Monday, 3 May 2010

Act-outs - Buffy season 3

For those who don't know, an "act-out" or "act-break" is simply that moment before the adverts in an episode of television. It has to make you want to keep watching while all those shiny products are advertised. Writers of TV are aware of the adverts and consequently adapt their writing to the time constraints. So they're very important. As Alex Epstein says in his book Crafty TV Writing:
One-hour dramas have four acts. The last thing that happens before the commercial - whatever the act "goes out on" - is called the act out. It is supposed to be an event so compelling that you absolutely must stay tuned to find out what happens next.

An act out is typically a cliffhanger, a situation where the outcome is up in the air. The jeopardy or stakes can be physical, emotional, or moral. Will he pull the trigger? Will the rope break? Will she kiss him? Will he betray her to the police? If the audience wants to find out how the situation turned out, they're going to have to leave the remote alone. (pp 67-68)
Epstein, 2006
I've recently re-watched season 3 of Buffy the Vampire Slayer and made note of every single act-out. This is for my own use really, so I can get a better look at what makes a great act-break and just how to nail them. Every time I watch an episode written by Joss himself, I find myself saying "Now that's an act-out!!!" He simply does them better than anyone else I'm aware of.

This season is scribed by a team of 7 writers: Joss Whedon (5 episodes), Marti Noxon (5 episodes), Jane Espenson (3 episodes), Doug Petrie (3 episodes), David Fury (2 episodes), David Greenwalt (2 episodes) and Dan Vebber (2 episodes).

Each episode is roughly 40 minutes long, which equates to 1hr of TV time. Here's a basic layout of a Buffy episode:

Teaser - 1-5 minutes before the credits (sets the tone for the episode)
Act 1 - from the end of the opening credits to the first set of adverts at about 8-12 minutes in.
Act 2 - from rejoining after the first set of ads to about 18-22 minutes.
Act 3 - from the end of ad break 3 to roughly 28-32 minutes.
Act 4 - from rejoining after the adverts to the end of the episode (note: this act also contains what's known as a "tag." The tag - in the same way the teaser sets up the episode - closes the episode and resolves things.

So there are 3 sets of adverts, meaning 3 act-outs per episode (not counting the ending of the ep to make people tune in next week). Look how each one makes you stay put for the next act. It also might be interesting to see how each writer does their own act-outs.

So take from this what you will.

3.01 - "Anne" (written by Joss Whedon)
Still not knowing where Buffy is, the rest of the gang returns to school. When Buffy, who is living under an assumed identity, is recognised in a diner, she begins her fight to return home from the Netherworld she has fallen into.
Act-out 1 - Buffy is hit by a car (hard!)
Act-out 2 - 20-something Ricky is found dead. We know it is him (because of a tattoo) but he looks at least 70 now even though only a few days have passed.
Act-out 3 - Buffy is trapped in a demon-run factory where humans are kept as slaves.

3.02 - "Dead Man's Party" (Marti Noxon)
Buffy returns home, only to find that Principal Snyder won't let her back in school, Willow seems to be ignoring her, and her mother is thinking of sending her to a private girls' school. It isn't until Buffy saves them all from an invasion of zombies that things get back to "normal."
Act-out 1 - The gang see Buffy back in Sunnydale after the Slayer had spent the whole summer MIA.
Act-out 2 - A scary mask brings a dead cat back to life.
Act-out 3 - Dozens of zombies make their way to Buffy's house party.

3.03 - "Faith, Hope & Trick" (David Greenwalt)
There's a new Slayer in town, named Faith, and she's moving in on Buffy's territory. But Faith and Buffy soon join forces when they are threatened by Kakistos, Mr Trick and a bunch of vampires.
Act-out 1 - A scary-voiced vampire wants to rip out the Slayer's innards
Act-out 2 - There's a new Slayer in town - Faith.
Act-out 3 - Terrifying vampire Kakistos confronts Buffy and Faith.

3.04 - "Beauty and the Beasts" (Marti Noxon)
When Willow lets Xander watch Oz, who is in full werewolf form and locked in the library, things get a little hairy... Xander falls asleep on duty and a friend of Oz's is found mauled. Did Oz do it... or did Angel, who's back and in a feral state?
Act-out 1 - Buffy sees Angel - now a feral beast after returning from Hell.
Act-out 2 - The psychiatrist is dead. Possible killers: Oz, Boyfriend Demon, Angel.
Act-out 3 - Oz squares off against the Boyfriend Demon.

3.05 - "Homecoming" (David Greenwalt)
School's ending and everyone's under pressure. Buffy misses getting her yearbook picture taken, then challenges Cordelia in the run for homecoming Queen. Scott breaks up with Buffy, Willow and Xander share a passionate kiss and Mr Trick kicks off "Slayerfest '98."
Act-out 1 - "The target is the Slayer!"
Act-out 2 - Slayerfest '98 - multiple demons/hunters preparing to kill Buffy.
Act-out 3 - Everything kicks off as the demons go after Buffy & Cordelia.

