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.

5 Replies to “soap opera vs drama”

  1. When I was a teenager, I watched several of the CBS soaps — most sponsored by Proctor & Gamble as they had been for years. Over time, I weaned myself off of all of them except for “Guiding Light” which I finally gave up about a year ago — no reason, just a natural progression. I agree that many prime-time series are nothing but glorified soaps — but nothing wrong with that. I get HBO but haven’t watched BIG LOVE — I’m hooked on BROTHERHOOD which is on Showtime (which I don’t get). I ordered seasons 1 and 2 because Jason Isaacs is in them and I love him. How shallow is that for choosing what to watch? Ah, well…what can I say…

    1. Sounds perfectly reasonable to me. There are authors on my auto-buy list, and actors on my auto-watch list. That doesn’t mean I’m never disappointed, of course. Even when the book or television show or film doesn’t deliver, it adds something to my understanding of the individual’s work.

      It takes a lot to get booted off one of my auto-whatever lists, once you’re on there. At this moment I can’t think of anybody I’ve given up on.

  2. I haven’t seen Big Love and it’s unlikely I ever will, because the subject matter would simply not fly on my side of the Atlantic. But a lot of prime time shows over the years have been basically soap operas, e.g. Dallas and Dynasty, Falcon Crest, Melrose Place and in more recent times Six Feet Under (though unlike all others, that one was actually good). The soap opera model seems to have gone a bit out of fashion of late in the US, but from what I’ve seen of it Desperate Housewives could be argued to be a prime time soap opera (or a parody of one) as well as Grey Anatomy or whatever that hospital show is called.

    I agree that the difference between soap opera and drama lies mainly in the delivery mechanism. Soap operas are serialized drama, mostly family/relationship oriented, broadcast either daily or several times a week during the afternoon (US) or early evening (Europe). Soap operas are open-ended (unlike telenovelas) and can theoretically run forever. Britain’s Coronation Street has been running for 48 years and I guess some of the US soaps are similarly long running.

    The trick is of course that you need a few episodes to get into a given soap (maybe a week’s worth), then you’re hooked until it starts getting repetitive or until they replace the actors. Some 20 years ago I watched the US soaps Guiding Light and Days of Our Lives, because they were more exciting than the lone dreary locally produced alternative around at the time. I watched a German soap for a couple of years, until the actors/characters I liked all left. While I was at university in Britain I watched the UK teen soap Hollyoaks and got myself sucked back in last year when I found out how to get hold of episodes online, even though hardly any of the actors I remembered were still around. I must have watched approximately three or four months worth of episodes, then I lost interest.

    Lately, I found myself sucked into a German afternoon soap called Storm of Love which I used as background noise while correcting papers. It’s bad, even by soap opera standards. It’s hilariously bad and I’ll probably lose interest soon. But for now it’s fun.

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