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I have read that "Dallas" is a soap, I know that it is a genre, but what are key elements of a soap? Is it just anything schmaltzy?

Wikipedia does not help me a lot:

A soap opera is an ongoing drama serial on television or radio, featuring the lives of many characters and their familial, platonic and intimate relationships.

According to this, I would say the following series are soap operas:

  • "Supergirl"
  • "Lucifer"
  • "Supernatural"
  • "The Big Bang Theory"
  • "How I met your mother"
  • ... basically all series?

Except for "How I met your mother", I would not have called any of the above a soap. Can somebody give me a definition and some examples + counter-examples? How is a soap different from a sitcom?

  • Comments are not for extended discussion; this conversation has been moved to chat. If you have answers to contribute, take them to the answer section. – Napoleon Wilson Aug 14 at 17:36
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    Note that none of the series you listed would be considered dramas and that is part of the definition you cited. They are all either comedies or paranormal/scifi/fantasy. – terdon Aug 15 at 16:49
  • What do you want to know that isn't already said on Wikipedia? – David Richerby Aug 16 at 16:06
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TLDR: A "Soap" is a serialized show that's about ordinary people having interpersonal drama. There's not a high concept, story arc, external villains, or greater purpose.

Don't confuse "serialized" and "soap opera".

Not Serialized

What serialization isn't: From the 1960s to 1990s, in the vast majority of TV shows, every episode starts the same, and ends right there. Wesley has saved the day, Riker's latest fling has moved on, Sam Beckett has finished his work and "quantum leapt", Monk and Psych solve the case, etc. The show always reset back to starting conditions; no evolution ever happened, it's jokingly called "Groundhog Day". That's because real money was made in syndication, and small stations don't want to deal with airing sequence, and want a show anyone can start at any episode and enjoy. If you catch the show every Monday at the laundromat (even though it airs daily), that should work.

Non-serial: almost any sitcom, 2-1/2 Men, The West Wing (mostly), Star Trek: Next Generation

Serialized (not soap)

Some shows threw away the opportunities for syndication, to tell a deeper tale in a big story arc. The archetypal example being Babylon-5. They became serialized - there are fewer (or no) "Groundhog Day" episodes, events cause irrevocable changes, and it's super confusing to join in the middle. If you catch the show every Monday at the laundromat, you'll be totally confused - why is Babylon-5 fighting Earth all of a sudden?

You're expected to watch from episode 1. This is a big difference between serials and soaps - you can't possibly watch a soap opera from episode 1; they're so hastily produced they didn't even keep the tapes.

Serialized Soap operas

The prototypical soap opera was a show like General Hospital. These aired for 30 minutes every weekday. They were cheap shows to begin with, and at that tempo, they pretty much had to be done live, or in a live (3-camera) format with very simple editing. They were so cheap they didn't bother filming or videotaping the as-aired episodes. Needless to say, they're not meant to start watching at episode 1; you're expected to join the fun today and then tune in tomorrow, and they're written to encourage that and to "hook you in". For that reason they avoid "big head" stuff like revolution plots or intergalactic wars. That's what makes House of Cards not a soap.

Soap opera was the (sarcastic) name, since they aired between 11 am and 3 pm, were mainly watched by homemakers (housewives), and so the commercials were homemaking supplies such as soap. As the definition was broadened to include things like Dallas which were not midday daily shows, critics latched on to the term "soap", and it stuck.

But the writing makes them a "soap" - it is hasty, and all about interpersonal relationships, because that's universally appealing and easy to film in simple sets. There is high drama amongst the characters with arcs across many episodes. But not a lot externally - No high-concept stories, no epics, no world-changing story arcs. Johann might spend a season stealing Karen's inheritance, but they'd never spend a season helping the CIA catch Iranian spies.

Some series may have higher production values (Dallas being an archetypal example). The distinction you're looking for is that many people say that if you increase the production values, it's still a "soap". Before Dallas, an expensive soap was unthinkable, but it opened the floodgates.

So what makes a soap is

  • Serialized
  • Focusing on interpersonal drama among regular people
  • lack of high concept or extreme situation.

