Follow TV Tropes

Following

Rule Of Three / Live-Action TV

Go To

The Rule of Three in live-action TV.


  • It seems like standard procedure for the parents in a Dom Com to have three children. The Brady Bunch (twice over), Growing Pains, Home Improvement, Roseanne, The Nanny, Full House, Reba all involve the three children of the protagonists. The common reason seems to be that it covers all bases; the oldest can have typical teen problems (dating, driving, etc.), the middle can have the kid problems (first day of school, etc.), and the youngest can either sit and look cute or say random funny things. The big reason for the Cousin Oliver is to bring in another cute one when the child actors have the audacity to age and upset this delicate balance.
  • Advertisement:
  • Countless game shows have three contestants per episode. Jeopardy! and Wheel of Fortune are the best known.


  • Over the course of 24 there were in total three moments where a character that was part of that season's main cast was killed by a character that was another member of the main cast. These notably tied in with either the revelation that their murderer was really Evil All Along and/or that s/he was undergoing a Face–Heel Turn.
  • 30 Rock:
    • Lampshaded in the episode "Hey Baby, What's Wrong" by Dr. Leo Spaceman, after the second of three of Jenna's examples of what pressure means to her.
    • Another episode has Tracy afraid after two celebrities died fearing he may be next.
  • The Adventures of Superman: 1) Faster than a speeding bullet. 2) More powerful than a locomotive. 3) Able to leap tall buildings in a single bound. Look, up in the sky. 1) It's a bird. 2) It's a Plane. 3) It's SUPERMAN!
  • Babylon 5 has this all over the place:
      Advertisement:
    • The Minbari have three castes, the ruling body consists of three individuals from every caste so 3 times 3, three languages, the most holy artifact is a triangle — and they have three of them)
    • Also, the Vorlon epigrams "Understanding is a three-edged sword" and "There are three sides to every question: your side, their side, and the truth".
  • The Big Bang Theory:
    • (knock knock knock) Penny! (knock knock knock) Penny! (knock knock knock) Penny!
    • (knock knock knock) Leonard and Penny! (knock knock knock) Leonard and Penny! (knock knock knock) Leonard and Penny!
    • Another example, when Sheldon saved Leonard from a rocket fuel explosion in the elevator.
      Leonard: I was just glad that Sheldon didn't rat me out to the Landlord. ... Or to the police. ... Or to Homeland Security.
  • On the US version of Big Brother, Boogie & Janelle have both competed 3 times, and three different Danielles have competed.
  • Advertisement:
  • In Blackadder II, the title character seeks the help of a wise woman when he falls in love with his manservant, 'Bob' (who, unbeknownst to Blackadder, is actually a girl in drag). She suggests three "cunning plans": first, he could kill Bob. When he rejects this she suggests he could kill himself, which he's no keener on. The third plan is to ensure nobody else ever finds out: "kill everybody in the whole world!" And in the episode "Major Star", Captain Blackadder gives Lieutenant George three rules to follow during his drag-date with General Melchett: 1) Never remove your wig. 2) Never say anything. 3) Don't get drunk and let him shag you on the veranda.
  • The Bob Newhart Show: Bob almost falls down an elevator shaft and realizes how easily he could die. He then invokes the "Death comes in threes" — "First DeGaulle, then Mao. I could be next!"
  • In the Bones episode "The Shot In The Dark", after an assailant shot Brennan, she found herself having visions of her late mother consoling and advising her. She ended up seeing her mother three times; once after she was initially shot, once after her body went into shock as a reaction to a mismatched blood-type (a key clue that the bullet that shot her was composed of frozen blood) and once when she underwent voluntary exploratory surgery to find traces of the blood bullet that nicked her ribs, in order to link the blood bullet to her assailant.
  • Shows up a few times in Buffy the Vampire Slayer and Angel.
    • An early ep had the Three, the warrior vampires sent by the Master to kill Buffy. They failed, and offered their lives as penance.
    • Angel had the three Transcendent Furies, who Lorne paid to keep Caritas under the non-violence spell.