3.06 - "Band Candy" (Jane Espenson)
As Buffy stresses over her SATs, Principal Snyder enlists the students to sell candy. Everyone knows kids love candy, but what these chocolate bars do to the adults is anything but sweet.
Act-out 1 - Master of Chaos Ethan Rayne is back in town.
Act-out 2 - A gun is pointed at Giles and Buffy et al are in a car crash.
Act-out 3 - A gang of vampires walk into the hospital and steal babies.

3.07 - "Revelations" (Douglas Petrie)
Faith's new Watcher arrives and brings distressing news: she's been sent to report on Giles' performance, and a demon named Lagos is coming to Sunnydale in search of the Glove of Myhnegon. Things get worse when Giles finds out that Angel is back... and he has the Glove.
Act-out 1 - Xander sees Angel - realisation that he is back from the dead.
Act-out 2 - Gwendolyn Post knocks out Giles - she's evil.
Act-out 3 - Post has taken out Angel and is about to raise a demon.

3.08 - "Lover's Walk" (Dan Vebber)
Love casts its magic spell and leaves a trails of broken hearts in Sunnydale. Spike blames Angel when Drusilla breaks up with him. Cordelia and Oz catch Xander and Willow kissing, and Buffy decides it's time she stops seeing Angel.
Act-out 1 - Spike kills shop assistant - he is going to do a spell.
Act-out 2 - Spike turns up at Buffy's house and confronts Joyce.
Act-out 3 - Buffy, Angel & Spike surrounded by vampires.

3.09 - "The Wish" (Marti Noxon)
Cordelia finds out you must be careful what you wish for. When she tells her new friend tht Buffy is to blame for all her problems, Cordelia unleashes a demon that only Buffy can save her from.
Act-out 1 - Cordelia's wish is granted by Anya, who is revealed to be a demon.
Act-out 2 - Giles watches on helplessly as Cordelia is killed by Vamp Xander & Willow.
Act-out 3 - Buffy saves Giles - she's arrived in Sunnydale looking all badass.

3.10 - "Amends" (Joss Whedon)
The Christmas spirit is dead in Sunnydale. Buffy, Giles and the gang's research into why Angel is back leads to "The First Evil" and the first snow Sunnydale has ever seen. Meanwhile, Willow and Oz decide to give their relationship another shot.
Act-out 1 - After a dreamwalk, we realise Buffy was actually in Angel's flashback.
Act-out 2 - The First tells Angel to kill Buffy - will he?
Act-out 3 - Angel decides to kill himself - not the First's plan, but "it'll do."

3.11 - "Gingerbread" (Jane Espenson)
When two young children are found dead, the whole town rallies together and blames witchcraft. When witch paraphernalia is found in Willow's locker, no-one believes it was for a special birthday present she was preparing for Buffy.
Act-out 1 - Willow, Amy et al are possibly responsible for child murders.
Act-out 2 - The dead children are actually still alive.
Act-out 3 - 'Mothers Opposed to the Occult' are going to kill Buffy, Willow & Amy.

3.12 - "Helpless" (David Fury)
As Buffy's 18th birthday approaches, she begins losing her powers. When she finds out from Giles that it is a test she must pass, she feels betrayed by him. As she struggles to regain her powers, Giles is fired for not being an impartial Watcher.
Act-out 1 - Giles is drugging Buffy to make her weak.
Act-out 2 - Kralik (badass vampire) is free and turning other vampires.
Act-out 3 - Kralik arrives at Buffy's house with Joyce.

3.13 - "The Zeppo" (Dan Vebber)
Is Xander losing his cool? When a series of incidents lead Cordelia to remark that he is useless compared to his friends, Xander sets out to prove her wrong. But joining a gang and fooling around with Faith might get him in more trouble than ever.
Act-out 1 - Xander crashes into Psycho's car, who squares off on him.
Act-out 2 - Psycho to 'initiate' Xander - kill him.
Act-out 3 - There is a bomb in the school (where everyone is)

3.14 - "Bad Girls" (Douglas Petrie)
Mr Trick brings swords of El Eliminati vampires to the Mayor, who doesn't want anything getting in the way of the upcoming "dedication." But Buffy and Faith are determined to eliminate the Eliminati and nothing will stop them.
Act-out 1 - Buffy & Faith launch a suicide mission against over a dozen vampires.
Act-out 2 - Buffy & Faith are confronted by cops, guns raised.
Act-out 3 - Faith kills a Alan (a human) - Buffy stares on horrified.