Soap: Gossip Girl, What/If, Pretty Little Liars, Revenge

Non-Soap: Orphan Black, Man in the High Castle, Humans, Halt and Catch Fire

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    Yes, best answer so far! However, I would still not call prime-time TV series like Gossip Girl soaps because of all the other reasons you mentioned (production value, air time, story arcs). It's just a drama series. – Ian Aug 14 at 11:53
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    One test I like to put on attempts at exclusive definitions of "Soap operas" that I'm going to ask here: How does professional wrestling fit in your scheme? – T.E.D. Aug 14 at 18:56
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    I'm confused by the summary. There's a header "Serialized (not soap)" and then at the end, "So what makes a soap is: Serialized". Is this a typo or am I missing some nuance? – Greg Aug 15 at 12:35
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    This answer as written is somewhat confusing: you define "serialised" with "fewer (or no) 'Groundhog Day' episodes, events cause irrevocable changes, and it's super confusing to join in the middle", but then go on to call say (about soaps) "they're not meant to start watching at episode 1; you're expected to join the fun today and then tune in tomorrow" while still calling them serialised. – mbrig Aug 15 at 17:59
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    @DoctorPenguin Here's my rule of thumb. If you deleted all the infighting amongst main characters... Would the show still have anything to be about? E.g. Cliff Barnes: "So you're really in a jam and need my drilling equipment. Double the price. Family animosity". J.R. Ewing: "Ouch, but you coulda turned us down. Thanks for being fair." If that's as dramatic as the show gets, do we still have a credible show about the oil business? – Harper Aug 15 at 17:59
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Wikipedia's definition of soap opera is obviously flawed. If it was a perfect definition of soap opera you wouldn't have any questions about which shows are soap opera and which are not.

Of course, it's much easier to see that a definition is flawed than to to come up with a better definition and very hard to come up with a flawless definition (or to be able to tell whether a definition is flawed or flawless).

So let's start with Wikipedia's definition of soap opera and change it a little.

Wikipedia's definition of soap operas is:

A soap opera is an ongoing drama serial on television or radio, featuring the lives of many characters and their familial, platonic and intimate relationships. The term soap opera originated from radio dramas being sponsored by soap manufacturers.

So I might change the definition to something like this:

A soap opera is an ongoing drama serial on television or radio, primarily featuring the day to day lives of many characters, who are more or less ordinary people, and their familial, platonic and intimate relationships, in more or less ordinary situations, and created to be primarily an example of the soap opera genre. The term soap opera originated from radio dramas being sponsored by soap manufacturers.

I added primarily to show the main focus of a typical soap opera, and I emphasized that the characters and the situations they are in are more or less ordinary - in some soap operas more or less ordinary than in others.

In recent decades more and more dramatic programs in the USA have become more serialized and less episodic. Thus they come to resemble soap operas in some ways. But those shows are often primarily intended to be examples of the crime, fantasy, historical, horror, medical, police, suspense, spy, science fiction, western, etc. genres, and not primarily soap operas.

I added "created to be primarily an example of the soap opera genre." to help distinguish shows that could be considered "true" soap operas from other shows, shows that are like soap operas but are primarily examples of other genres like crime, fantasy, historical, horror, medical, police, suspense, spy, science fiction, western, etc.

For example, most Star Trek series are episodic, with each episode being a separate story. In fact, I favor the theory that most episodes of most Star Trek series happen in alternate universes of their own, separate from the alternate universes of other episodes within their series.

But a number of Star Trek series had continuing story arcs spread out over a few or sometimes many episodes and thus seemed much more serialized than the original Star Trek and more like soap operas than like pure episodic shows. But they differ from soap operas in being partially episodic and partially serialized instead of totally serialized, and by being primarily science fiction space opera shows where the characters are in situations which are certainly not ordinary for the viewers in the present and often get highly unusual even for the future society the future characters live in.

The main focus of even the most serialized Star Trek series is science fiction space opera type events, and the day to day daily activities of ordinary people, even the ordinary people of a future society, are not the prime focus, as they would be in a true science fiction soap opera.

Each season of 24 (2001-2010) was extremely serialized, telling of events in a 24 hour period in a series of hour long episodes. But 24 (2001-2010) was about political intrigue, action, counter terrorism, espionage, etc., and 24 (2001-2010) is described as "an American action drama television series" in Wikipedia,not as a soap opera.

One important method of telling a soap opera is its broadcast schedule. In the USA a prime time soap opera, like Dallas, would broadcast first run episodes once a week for about twenty odd weeks each year, and have reruns the other weeks of the year, with a schedule very similar to those of prime time shows that are not soap operas. But daytime soap operas tend to broadcast first run episodes five days a week, 52 weeks a year, with no reruns.

Some soap operas were broadcast live, and so viewers got to see every production blooper made in every episode, though that is not a characteristic of prime time soap operas.

And genres are not exclusive. It is perfectly possible for a series to be an example of two or more genres at once.

A famous example is Dark Shadows (1966-1971), mentioned by Raj in his comment, a daytime soap opera that can also be considered an example of the suspense genre, sometimes the crime genre (a lot of crimes were committed), sometimes fantasy (there was a lot of magic), horror (vampires and werewolves, etc.), science fiction (time travel and alternate universes, etc.), and historical (characters traveled to past centuries and stayed there for months at a time), etc.

