Stephen King recently declared he didn't watch Mad Men because "it's basically soap opera," echoing essayist Daniel Mendelsohn who, in a New York Review of Books takedown, called it "a soap opera in high-end clothes." Soap opera is shorthand for melodrama the way Brad Pitt is shorthand for handsome, but why is it a pejorative? Is it because soaps are dying or because even in their heyday they were watched mostly by housewives? When All My Children left the air in 2011, writer Rebecca Traister defended soaps in The New York Timesas the first TV genre written by women for women and starring women. Yet this meant focusing on "female priorities" such as relationships and romances (what your history teacher might've called "the domestic sphere") that were deemed less significant than male priorities (like war and work) and thus the genre was derided. Soaps are now your grandma's stories, a guilty pleasure you never admit to watching in public.
But to dismiss soaps is to dismiss what makes much of today's TV shows great. All serialized dramas began with Guiding Light,and decades ago when soaps were a thriving genre they essentially bankrolled most of television. Also, while some soaps are indeed silly--the plot, acting, and dialogue on Days of Our Lives always seemed like a caricature--declaring bad soaps as indicative of an entire genre would be like writing off all of sci-fi and fantasy, including quality shows like Lost and Game of Thrones, just because Teen Wolf is bad.
In the '80s and '90s the late Bill Bell produced The Young and the Restless and The Bold and the Beautiful, both of which looked and sounded completely different from most soaps on the air. Bell played out realistic storylines of psychologically complex characters over years, stretched melodramatic moments to unbearable breaking points, and covered several character arcs per story. While many soaps featured only brightly lit sets, close-ups, and shot-reverse-shot camerawork, Bell used gothic stage lighting, long shots, and soft focus. While many soaps featured cheesy dialogue underscored by even cheesier music, Bell wrote economical dialogue and mixed the background music with heartbeat sounds and faint screams to create an atmosphere of tension and dread. These were artistic choices made within the soap milieu of melodrama and absurdity, and they shouldn't be scoffed at.
Mad Men is definitely a soap--even Don Draper's name has the artifice and iconography of Erica Kane--but that doesn't make it insignificant as Mendelsohn and King contend. The soap archetypes are all there: hidden identities (Don Draper/Bob Benson), corporate intrigue (the changing of the guard at SCDP), secret pregnancies (Peggy), secret paternities (Joan's son), divorce and quick remarriages (Don and Betty), absurd moments (the lawnmower incident), amnesia (Pete's mistress), and even return-from-the-dead (Don Draper died in the war). Matthew Weiner also made the subtext text with Megan Draper as a soap actress and scenes from her show often echoing in the "real world." But these tropes are all in the service of character studies and the deconstruction of American identity through imposters, a theme so important F. Scott Fitzgerald couldn't stop writing about it. That hybrid nature is why the series remains critically beloved. Other modern soaps like Revenge, Downton Abbey,and Six Feet Under offer similar gravitas through action-packed retribution storylines, stiff-upper-lip sophistication, and the ultimate theme of Death. Pure soaps like Brothers and Sisters don't reach the zeitgeist in the same way.
Even some raved-about dramas aimed more squarely at men feature soap traits. Call them soaps in drag. Homeland is marketed as a prestige thriller with a kick-ass female lead, a terrorist male lead, and a healthy dose of violent action, but it is essentially a love story with a ridiculous backdrop of international intrigue that only exists to bring together or drive apart the two leads. When Carrie pines for Brody against all reason--against him having her declared crazy and ousted from the CIA while he committed several capital felonies--that's not realistic character-driven drama, that's just good soap. Much of Homeland's excitement fromes from marriage and infidelity and an over-the-top villain, and there are even the soap tropes of amnesia (Carrie zaps her brain at the end of Season One) and return-from-the-dead (Brody was believed killed for several years, as was his later-revealed-to-be-nefarious partner).
The very masculine The Sopranos is another example. Household drama, mother issues, and rival families made Tony Soprano the quintessential soap patriarch, and the show's single greatest episode ("Whitecaps") featured Tony and Carmella fighting and crying their way through a domestic dispute. Not a big mob hit, not a testosterone-filled episode, but a husband and wife battle where the only thing at stake was a marriage. And even Tony got his own return-from-the-dead storyline when he was shot and came back from an afterlife fever dream. Like Matthew Weiner, David Chase paid homage to the show's soap roots on the show itself: Junior Soprano was constantly watching The Bold and the Beautiful and shouting obscenities at its characters. (This motif also underscored the show's Italian-immigrant narrative, since Bill Bell's soaps were always popular with immigrant viewers.)
So instead of using soap opera as a pejorative, let's remember that all kinds of television shows have soap heritage and there is nothing wrong with that. If soaps birthed the serialized TV form, and many current dramas inherited their tropes, then that genre demands respect, not derision. The next time Carrie Mathison is kidnapped by an international supervillain and her bad-boy lover is racing against the clock to save her, just remember that already happened to Laura Spencer on General Hospital.
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