3.15 - "Consequences" (Marti Noxon)
Even though Giels thinks it's a waste of time, new watcher Wesley orders Faith and Buffy to investigate the murder of Alan. With everyone, including the police, questioning them, Buffy and faith soon find themselves arguing over whether to tell the truth about their involvement.
Act-out 1 - The Mayor knows the Slayer killed Alan.
Act-out 2 - Wesley hears Buffy & Giles talking about Faith murdering Alan.
Act-out 3 - The Watcher's Council KO Angel and arrest Faith.

3.16 - "Doppelgangland" (Joss Whedon)
Doomed to live life as a mortal after her amulet was destroyed, Anya approaches Willow for help. Willow agrees, hoping to shred her reputation as "Old Reliable."
Act-out 1 - Anya & Willow's spell has summoned Vampire Willow (from "The Wish")
Act-out 2 - Vampire Willow squares off on Regular Willow.
Act-out 3 - Vampire Willow attacks Cordelia. At the Bronze, Regular Willow's cover is blown (she was pretending to be Vampire Willow)

3.17 - "Enemies" (Douglas Petrie)
A demon offers to sell the Slayers the Books of Ascension, but Faith, acting on behalf of the Mayor, kills the demon and steals the books. When Angel refuses to help Faith, the Mayor enlists a shrouded demon to rob Angel of his soul.
Act-out 1 - The Mayor & Faith's plan deepens - they will get to Angel and take his soul.
Act-out 2 - Angel's soul is taken and Angelus arrives. He kisses Faith.
Act-out 3 - Angelus and Faith take down Buffy - 2 vs 1.

3.18 - "Earshot" (Jane Espenson)
After a vicious fight with a couple of demons, glowing demon ooze seeps into Buffy's skin. At first she is not pleased to learn what has happened, until she starts to have fun with her new-found powers.
Act-out 1 - Buffy discovers she can read minds?!
Act-out 2 - Buffy hears someone thinking they are going to kill everyone in the school.
Act-out 3 - Jonathan readies his rifle to unleash hell.

3.19 - "Choices" (David Fury)
Even though Buffy's been accepted into university, it is obvious to everyone but her and her mother that she cannot leave Sunnydale. When Wesley tells her she can't leave, Buffy decides to launch an offensive against the Mayor.
Act-out 1 - Faith cuts demon's hands off and obtains the Mayor's evil box.
Act-out 2 - Faith and the Mayor kidnap Willow.
Act-out 3 - An army of bugs are loosed from the box.

3.20 - "The Prom" (Marti Noxon)
The only thing more worrisome than finding a date for the prom is whether or not the students are safe from the Hell Hounds, who have been unleashed. Even though Angel breaks up with Buffy, he shows up at the dance to share her big night with her.
Act-out 1 - In Angel's dream, Buffy burns up and turns to dust.
Act-out 2 - Buffy is determined to kill the Hell Hounds before Prom.
Act-out 3 - Three Hell Hounds are on their way to the Prom.

3.21 - "Graduation: Part One" (Joss Whedon)
As the gang prepares for graduation they continue to search for a way to stop the Mayor's Ascension. As they did for answers, Angels gets shot by Faith with a poison arrow, and the only cure for him is draining Faith's blood, which would kill her.
Act-out 1 - The Mayor establishes his badass plans for the Ascension.
Act-out 2 - Faith hits Angel with a poison arrow.
Act-out 3 - Buffy sets out to kill Faith in order to save Angel.

3.22 - "Graduation: Part Two" (Joss Whedon)
When the Mayor finds out about Faith, he sends his henchmen after Buffy, who runs to get Angel and offers him some of her own blood to save him. Then Buffy, armed with Faith's knife, joins the rest of the students for graduation, which turns into a ceremony that no one will ever forget.
Act-out 1 - Angel drains Buffy's blood and the Slayer falls unconscious.
Act-out 2 - Buffy is ready for war.
Act-out 3 - The Mayor Ascends into a giant snake demon.

So there we have it - all of season 3 broken down into episode act-outs. I'll be using this as an appendix for my next blog post where I discuss what we can learn from the above; I'll also be taking a close look at some of the best (and worse) act-outs in season 3. That'll be going out this Wednesday 5th.

On another note, I've now started re-watching Buffy season 4 and Angel season 1 (they run along side each other and occasionally cross over), so expect a similar post to this in the next few months.

Feel free to leave comments or criticism below!


Vaughn said...

Very interesting, look forward to more analysis.

Rich Baldwin said...

Very nice. Here's something that might help: Try explaining all the act outs as a active sentences with direct action verbs. If you've written "is", find another way to write out the beat so it's totally about the action. At least, it's always helped me . . ..

Neil said...

@Rich - a very good idea, thanks! I'll be sure to do that next time round - always eager to better my own analysis/writing!