What Exactly is a Soap Opera, Anyway?

Original Cast Of Dallas
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Soap opera fans are some of the most loyal and vocal viewers out there, and soap opera storylines are some of the wackiest and most romantic on air. But while soaps are generally well known for these very characteristics, it is not uncommon for people to wonder, “What exactly is a soap opera?”

Definition of Soap Opera

By definition, soap operas are ongoing works of fiction, and episodic in nature. In laymen’s terms, soaps are stories told over an extended period, with different characters being featured at different times.

It is rare in soaps to have a quick wrap-up of a storyline, and it is even rarer for a story to affect only one or two characters. Most often, a storyline affects several characters and possibly interconnects with other stories.

Perhaps the most common trait of a soap opera is that each episode ends with a promise for more drama the following day, rather than a neat tie-up of that episode’s story, as you’d find with sitcoms or other dramas.

How Soap Operas Got Their Name

When soap operas began, they were first broadcast on the radio. Called “dramatic serials,” soap manufacturers such as Procter and Gamble, Colgate-Palmolive, and Lever Brothers were the show’s sponsors. In time,  the name “soap opera” came to be and has remained ever since.

How Soaps Differ from Other TV Programs

Soap operas tend to focus their plots and storylines around family life, personal and sexual relationships, emotional and moral conflicts and sometimes newsworthy issues such as rape, teen drinking, drug abuse, adoption, illness, addiction and more.

While many of these scenarios might show up in other TV programs, soaps are filmed to reveal the day-to-day lives of its characters, building the story over time.

In addition, you’ll find soap staples such as missing siblings, mystery parents, death (and resurrection), adultery, betrayal, and, yes, even demonic possession.

You’ll also find actors and actresses who are generally more attractive and well dressed than in other mediums, and who are almost certainly more alluring than the show’s viewers.

Soaps vs Telenovelas

Telenovelas are wildly popular, watched by hundreds of millions of people across the globe. In 1979, Mexico introduced the first telenovela, Los ricos también lloran ("The Rich Also Cry"). Telenovelas may be categorized as mysteries, romances, dramas, even comedies, and are produced mainly in Spanish and Portuguese. Unlike the soap operas, these serials have a short narrative arc of six months to a year and appeal to families. This broad appeal makes them ideal vehicles for exporting to other countries and for sharing educational messages.

Soaps and Prime Time TV

During the 1980s, primetime serials were a large part of television viewing. Shows such as Dallas, Knots Landing, Dynasty, and Falcon Crest aired to adoring fans. These shows tended to focus more on business conflicts and wealthy families. Their sets were extravagant and the actors dressed to the hilt. When filmed on location, viewers could count on beautiful locales to lure them in.

Prime time dramas including Scandal and Empire, are as just as compelling; and while you wouldn't call them realistic, necessarily, the emotions and storylines are a little less over the top than those 80s classics.

Little-Known Soap Opera Facts

  • Soap actors are some of the most skilled actors around, as the amount of material they need to memorize and the hours they spend on camera are relentless. Shooting a soap opera often requires plenty of improvisation and quick thinking by the actors. In addition, blocking (the way an actor faces a camera) is slightly unconventional and is contrary to how humans would normally interact. Because their faces are often shown close-up to reveal the emotions relevant to the story, actors may have to tilt their bodies in an unnatural manner, which can be rather challenging.
  • The ending of a scene in which an actor is shown delivering a staggering line or leaving us with a telltale expressive face is called a “tag.” In the industry, a soap actor is proud when he or she is awarded with a tag.
  • The “rooms” on a soap set are often dark and rich in color, with stained walls and leather furniture to portray a sense of wealth. It is also common to find grand floral displays, glittering chandeliers, crystal accessories, and a myriad of other fine furnishings on set.