Sitcom: What It Is, How It Works
NeoAristotelian Analysis


Richard F. Taflinger

This page has been accessed since 30 May 1996.

This chapter is a basic overview of the elements of NeoAristotelian theory for the analysis of dramatic presentations.

Elements of Drama:

Don't let the chapter title throw you: it may sound frightening but in fact neo-Aristotelian criticism is very simple. 2500 years ago, the great Greek philosopher Aristotle devised a way of examining drama. He came up with a set of component parts that all dramatic presentations had in common. Using these parts it is possible to understand drama, in much the same way that opening the back of a clock allows you to see the parts interrelate and work together. The face of the clock is the result; the gears make it work. The show is the result; the elements of drama make it work. The current use of Aristotle's ideas is called neo-Aristotelian because they have been clarified by new ("neo") critics.

Since I've based the following chapters discussing the situation comedy on the neo-Aristotelian elements of drama, it's a good idea to review them (I'm sure you already know what they are). Many writers and critics have discussed and described the principles, among them R.S. Crane, in Critics and Criticism, Theodore Hatlen, in Orientation to the Theatre, and Hubert

Heffner, in Modern Theatre Practice. They generally agree that there are six major elements in drama: action, character, thought, diction, music, and spectacle, the first three comprising what Crane terms "plot".


" . . . the plot of any novel or drama is the particular temporal synthesis effected by the writer of the elements of action, character and thought, that constitute the matter of his invention."

What the above piece of academese means is that a plot is a mixture of three elements, action, character, and thought, the proportion of each element being determined by the writer according to his purpose (i.e., an examination of character with action and thought subordinate, action more important than character or thought, etc.). Action refers to any occurrence

performed by a character, be it physical, mental, or emotional, that furthers the plot, delineates character, or explains or dramatizes a theme. For example, a character enters and crosses a room (physical) in an agitated manner (emotional) speaking of the stupid thing her husband has just done (mental).

Character refers to mental, physical, and emotional traits presented by an actor that allows the audience to perceive him or her as a distinct individual.

Thought refers to a theme the author is trying to present to the audience and the rational, motivated background to the action.

All three elements are necessary and present in scripts, but one will almost invariably dominate. It is therefore possible to say that there are three types of plots: plot of action, plot of character, and plot of thought.

A plot of action is one in which characterizations are subordinated to the dictates of action, the development of character given secondary importance. For example,when someone does a pratfall, it doesn't really matter who falls, just that he did.

A plot of character is one in which the characters, their responses to the action, and the effects of the events on the characters' development are of paramount importance. Action and thought are used to bring the characters to development and growth. In a plot of character, who does the pratfall rather than the act itself becomes the important part of the event because he learns not to step on banana peels.

A plot of thought is one in which a certain theme or point of view is depicted. The author uses action and characters to delineate, discuss and examine that theme or point of view. Who slips on the banana peel or that he slips at all is merely the author's way of illustrating the point that human beings are capable of making fools of themselves.

The above are three types of plots. How they are carried out is by using the six major elements of drama.


Action, most critics agree, consists of eight parts: the exposition, the problem, the point of attack, foreshadowing, complications, crises, the climax, and the denouement.

Exposition establishes the time and place, the characters and their relationships, and the prevailing status quo or equilibrium. The audience is given the information necessary to understand and appreciate the changes that are to come.

The problem is the event that upsets the equilibrium, disrupts the status quo, and sets the plot in motion. It is usually something simple in all types of plots, from King Lear giving his kingdom to his daughters according to how they say they love him, to Lucy Ricardo losing her birth certificate. Whatever the problem is, it will relate to the type of plot: in a plot of action it will force the character to do something; in a plot of character it will force one or more the characters to examine some facet of themselves; in a plot of thought it will force one or more the characters into conflict with or support of the theme.

The point of attack is the point in the linear flow of the story at which the writer decides to begin the plot by presenting the problem. For example, Columbo, starring Peter Falk, starts with what leads up to the murder -- most mysteries start with the introduction of the detective after the murder has been committed; Oedipus Rex starts years after the death of his father on the road and is concerned only with the investigation.

Foreshadowing is the writer planting clues during the course of the script, like the clues in a mystery story, that will allow the audience to believe the outcome. It is usually done subtlely, so the audience doesn't guess the ending too soon, but it prepares the audience for future developments, and is a device used in all types of plots. For example, in the movie JAWS, the boat captain gets a machete to cut the ropes holding the shark to the back of the boat. When the shark escapes he sticks the machete into the railing, where the camera focuses on it for a second. This is the foreshadowing that he will use it later to fight off the shark.

