I suspect some will find this to be an odd question. I’ve seen the term “soap opera” bandied about in film and television criticism over the years, typically in a derogatory fashion meant to suggest that the subject of the criticism is vapid, unchallenging, unworthy of serious consideration, etc. In a sense, I understand what a soap opera is: a daytime serialized television drama characterized by an unending story continuity that can last for as long as the show will last, high melodrama, and outrageous plot developments.
However, when I see the term applied in criticism of films (Visconti’s The Leopard) or television dramas (Mad Men, Game of Thrones) that don’t necessarily fall into that categorization, I get less of a sense of a fixed idea and more of a term that carries with it no intrinsic meaning beyond its long-held negative connotations.
To that end, I was hoping that someone would be so kind as to explain the essential characteristics of a soap opera, perhaps via some form of example.
first, the serials were called “soap” opera because they were sponsored by detergents trying to get the attention of the moms, and they are called opera because of the dramatic storylines that permeate the shows, love, death, infidelity, murder, etc,etc, etc, classic melodrama.
it does not apply to Mad Men, and only a little bit to certain storylines of game of thrones, but for critics to call them soap operas are just being lazy
When used like this it is a pejorative term. It implies the show or film in question is not very cinematic (relying on expository dialogue), follows generic plotlines (the idea is for soaps to be as easy to follow as possible so that if someone missed several episodes or can’t remember specifically who character X is or why exactly he hates character Y it won’t matter), has low production values (often shot on video), relies on arbitrary plot developments (often exploiting sex and violence, implied or explicit) that often contradict everything that has happened before and go against the nature of the characters involved, appeals not to the intellect but to the basest of emotions or any combination of the above.
In short, True Blood is a soap opera. Buffy the Vampire Slayer is not.
In the sense you’re using it (when not applied to actual Soap Operas), its a deragatory term for melodrama. Melodrama can be a good thing or a bad thing depending how it’s handled, so these shorthand dismissals are no replacement for a well reasoned critique.
A soap opera generally focuses exclusively on the extremes of emotion in commonplace situations. Common soap opera tropes are things like cheating, uncertainty of the identity of a child’s father, inheritance of large fortunes, things like that. Characters die frequently, everyone sleeps with everyone, everybody is deeply offended by everybody else’s behavior, and there’s a lack of subtlety.
Twin Peaks actually made fun of its own soap-ness, by having a show within a show that was a soap opera.
There are often usually really over -the -top answers to dilemmas. The good girl turned bad really didn’t turn bad. She was just kidnapped by her never -before -mentioned evil twin. Or someone was brainwashed, possessed, something like that.
All That Heaven AllowsWritten on the Wind
There was also a 70’s sitcom called Soap which made fun of soap operas.
Like, the teenage character is having an affair with his teacher. He then dumps her, and she is immediately devastated and spends the rest of the series trying to murder him.
Good one, Jirin. SOAP was only on for maybe 3 seasons but covered a lot of campy storylines in that time as well as some hot -button issues of the time done in an over-the-top way. Off the top of my head I know they covered :
More affairs than you could shake a stick at
Lots of death including a character who is presumed dead but pulls through
Soap vs Mary Hartman, Mary Hartman