the duration of the series.

The draft I read was an early one. It is possible that in later drafts Whedon went to more acts to provide for commercial breaks. We’ll have to wait and see. I hear that shooting starts very soon.

Dollhouse has got some really interesting thematics. It leaves you with lots to think about. But that’s one of Whedon’s strength. He’s able to tell you an exciting story with characters you feel like you know AND he can fill it with meaning and thought provoking ideas.

Dollhouse is going to be a terrific experience for all to share. We’ll all be on the phone and the web right after each episode ends talking to each other about what just happened. And waiting for the next episode is going to be torture. I can’t wait.

There are links to the many sites with news about Dollhouse on Dollverse and of course Wheonesque.