A complication occurs after the appearance of the problem and interferes with the restoration of the status quo or the reestablishment of an equilibrium. A character tries to reach an objective, but complications intervene and require the character to readjust as the drama gathers momentum and intensity.

A complication can accomplish any one or a combination of several things: it can push the action along, it can aid in the understanding of a character by the way he responds to the complication, and it can show conflict or additional facets of a theme.

A crisis is the point at which actions may lead in two or more directions and a decision must be made or an event must occur. A crisis is a natural outgrowth of a complication as the character works toward an understanding of the complication and finally reaches the point at which he feels circumstances demand a decision or force an action. For example, if Lucy Ricardo can't find her birth certificate (the problem), a complication may be that she finds someone to vouch for her age, and the crisis would be the person refusing to reveal her own age to help Lucy. Lucy must thus do something else.

The climax is the ultimate crisis, the peak of the plot in terms of action, emotion and thought. It is the point of maximum disequilibrium, maximum disruption of the status quo. In a plot of action, the characters must do something. In a plot of character, the characters must make a decision about themselves. In a plot of thought, the characters must decide what to believe about the theme, and, if necessary, act upon that belief.

The denouement is the conclusion of the story, immediately following the climax. It shows the results, good or ill, of the character's climactic decision, and ties up any loose ends such as explanations about why previous decisions were wrong or right. It also shows the reestablishment of an equilibrium or the restoration of the status quo.

In a plot of action, the denouement shows that the problem has been solved and that no further action is necessary. In a plot of character, the denouement shows that the character has reached a new understanding of rherself and accepts it as a new, or newly discovered, facet of rher personality (sometimes it is the audience that reaches a new understanding). In a plot of thought, the denouement shows the validity or nonvalidity of the theme or point of view. In any case, the denouement illustrates the end of the drama's problem.

The best example of the denouement appears in mystery stories. The inspector calls all of the suspects into the library, leans against the mantle casually, then points and says, "the murderer is . . . ". That is the climax. The denouement is the inspector's explanation of how he arrived at the answer, explaining the clues and how they came together. If he had given the explanation before identifying the murderer, the identity would have been an anti-climax for the reader, since the reader would have arrived at the answer too soon.


Characters are the agents that carry through the plot. The physical, mental, and emotional actions performed by the characters are the means by which a story is told.

Characters represent human beings and are therefore complex in thought, emotion, and interpersonal relationships. Depending on the type of plot (action, character, or thought), characterizations may be shallow (lacking complex thought processes, emotions, and motivations) or deep. The audience must be provided with some knowledge about the characters in order to form opinions and judgments about what happens to them.

There are four basic ways of determining and showing a characterization: what he or she says, what he or she does, what other characters say about him or her, and how he or she looks.

The depth of characterizations, the complexity of emotion, activity, motivation and thought processes, varies according to the type of plot. In a plot of action, characterizations are generally sketchy since a writer is more concerned with the action itself and not with the meaning of the action. The characters perform the actions, rarely analyze them.

The characterizations in plots of character are deeper. The plots are explorations of character, revealing facets and showing growth and change in response to the events. In order for the changes to be seen and appreciated it is necessary to show the original character in depth and examine closely the motivations and mental and emotional phenomena impinging on the individual leading to development of the character.

In a plot of thought, unless the play is dogmatic or propagandistic and thus uses characters that are stereotyped and exaggerated for effect, characterizations are generally deep, at least for the main characters. They are complex in thought and action so that they may examine the theme. However, such characterizations are established quickly and change little during the course of the show so that they do not get in the way of the examination of the theme.

There are three major ways in which an audience regards characters: with sympathy, with antipathy, or neutrally. There are, of course, degrees of feeling, but one will predominate. Sympathetic characters are those for whom the audience cares and hopes for a happy ending: the good guys. Antipathetic characters are those for whom the audience feels dislike and hopes will lose in any conflict with sympathetic characters: the bad guys. Neutrals are characters for whom the audience feels neither sympathy nor antipathy. Such characters are usually supernumeraries who support neither side in plot conflicts.

In any case, the audience should feel something for every character (with the natural exceptions of neutrals). If the audience does feel something, there is interest in what the characters do and a desire to learn what will happen to them. If not, there is no interest in and no point to the show.