Or some people might claim that Dark Shadows (1966-1971) was an example of the Dark Shadows genre, being a genre to itself.

Another soap opera example is Passions (1999-2008) which was a soap opera with strong supernatural elements. One of the main characters was a witch, Tabitha, who was so powerful that she brought a doll, Timmy, to life, & he become another character on the show.

(curiously, according to this site, Passions (1999-2008) is in the same fictional universe - imaginatively labeled as Group 10 - as a few other series, including all the Star Trek series.)

Another famous example is Get Smart (1965-1970), a situation comedy which was also a spy series. The protagonists were in deadly danger in almost every episode, and killed a lot of people, which is very unusual for a situation comedy.

So it is possible for a series to be both a soap opera and a horse opera, a soap opera and a space opera, a soap opera and a spy drama, a soap opera and a medical show, etc., etc., and some people may be able to suggest a number of examples of such hybrid, multi-genre series.

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    I would say daytime soaps are distinguished by having their airing schedule and production style and that serialization is not enough to make a show a soap or even partly a soap. Radio dramas of various genres were sometimes partly serialized before TV. – Todd Wilcox Aug 14 at 1:49
  • If I'm reading your definition right, it basically boils down to a serialized show about ordinary people without "genre" elements. But I can think of many shows that fit this description that I don't think are usually considered "soap operas": Gilmore Girls, Party of Five, Everwood, 7th Heaven, etc. Heck, This Is Us fits your description except for its multiple-timeline conceit, but that's not really enough to make it a "genre" show. It may just be that there's no bright line between "soap operas" and "not soap operas". – Michael Seifert Aug 14 at 12:33
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    Re: "created to be primarily an example of the soap opera genre"; it's bad form to use a term in its own (circular) definition. – Daniel R. Collins Aug 14 at 20:52
  • @Daniel R. Collins If people create a show that they intend to market as a soap opera, they will give it the characteristics of a soap opera as well as they can. – M. A. Golding Aug 17 at 19:41
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I asked a similar question myself a few years ago because it didn't make sense to me. One of my favorite old shows was simply called "Soap", and as a young kid, I didn't get the joke.

The term "soap" comes from the fact that many shows in the golden age of television were, in fact, sponsored by soap and detergent manufacturers. Many of the original shows aired during the daytime and featured the serialized goings-on within a household or extended family with a recurring cast. These shows attracted a lot of stay-at-home female viewers who were the target demographic for these types of commercial placements.

As time went on into the 70's, more risqué and controversial subject matters entered the storylines, as did more diversity. They also played around with airing them at different times of day. Nonetheless, the soaps continued their tradition of concurrent, drawn-out story arcs with defined beginnings and endings.

So, if you are watching a show with storylines that span numerous episodes or even seasons, like Game of Thrones, it tends to fall in the category of a soap.

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    I don't think many people would categorize Game of Thrones as a soap opera. For the most parts, soaps don't have additional "spectacular" features such as magic, dragons, or bloody battles, as well as other "spectacular" features like robots, car chases, and spaceships. The main thrust is on the relationships among everyday people. GOT has a lot to do with relationships, but they are often overshadowed by the spectacular features of the show. – BrettFromLA Aug 13 at 17:05
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    I used to think the same thing myself, @BrettFromLA, but there's an article on Vulture about how Game of Thrones and other primetime shows are modern-day soaps: vulture.com/2015/10/primetime-soap-operas-are-back.html – alondo Aug 13 at 17:17
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    Soap opera stories didn’t end. Or at least one always ran into the next. Unless it’s called a “prime time soap opera”, a soap opera runs during the day on network television. Soap operas do not have other genre elements, meaning they are set more or less in the present day with regular people doing regular things. There’s also a specific story style to soaps. You could get to make the case that ER or House were prime time soaps (I think it’s clear they weren’t but it’s arguable), but GoT is definitely nothing like a soap opera in any way. – Todd Wilcox Aug 14 at 1:44
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    I like that this answer tells the origin of the word soap opera, but I strongly disagree with the definition of soaps. "a show with storylines that span numerous episodes or even seasons" is just a series. This definition fits to almost everything, even documentaries. – Ian Aug 14 at 6:32
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    -1 from me - GoT might have soapy elements, but it is definitely not a soap opera. The drama that occurs in a soap opera typically does not extend beyond the named characters. Soap operas tend to be rather intimate in scale - if the characters are making decisions that directly affect the fate of the entire continent/world, then they are well outside soap opera territory. Almost any show is a soap by the definition given here, but clearly most shows are not soap operas. – Nuclear Wang Aug 14 at 15:30
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In the UK the term "soap" is usually used to refer to TV fictional dramas that broadcast new episodes regularly, without a break, featuring recurring characters and on-going plots. Broadcasts are usually made more than once a week, often daily. Less than once a week would probably not be considered a soap.