    • When Cordelia's mind was opened to the world's suffering by a demon, she was cured by Wes's reading of the scroll the group stole from Wolfram and Hart, ending with saying the word 'unbind' three times.
    • The Wolf, Ram, and Hart, the three factions or entities of Wolfram and Hart.
    • In season three of Buffy, when Angel has been poisoned by Faith and needs the blood of a Slayer to cure him, Buffy punches him to get him to vamp out. Of course, she hits him once, twice, aaand the third time does it.
    • Spike knocks down the 'Welcome to Sunnydale' sign three times. Twice by driving his car into it, the third time by using a magical amulet to destroy the Hellmouth and Sunnydale along with it. Subverted, because the first two are played entirely for humour where the third is a consequence of Spike's sacrifice. As the Scoobies look out over the crater that used to be their home, Giles asks, "I don't understand. What did this?" Buffy answers sadly, "Spike." Then the sign falls into the hole.
    • From Season 9 of Buffy:
      Faith: Brooding. Bad decisions. Violence. Rinse and repeat.
  • Charmed (1998): "The power of three will set us free! The power of three will set us free! The power of three will set us free!"
  • Community has Britta's one-time boyfriend Vaughn, who always says hello three different ways.
    Vaughn: Hey. What's up, man? Hi, Bro.
    • This is then lampshaded by the study group, who start to count his greetings on their fingers whenever they see him.
  • The 2nd Criminal Minds episode, "Compulsion", features a serial arsonist/murderer driven by an obsessive-compulsive disorder that forces her to repeat things in sets of three. When (pretty arbitrary) patterns of threes emerge around her it triggers her to start her next round of arson and murder.
  • One of the main storylines of the fourth season of CSI: NY was the '333 killer', who always called Mac at 3:33 am or pm, always freaking him out.
  • The Daily Show.
    • Subverted on more than one occasion:
      Jon Stewart: I know comedy typically comes in threes. We threw that fourth one in there because we like to fuck with the structure.
    • Also subverted in a running gag on the November 10, 2011 episode after Rick Perry's infamous "oops" moment during the Republican primary debate. Throughout the first segment Stewart begins listing things in threes, but fails to come up with a third item to complete the list.
      Jon Stewart: So that leaves three people: Jon Huntsman, Rick Santorum, and... uh.... the Transportation Department? I don't know...
  • Nearly every joke on Desperate Housewives follows this trope. All of Mary Alice's narratives will contain 3 examples followed by the main point.
  • The Trinity Killer in Dexter Season 4. 3 sets of kills spanning 30 years. It turns out he actually kills in sets of 4, but this wasn't discovered as the bodies of the first bodies of every cycle were never found.
  • Doctor Who:
    • "Rose": The Doctor is looking for a large, round transmitter. Rose has to point out the London Eye (a large Ferris wheel) to him three times before he notices it.
    • "Gridlock": Cars have to be carrying three adults to be admitted to the fast lane, with the wheel locked if the control computer discovers the driver's been dishonest about how many people are in the car. In The Teaser, the wife of the couple who cheated to get onto the fast lane believes that the attack by the creatures lurking at the bottom of the Motorway is because they lied about having three passengers. This rule is also why Martha is kidnapped by Milo and Cheen.
    • "The Stolen Earth"/"Journey's End":
      • The Osterhagen Key can only be activated if at least three Osterhagen stations are online.
      • The Reality Bomb is powered by 27 planets: 3³.
      • There are three separate instances of the Tenth Doctor (besides him, the metacrisis Doctor clone and the Doctor-Donna).
    • "Planet of the Dead":
      • The episode is set in three main locations: the area around the tunnel where the wormhole emerged on Earth, the spot on San Helios where the other end of the wormhole comes out and the bus wound up, and the wreckage of the Tritovores' spaceship.
      • Only three stingrays make it through the wormhole before Malcolm manages to close it.
    • The Eleventh Doctor's run has three instances of one character promising another that something they're about to do to them won't hurt, and admitting they lied afterwards: River to Amy, Rory to his dad, the Doctor to Clara.
    • "The Crimson Horror": Mr. Thursday faints three times, upon seeing Madame Vastra, Strax, and finally the TARDIS dematerializing.