Thought is more than just the writer's theme or point of view in the writing of the script. It is also the rational background to the actions and emotions of the characters. Whatever a character does, there should be some reason for doing it. That is the character's motivation. Motivations should be believable to the audience. It should understand why the character does something through knowing how the character thinks, even though characters make decisions under pressure, often in the throes of emotional upheaval.

Nevertheless, thought does include the writer's theme, the moral, the spine of his text, the point he is trying to get across to the audience. If the author doesn't have a point, neither does the drama, and the audience can lose interest.


Diction refers to the language of the script, the words the actors speak. However, words, the lines spoken, do not exist in a vacuum. They are inextricably bound to the characters speaking them, the events and emotions that have gone before and have been foreshadowed to come in the future. The lines suggest many things: the character's state of mind and emotion, relationships with and to others, intelligence or lack thereof, health, background, interests, likes and dislikes.


Music, to the neo-Aristotelians, refers not only to music but to all the auditory elements in a production: the sounds and rhythms of the words, background music, and sound effects. The affects of sound on an audience can greatly enhance mood, atmosphere, and tension. Just watch Hitchcock's Psycho with the sound off to see how effective the sound track is in raising the tension and terror during the shower scene.


Spectacle refers to the visual effects in a production: sets, make-up, costumes, movement. The spectacle provides the background and support for the characters, the plot and the meaning of the script. Spectacle evokes an immediate visual understanding of the atmosphere and mood. In addition, it aids production by allowing a smooth flow of action and visual enhancement of the production. Done properly, the spectacle does not overwhelm the characters, becoming an end unto itself. When special effects, as in some recent science fiction movies, become the emphasis, the movie itself can be boring.


The above elements of drama are used in examining everything from movies to plays to books to TV shows. However, unlike movies, plays or books, television programs have other factors that you must be aware of to understand them.

Television has a tight external structure forced on it by the limitations and practices of commercial television. A thirty minute television series episode, the most common, has the following characteristics:

  • 1. It generally has a playing time of 24 minutes, which, with six minutes of the show's sponsor's commercials fills the standard half-hour television time unit. The 24 minutes are generally divided into four segments which will be discussed later.
  • 2. It appears once a week, each individual episode's plot usually unconnected with any other episode's plot.
  • 3. It uses a cast of actors playing the main and supporting characters that continue in their roles in every show, with transient characters brought in to provide variety and/or plot complications.
  • 4. The relationships of the regular cast of characters stays the same throughout the series, as long as the format remains the same.
  • 5. The main settings remain the same as long as the format stays the same.
  • 6. The major situations in which the characters are found remain the same, plots arising out of the problems introduced to the situation and the characters responding to the problems.

Characteristics three through six remove the necessity of establishing characters, relationships, times and locales for each show, except for those transitory elements necessary to tell each story.

The structure of a typical television show episode is very simple, and applies to the situation comedy. Every show has an opening used before each episode which acts as background to the credits, and which, with pictures and perhaps lyrics to a title song, establish characters, time, environment, and the basic situation: the exposition.

Episodes often begin with a teaser, one to two minutes in length, which introduces that episode's problem, the disruption of the status quo, in such a way that it leaves the audience eager to see what will happen after the first set of commercials.

Act I, 9 to 10 minutes in length, follows the first set of commercials. The major and any minor problems are set, as are any transient characters that are important to the plot. Complications and action appropriate to the type of plot (action, character or thought) build to a crisis just at the end of the segment that will hold the audience through the second set of commercials, wondering what the outcome of the crisis will be.

Act II, also 9 to 10 minutes in length, begins with a reminder of where we left off in Act I. The Act I crisis is explained, elaborated on, and resolved. Complication and action continue to build toward the climax, the point of solution and resolution. In many shows, this occurs just before the third set of commercials.

After the third commercial break comes the tag, the denouement, which runs 45 seconds to two minutes, a final build-up to a punchline more or less but not necessarily related to the plot of the episode. The purpose of the tag is to show that the status quo has been reestablished and to leave the audience with a good feeling about the show so they will watch it again next week.

Thus far the situation comedy appears to be just like every other half-hour series program on television. What makes it different is one prime consideration: it is supposed to be funny. Its main reason for existing is to evoke laughter from its audience. I'll discuss how it goes about doing that in the next chapter.

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