Any show that has series or significant gaps in its broadcast schedule, or which has different stories and characters each week, is not considered to be a soap.

Soaps are often associated with poor writing and acting, as well as a low budget since episodes are usually only shown once or twice and are produced at a rate of up to 5 a week.

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A soap opera is an ongoing drama series that revolves around people simply living out their lives. There are several things that separate a soap opera from a standard drama (Warning, I'm going to be using UK soaps I watch semi-regularly to illustrate some points. Please don't judge me too harshly):

  1. Structure

While serialisation has been brought up in other answers, most dramas share this format. However, all the dramas in your OP are split up into blocks called "seasons". These seasons will usually have an opener, and story arcs that build up to a climax at the end of a season. Even if all of the story arcs are not totally finished, there will usually be some sort of resolution or natural stopping point for all of the threads at the end of a season (or set as a dangling carrot for the next one).

By and large, soaps don't conform to this format. Soaps will run all year round, with a certain number of episodes airing per week (in fact, soaps like Coronation Street may have more than one episode in an evening). Story arcs tend to overlap in such a way that while individual story arcs reach a climax, this is often during the "down time" of separate arcs that are then built up when those previous story arcs have finished. You always have this shuffling order of "active" storylines and "simmering" ones, with no effective beginnings and ends of seasons. In some respects, they more resemble comic books in this way. Characters will have individual storylines, but splitting the overall DC or Marvel Universes into "seasons" would be a little more difficult (the closest probably being the rebooting DC loves so much) because even big events may not include every character and many of the ones that are there will probably have their own tangential stories going on elsewhere to be expanded on later.

  1. Stakes

Story arcs in a soap only truly affect the characters within the narrative. Where a show like Supergirl or Supernatural will have story arcs with stakes that implicate "the wider world", soaps simply won't. Even when gangs or nasty corporations get involved, they only matter to the extent they affect any of the characters. Currently, Hollyoaks has a plot revolving a radical group of fascists. The moment this group ceases to affect the lives of these characters, they'll no longer matter to the story and disappear (regardless of what they'd likely be up to all over the country), with fleeting references only made to aid character progression.

  1. Audience retention

Dramas are generally created in such a way that it is intended that the audience watch all or at least most of the episodes to be able to follow the stories. If you come in watching half way through a season, it could take you a while to get a handle for what's going on and you won't get a full appreciation for the show.

Soaps are very different in this regard. Because of the ongoing nature of soaps, it's well understood that people will often not be watching every single episode and any new viewer will be entering into the the middle of any storylines on the go at that time. They therefore make an effort to make it clear to the audience what's happening in these (the current situation and the background behind it) stories in order to get the gist of what's going on quickly, regardless of where you're entering in. There is a humorous Youtube video on Coronation Street that goes into some ham-fisted examples of how this is done. Good soap writing will be done in such away that this repetition of information will not be too noticeable or grating to a recurring viewer.

With that out of the way, a couple of other points:

  • Genre: soap operas are a subset of dramas. While their tone can vary, they are not comedies. Although sitcoms often have many elements in common with soaps, for this reason they wouldn't be considered as such.
  • Setting: soaps tend to take place in residential and domestic settings. There is some argument that certain hospital dramas may also qualify as soaps, however, so workplaces could also be debatably deemed as a reasonable setting as long as the 3 main points listed above still apply.
  • Wrestling: Since T.E.D brings it up in a comment related to a different answer, yes I would consider Wrestling a bizarre fusion of soap opera and gymnastics. It essentially fits all of the main 3 requirements and I don't think they need to take place in domestic/residential settings :)
  • I think this is the only answer so far that identifies a key element of soap operas: They're basically perpetually airing, with no clear beginning end to story arcs. It's all about continuous (character-based) storylines, with each one (or several) leading directly into another. – V2Blast Aug 16 at 21:32
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Just to add to the conversation of answers here,

I think in very contemporary context, what a lot of modern Television takes from the original and often day-time AMERICAN TELEVISION soap operas, is not just this idea of interpersonal relationships, but also characters and the reactions to plots that tend to be VERY "melodramatic".