    • "The Tsuranga Conundrum": The people on board the ambulance ship can only send a message to their destination hospital denying the presence of hostile lifeforms onboard three times before it will stop working.
    • "Resolution": The Dalek recon scout was split into three pieces after its defeat, each of which was entrusted to one of three custodians.
  • All versions of Family Feud allow a family three misses on the board before forfeiting control of it to the competing family.
  • Happens on Fuller House. In the season one finale, Kimmy runs away from her wedding three times before she makes a choice to stay engaged.
  • Game of Thrones:
    • Daenerys is the third of the three children of Aerys Targaryen, hatches three dragons, conquers three slaver cities, settling in the third, and her house sigil is a three-headed dragon.
    • Ramsay casually shoots two arrows at Rickon, missing both times. Then he draws a third arrow and takes careful, deadly aim. It misses as well, subverting the trope. A fourth arrow that we didn't see him draw hits and kills Rickon.
  • Gilmore Girls: I wish my mom would let me have a car... or a bike... or my roller skates back.
  • Go On: Anne's girlfriend plays with this: "I may not know a lot about books, or movies, or third things to end lists with..."
  • House:
    • There's the episode Three Stories which is Exactly What It Says on the Tin although the stories begin to intertwine and House is trying his best to confuse the medical students about what story they are currently listening to.
    • In seasons 1-3, House's diagnostic team consisted of three members: Foreman, Cameron, and Chase.
  • How I Met Your Mother:
    • In the second episode of the series ("Purple Giraffe"), Ted throws three consecutive parties because he wants to "casually" talk to Robin, who happens not to be able to come at the two first ones.
    • The time Barney kept getting angry, storming out of the bar to a full dumpster, and then smashing a TV. The third time the dumpster had already been emptied, he went to an electronics store, purchased a TV, brought it back to the alley, and smashed it.
    • Barney even has a rule based on this trope telling Ted to wait three days before calling his Girl of the Week and claims it was invented by Jesus when he waited three days before his resurrection. Ted agrees to wait three days, but notes that rule doesn't say anything about texting. However, he was unknowingly texting Marshall and Barney after Barney secretly switched the girl's phone number with his own on Ted's phone.
      • This rule was subverted as Future!Ted reveals to his kids that when he got the eponymous Mother's phone number he called her straight away.
  • iCarly uses this extensively.
    • In "iSaved Your Life":
      Freddie: "My mom thinks I'll choke on pills so she pounds them with a mallet and puts them in my fruit sauce.
      Spencer: Fruit sauce?
      Freddie: My mom thinks I'll choke on fruit so she pounds it with a mallet—
      Spencer: Okay yeah, we get it.
      Spencer: What happened to those flowers?
      Mrs. Benson: I soaked them in bleach and then pounded them with a mallet!
    • In "iQuit iCarly", after Sam & Carly have been pulled inside the building, they burst into tears and Spencer turns them to face one another so that they hug, whilst Fleck & Dave do the same thing. Spencer & Freddie look at each other & shrug, before hugging.
  • Subverted by Johnny Carson on one episode of The Johnny Carson Show.
    Johnny: [reading a list of things he forgot to do in order of most recent to oldest] Call Marilyn Monroe to ask her to a dance... Call Marilyn Monroe to ask her to a movie... call Marilyn Monroe to ask to take her to dinner... remember to get Marilyn Monroe's phone number.
  • Kamen Rider OOO has threes in everything. Three sets of three Core Medals per Greeed, three part forms for the hero, three part episode titles. The main characters themselves — Eiji, Ankh, and Hina — make up a trio. Each Previously On… segment has "These three things happened on the last Kamen Rider OOO. The Transformation Trinket is even threefold (medals, scanner, driver.)
  • The 1978 Halloween Episode of The Lawrence Welk Show has the lead singer of "Put On a Happy Face" do this in a spoken word interlude: "Empty bag, empty hand, empty head!"
