Soap Opera Rant

The following rant is brought to you, tangentially, by “this Slate article”: about the TV show Friends. Chris Suellentrop argues that it’s a mistake to see the show as the “last great situation comedy” because it’s not even a sitcom, but rather a “soapcom”: “a soap opera masquerading as a situation comedy.” He points out that the show features multiple-episode story arcs that reward and even demand continuous attention to understand what’s going on: a trait anathema to traditional sitcom rules. Along the way he makes a very good point:

Somewhere along the way, TV drama and TV comedy switched places. It’s fairer to call shows like Law & Order and CSI “sitdramas” than it is to call Friends a sitcom. Law & Order’s syndicated success hinges on the tidiness of each episode. You can shuffle them all together and deal them out in any order you like, and viewers won’t even notice. But if you shuffled episodes from Friends’ 10 seasons and aired them in random order, you wouldn’t have the slightest bit of continuity from show to show.

He’s perfectly right as far as it goes, but (and here’s the rant) why must soap operas always be invoked whenever referring to TV shows with plot continuity? It irks me here the same way it irked me to hear people critical of “Babylon 5”: refer to it as “a soap opera in space.” It’s true that B5 featured a continuous story, and that soap operas do the same, but that’s as far as the similarity goes. B5’s storyline was an actual _plot_, heading for an ending, within each season and across them. It wasn’t the first show to do this (I’m curious to hear of examples that predate “The Prisoner”:, but was imitated quickly by shows like Buffy and Angel, and now by more mainstream shows like 24 and Alias.

By contrast, the storylines of soap operas are constantly unfolding but never-ending. Short-term twists and turns try to maintain the audience’s interest, but in the long-term there’s no plot development, just more of the same. ER follows this model, as did The X-Files, which disingenuously posed as a show-with-a-plot even though it was just one long, and ultimately annoying, tease.

The long-term unfolding story is an obvious match for television; it’s the way to achieve a sweeping, deep effect, like that of a novel, on the screen, something a two- or even three-hour film can never hope to do. There are plenty of shows that do this, and they deserve better than to be compared merely to soap operas.