The following link is a article of a paper I found on the posisble correlation between Soap Operas and the Melodramatic, as the earliest forms coming from British Radio Soaps were often based in [British social] realism and make no mention of melodrama, when that argument is then counteracted when referring to American Prime Time Television with the likes of Dallas. In other words, I think the definition changed over time and through cultural (British to American) and medium (Radio to Television) differences and we now have both the original Soap Opera Realism & The Soap Opera Melodrama.

And as others have mentioned, it's these melodramatic elements are what allow many RECENT shows (Supergirl, Lucifer, Gilmore Girls) that are often sited to be primarily set in other drama genres (fantasy/superhero, crime/family, family) to still have "soapy" elements (interpersonal relationships and heavy romance) within the series and they often then also have a hybrid serialized and episodic structuring, which may also then go back to the original definition.

Some more recant contemporary examples of mixed genre shows with "Soapy" elements are

The Good Wife - Often toted as an "American legal & political Drama", is really a legal, political, family Dramedy & melodramatic romance. It's also a serialized-hybrid having both ongoing overarching arcs and 'case of the week' episodic elements within the bigger narrative(s). Click Here to see a decent breakdown of just how complex a single episode the Kings' series can be and how it is seamlessly able to mix that romantic melodrama into it's legal and political plots and physical scapes.

When the CBS legal drama/political soap opera hybrid debuted in 2009, it was easy to identify the glaring similarities between the show and the still-fresh details of the Spitzer prostitution scandal that was unveiled the previous spring. The series launched with an all-too-familiar scene: Alicia Florrick (played with elegant ferocity by Julianna Margulies) stands stunned and stonefaced next to her politico husband (Chris Noth)—who had just been caught cheating on her with a hooker—at his press conference announcing his resignation. It was as if Margulies had taken care to recreate, second-by-second, the expression worn by Silda Wall Spitzer as she stood by her husband in the press conference that served as inspiration for the series.

Grey's Anatomy - Much truer to American day-time saops, Shanda Rhimes "medical drama" is much closer to soaps like General Hospital, as interpersonal relationships, especially romantic are always on display being the series' corner stone and like those often long-running television soaps of the 80's, Grey's is going on season 16! However, even though a lot of what's portrayed on the series, is medically inaccurate, two doctors are executive producers and the cases themselves are often taken seriously, which is most likley why, along with the heavy serialization, Grey's is considered more of a "drama", despite those interpersonal romantic/family elements.

By any standards, Grey's Anatomy has been successful television, ranking highly in the ratings for nine seasons and entering the cultural lexicon via phrases as cloying yet catchy as 'McDreamy', the show has had its periods of being intensely irritating, and it has had its periods when it seems as if Shonda Rhimes has taken leave of her faculties, but it's also got an amazingly high batting average, particularly with every solid season that passes along in this second act of its run." The site lauded the show saying, "On average, it's been very good TV, filled with interesting, driven characters who run the gamut of professions within the show's hospital setting. It's been, by turns, a good soap, a good romantic comedy, a good medical drama, and a good interpersonal show about an unexpected workplace family. --Samantha Highfill, Entertainment Weekly

Downton Abbey - Mostly seen as a British Historical Period Drama, really has a lot of melodrama coming from both it's upstairs/downstairs approach, along with racial and class divides providing for some juicy melodramatic romances such as Sybil & Tom, Mary & Matthew, or Rose & Jack, especially since all three tragically come to an end.

Downton Abbey has been a commercial success and received general acclaim from critics, although some criticize it as superficial, melodramatic or unrealistic. Others defend these qualities as the reason for the show's appeal. David Kamp of Vanity Fair wrote, "Melodrama is an uncool thing to trade in these days, but then, that's precisely why Downton Abbey is so pleasurable. In its clear delineation between the goodies and the baddies, in its regulated dosages of highs and lows, the show is welcome counter-programming to the slow-burning despair and moral ambiguity of most quality drama on television right now."

Downton Abbey is a jointly produced UK-US period soap opera drama that ran from 2010-2015 on ITV in the UK, and as a series on the long running United States anthology series, Masterpiece, on PBS. It was produced by Carnival Films/Masterpiece Productions.

So my own conclusion is that what Soap Operas originally were have been discarded or have evolved into varied categories either through a false perception given to the name/definition of American day-time television melodramatic shows that were "set-up" structurally like British soaps, and often visually contrasted the higher brow visuals of Hollywood (not unlike "Reality TV", I might add), which in itself also changed when someone tried to take the melodrama and interpersonal relationships aspects of those day-time soaps and apply them to a "drama" creating something like Dallas or it's spin off, Knotts Landing allowing them to have "soap operas" on prime time television and then these elements (structure, day in the life, melodrama) have now worked their way into other genres as well...

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