  • In Legacies, it's revealed that Malivore was created by a "triad" of a witch, a werewolf, and a vampire, all of whom spilled their blood and performed a ritual to raise the golem. They ordered Malivore to destroy any supernatural creature but their own three species. In the season 1 finale, Hope realizes that she's the key to destroying Malivore, as she possesses the blood of all three of those species.
  • In the Lost episode "The Moth", Locke tells Charlie he will give him his heroin back only on the third time Charlie asks for it. On the DVD commentary, the writers and Dominic Monaghan joke that Charlie could have just said, "Give me my drugs, give me my drugs, give me my drugs."
    • The first two times Charlie asks for his heroin, he wants to use it. The third time he asks is after his epiphany during the cave-in, and this time he only wants it so he can destroy it for good.
  • Every edition of Match Game has this in some fashion. The original series (1962-69) used two teams each of three players, and the end game posited three questions posed to an earlier audience. Every version since then had the top three answers to a fill-in-the-blank in the audience match segment of the Super Match.
  • In Mighty Morphin' Power Rangers, Zordon gave the Rangers three explicit rules with being a Ranger: never reveal your identities, never use your powers for personal gain and never escalate a fight unless their opponent does it first.
  • Monty Python's Flying Circus:
    • "Nobody expects the Spanish Inquisition! Our chief weapon is surprise...surprise and fear...fear and surprise.... Our two weapons are fear and surprise...and ruthless efficiency.... Our *three* weapons are fear, surprise, and ruthless efficiency...and an almost fanatical devotion to the Pope.... Our *four*...no... *Amongst* our weapons.... Amongst our weaponry...are such elements as fear, surprise.... I'll come in again."
    • Three sketches in that episode involved the line "I didn't expect the Spanish Inquisition," which was the cue for Cardinal Ziminez and his followers to show up. The third time, they were running late and by the time they could declare, "Nobody expects the Spanish Inquisition!" the credits had rolled and the show was over.
  • Lampshaded on an episode of NCIS:
    Director Vance:...And the third?
    McGee How did you know there was a third?
    Director Vance: There is always a third.
  • Discussed on NCIS: Los Angeles, when Deeks makes the requisite "Gesundheit" joke after someone says a weird-sounding German name... twice, and the others all just stare at him. Sure enough, it came up a third time, and Callen seemed to think it was good.
    Deeks: Rule Of Three. The third time will be hilarious.
  • Newhart: "Hi, I'm Larry. This is my brother Daryl, and this is my other brother Daryl."
  • When Tina Fey hosted Saturday Night Live, she was coached on acting by guest star Steve Martin, who slapped her early in the monologue for her self-doubt, then slapped her again later just for fun, and then one more time immediately afterwards.
    Tina: Was that one for fun too?
    Steve: No, that was the Comedy Rule of Three.
    • A similar rule appeared in "Saturday TV Funhouse" called the rule of seven - an animated Lorne Michaels explained the rule by having Molly Shannon's also-animated character shout "I love it!" seven times to massive applause, but the eighth had the audience boo and fire a cannon at her.
  • Invoked by Sherlock. He lampshades the fact that people expect things to happen in threes, so he hid a fourth listening device in his hospital room.
  • Subverted (as is almost everything) on She Spies; Cassie and Shane each offer one possible, lightly humorous, explanation for an occurrence and then DD offers a third one, no funnier than the first three. The other two girls stare at her and she declares, "The third one doesn't always have to be funnier, you know!"
  • One segment of SMTV Live, Dec Says, had "flashbacks" to Dec's childhood. Ant occasionally appeared in these sketches as an overweight schoolboy who ate huge amounts of food and was referred to as Gi-Ant. In each of those of appearances, the trope would come into play with his Homer Simpson-esque moments. For example:
    "Don't listen to [Dec], Mrs. Deeley; just ignore him. He's just jealous, 'cos he's a skinny beanpole. Aaaah, beans on toast. Even in his duffle coat, you can still see his ribs. Aaaah, barbecue and ribs. You see, he'd like to be like me: beefy. Aaaah, roast beef. *sighs*"
