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Narrative Structure in "Friends": Cause & Effect Chain

by Jeremy Butler

As in the classical film, events do not happen randomly in series television. One scene leads into the next, and the next, and the next. A cause–effect chain is erected scene by scene. However, this chain must be broken at least once during a half-hour program, and at least three times during an hour-long program, for the insertion of commercials. The TV chain is not continuous as it is in the cinema. 

The series deals with this discontinuity by segmenting the narrative. That is, the story is broken into segments that fit between the commercial breaks. These between-commercial segments, sometimes called acts, consist of one or more scenes that hold together as strongly as classical scenes do. They end with their own small climax, which leads into the commercial break. The function of this pre-commercial climax is not to resolve narrative dilemmas, but instead to heighten them, to raise our interest in the narrative as we flow into the commercials. New, minor enigmas may even be posed just before the segment ends. 

In “Chandler’s Work Laugh,” for example, Ross is despondent about his failed marriage to Emily. As act one ends, Monica, Joey, Rachel, and Phoebe quiz him about being out all night. He is evading their questions when Janice enters the room—revealing that Ross was with her. As the segment fades to black with a shot of an embarrassed Ross, the viewer is left with an enigma: Were Ross and Janice romantically involved the night before? Following the commercials, this question is answered in the very first scene (yes, they were) and the narrative chain resumes (the first shot after the break).

Narrative Structure in "Friends": Part 3

TV narrative structure -- the series blends with the serial.

from Friends (1999)
Creator: NBC
Distributor: NBC
Posted by Jeremy Butler