Don’t let the Masterpiece Classic distinction confuse you; Downton Abbey may be a high-minded, social commentary-packed costume drama, but it’s also a soap opera. We recognized it as such back in Season 1, when Mary screwed a Turkish diplomat to death, and the forbidden romances, shocking deaths and injuries, miraculous cures, tawdry trials, and face-saving cover-ups have just kept coming since then. And while the cast is large enough to allow for plenty of complex characters, the sheer number of Downton residents who are solely good (William, Bates, Anna, Sybil) and pure evil (Thomas, O’Brien, Sir Richard) makes melodramatic situations inevitable.
Game of Thrones
“Game of Thrones may be the best soap opera on TV,” Gawker announced soon after the series premiere last year, dubbing it “Dynasty with zombies.” Two seasons in, we still agree. Like many soaps, the show is structured around a handful of powerful families jockeying for dominance, a set-up that necessitates a huge cast, tons of political and romantic intrigue, and some creepily eroticized brother-sister incest to stimulate HBO viewers’ unceasing hunger for more and weirder sex. Now, if only we can convince George R.R. Martin to keep writing the Song of Ice and Fire series for the rest of his life, we’re sure the events of Westeros could sustain an All My Children-esque four-decade run.
You might protest that Twin Peaks, with its surreal dreams and Black and White Lodges and lady who talks to logs, is too weird to be a soap opera. Well, to that we say, have you seen most daytime soaps? If not, you’re probably not aware that they involve such plot elements as exorcisms and murderous clones and time travel. While the storylines and themes of Twin Peaks are certainly more worthwhile topics for analysis than what you’ll see on Days of Our Lives, soap opera fans are by no means strangers to shows with ensemble casts set in small towns with seedy underbellies, where everyone’s sleeping with or plotting to kill everyone else.
Six Feet Under
We aren’t going to insult your intelligence by claiming that anyone thinks True Blood is a brilliant show. Just because it’s on HBO doesn’t mean it’s anything more than pulpy fun. (Not that there’s anything wrong with pulpy fun.) But that series’ creator, Alan Ball, did famously give us one of the network’s first great dramas. Six Feet Under, like many soap operas, is the story of one big family and all the trouble it gets itself into. There are sudden deaths (at least one per episode, actually), scandalous affairs, intra-clan spats, and enough romantic drama to power a small-town gossip mill for months. It’s the kind of show that you start watching on Netflix or HBO On Demand and become instantly addicted, emerging dazed and teary several days later after watching all six seasons.
Buffy the Vampire Slayer
Joss Whedon’s career-defining TV series was the Passions of quality television — the odd, supernatural stepsister of more realistic fare (although, when it comes to daytime soaps especially, “realistic” is a hugely relative term). In fact, it took so long to rescue Buffy from the teen drama ghetto that we hesitate to consign it to yet another maligned genre. But the whole point of the show was to exaggerate teenage emotions to superhuman proportions, in season- and even series-long storylines that found Buffy Summers and her friends ramping up to fight a new and more powerful enemy every year, while also navigating family crises and romantic relationships. As for cliffhangers, well, remember how many times we thought Buffy was dead? And how many times she actually did die?
No less respectable a source than The New York Review of Books has published an essay dismissing Mad Men as a soap opera. “[T]he show is melodramatic rather than dramatic,” writes Daniel Mendelsohn. “By this I mean that it proceeds, for the most part, like a soap opera, serially (and often unbelievably) generating, and then resolving, successive personal crises (adulteries, abortions, premarital pregnancies, interracial affairs, alcoholism and drug addiction, etc.), rather than exploring, by means of believable conflicts between personality and situation, the contemporary social and cultural phenomena it regards with such fascination: sexism, misogyny, social hypocrisy, racism, the counterculture, and so forth.” It says something that the piece ran nearly a year and a half ago, before the season that ended Sunday, which was by far the most melodramatic one to date.
The Walking Dead
You don’t see much zombie target practice on most soap operas — although we certainly wouldn’t be surprised to hear that it’s happened on your grandma’s favorite lunchtime show — but if they don’t prevent Game of Thrones from reminding us of Dynasty, then they can’t save The Walking Dead, either. Based on the comic book of the same name, this AMC series isn’t just about a group of people trying to survive in a dangerous, post-apocalyptic world; until Rick killed Shane at the end of Season 2, it was also a love triangle of the most sordid and scandalous variety.
The season finale of Lost left us with many questions, but we won’t spend much time puzzling over whether J.J. Abrams’ plane-crash allegory was a soap opera, because it totally was. They may have been stranded on an island, and the show may have delved into philosophy, theology, and quantum mechanics, but it was still a melodramatic serial drama with a cast of predominantly hot, predominantly young actors who spent much of their time plotting and trying to hook up with each other. There was the long, tortured evolution of Jin and Sun’s relationship; the shadowy, all-powerful rich villain, Charles Widmore; Claire’s surprising descent into psychosis; and, of course, that endless and tiresome Jack-Kate-Sawyer love triangle.
In an article on men who enjoy Downton Abbey earlier this year, the Philadelphia Inquirer quoted one gentleman who observed, “If you like The Sopranos, you like soap operas, too. You just like yours with guns and cursing.” We couldn’t really say it better ourselves, but it does make sense to point out that one reason so many highbrow TV shows happen to follow soap opera’s serial, ensemble-cast (melo)drama format is that The Sopranos basically reinvented quality television in the 21st century. Many of these shows take inspiration from it, and a few were even created by people who were involved in The Sopranos.