soap opera vs drama

Not so long ago the Mathematician and I were watching Big Love (HBO), and he turned to me and asked a simple question. Why, he wanted to know, was this not considered a soap opera?

The simplest answer — the one that came to mind first — was that ‘soap opera’ refers specifically to day time serial dramas. If I remember correctly, the name  originated in the fact that the commercials were primarily for soap-like cleaning products.  I watched soap operas as a teenager and in college, and I have a few vivid memories. But only a very few.  The fact is, daytime dramas are fairly formulaic and predictable because they have to be. You can’t tell an hour-long story five times a week for ten or more years set in one place without recycling. It would be like writing a series of a hundred full-length novels with fifty characters handcuffed together.

But the Mathematician has never watched soap operas, so he only has a general sense of what is meant by the term. Which leads me to believe that it so overused that it doesn’t really mean much any more at all.  It’s a pejorative term. The Mathematician wasn’t impressed; he’s more a Battlestar Galactica type.

Big Love is about a half dozen interrelated families living in Utah. Some of them are mainstream Mormon, but the majority of them are non-traditional (polygamous) Mormons. Of those, some live on a compound but the central family lives in the city, hiding in plain sight. So now, beyond that primary fact, what do you have?  Family conflicts. Generational, religious, cultural. Romances tucked in here and there. This season we also had political machinations that escalated, and then bigger issues were raised.  To wit: If polygamy is a free choice by consenting adults, that’s one thing — but if fourteen year old girls are compelled to marry men who are old enough to be their grandfathers, then that’s entirely something else, with complex long-term repercussions on women of every age. A matter for the law, in fact.  I for one would balk at taking this on,  but the writers and actors and director are in tune and they produced a season’s worth of first class televised storytelling.  The season finale surprised me about a dozen times, and in the best way .

My sense is that there may be two more seasons of Big Love, and then HBO will decide that the storyline is done. This is one of their strengths; they aren’t afraid to let go when the time comes. They will do a brilliant job of winding this up, and move on to the next story. So it seems to me that that is the difference between a soap opera and a drama A drama has a story arc that results in a natural lifespan, something a  soap opera can’t afford.

There are some ways this compares to the writing of novels. A series that goes on past a reasonable lifespan (I’m sure you can name a number of these; I sure can, most of them mysteries).  How this comes to happen is something else to talk about, another time.