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).