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Prime-time soap operas are back

posted by Jason Kottke   Oct 30, 2015

Goodbye anti-heros, hello soap operas. Margaret Lyons writes about the increasing popularity of prime-time soap operas like Scandal, Empire, Game of Thrones, Downton Abbey, and House of Cards.

Game of Thrones’ Outstanding Drama win at the Emmys this year indicates a new era of perceived legitimacy for its genre, and I’m not talking about fantasy: GOT completely operates as a soap. All the scheming and vindictiveness would be perfectly at home on Melrose Place; the disguises, acceptance of the paranormal, and the absence and reemergence of obscure characters can all be found on Passions. (Cersei Lannister and Alexis Carrington would have plenty to talk about.) Soap is not a dirty word, and shows like GOT are helping reposition soapiness as a desirable attribute, not a vice.

I’ve had this theory for awhile that for fans of dramas, all but the very best are indistinguishable from soap operas by season three. As a viewer, you get so caught up in the “what’s gonna happen”, you stop caring so much about how it’s happening, if the show is even any good, or what higher-level themes the producers might be expressing. And the show’s producers feel the need to top themselves with each season, and so the stakes get higher, the plot gets more implausible, the characters get bigger, and themes are increasingly marginalized. This happened, in varying degrees, with Lost, Homeland, Six Feet Under, Boardwalk Empire, Girls, and House of Cards. Even Mad Men and Breaking Bad veered in and out of soap opera territory, but the shows were so good that they never completely went there. And let’s not even talk about season 5 of The Wire.