  • This was actually very prominent in The Sopranos. Junior superstitiously believes that it applies to real life, going so far as to hope that his old friend dies of cancer because... two of his friends have died of cancer already, and if a third meets the same fate, he'll be off the hook. Obviously cancer only targets three people of a given generation, right? It also plays into fan theories regarding the finale. Virtually every detail of the final scene evokes the number 3: there are 3 Sopranos at the table, there are 3 pictures on the wall, Meadow is able to successfully parallel park on her 3rd attempt. This brings Junior's "these things happen in 3s" theory to mind, suggesting that Tony really does die at the end to complete the trio that started with Bobby and Sil.
  • Star Trek captains (especially Picard) would frequently list off three examples of some well-known cultural phenomenon. Typically, two of them would be what we would consider "classic" examples, and one would be either contemporary to us, or alien. For example, he might say, "Ah, yes, the great poets of history; William Shakespeare, Walt Whitman, Zyglorty Mospiqxot of T'pingnit." Or, "I've always been interested in classical music; Bach, Beethoven, the Beatles." (Red Dwarf did this precise gag with "Mendelssohn, Mozart, Motorhead".)
    • This tendency wasn't lost on the writers of Mystery Science Theater 3000, who'd spoof it on a regular basis.
      Crow (in Kirk's voice): We have had many wars like this in our own history. Our Civil War of Earth. Our World War one and two. Our Krinkleganglium Wars of Kromulon Thirteen...
      • One episode of ''Star Trek: The Next Generation features this joke from a man claiming to be a historian from the 26th century. Talking to Geordi, he mentions several blind artists by surname, ending with (Stevie) Wonder. On rewatching this episode, one realises that this is meant to be a clue that he isn't from the future but from the 200 years in the past.
      • When Star Trek: The Next Generation the Enterprise got caught in a time loop, reliving the same day over and over — and that day always ended with the destruction of the Enterprise. Eventually they caught onto this and decided to program a message into Data's brain to be sent back into the rift on the next iteration, and hopefully help them avoid the collision that got them caught in the rift in the first place. During the next go-round, the number three continually appeared throughout the day (Data was subconsciously repeating the pattern) until the time of the collision came again. Left with two choices about how to avoid the accident (one suggested by Data, and one by Commander Riker), they noticed that three could refer to the number of rank insignia on Commander Riker's lapel. Therefore Riker's was the right idea, not Data's.
    • The main Power Trio of Kirk, Spock, and McCoy in the Original Series.
    • A gag from the Original Series episode The Trouble With Tribbles:
      Kirk: You'll do it?
      Spock: He'll do it.
      Cyrano Jones: I'll do it!
    • And to top it off in the grand finale of Enterprise has the three Enterprise Captains speaking the "these are the voyages" narration while the three Enterprises appear on the screen.
  • The three presenters on Top Gear. This works well, as two of them can set up a pattern and the third can break it for humor.
  • The Twilight Zone (1959): In "Will the Real Martian Please Stand Up?", said Martian has three arms. The Venusian has three eyes.
  • In an early season of Walker, Texas Ranger, in the first episode of the season, Walker corners the bad guy at the end of the episode. The bad guy turns and faces Walker, assumes a "karate stance" and makes a "karate yell". Walker beats him up. In the next episode, different bad guy, same ending. In the third episode, same ending except just when you are saying "this is getting a bit old", Walker drops his shoulders, sighs and says "Not another karate guy."
  • The Walking Dead Season 7 Ep. 1 SPOILERS: Three peace signs.
  • Wizard of Earthsea: the wizard Ged knows the Dragon's true name and has Power over him.
    Dragon: Very well, little mortal, ask your two questions.
    Ged: Hey! Don't I get to ask three questions?
    Dragon: Yes, you do. Now you have two questions left.
  • Yes, Minister:
    • Two notable interrelated jokes:
      Bernard: It's one of those irregular verbs, isn't it: I have an independent mind, you are eccentric, he's round the twist.
    • Later:
      Bernard: I hold confidential briefings, you leak, he's been charged under Section 2A of the Official Secrets Act.


Top

How well does it match the trope?

Example of:

/

Media sources:

/

Report