Scandal took the world by storm a few years ago. After a slow start, suddenly the show was burning supernova-bright every episode, incinerating stories and cranking everything far past the point of realism: the sexiness, the violence, the stakes, the shouting, the wailing, big, big, big. It was glorious. At the same time, Game of Thrones was breaking out of its fantasy silo, attracting fans who might not otherwise bother with swords-and-dragons sagas. It too sped right past typical human behavior — straight to flagrant incest, clan feuding, elaborate murder plots, and relentless pursuits of revenge. Then along came Empire early this year, and at last there was no denying it: This is the age of the prime-time prestige soap, and the shows are bigger, and often better, than their historical forebears.
Like any other prime-time TV genre — newsmagazines, game shows, crime procedurals, family sitcoms — soaps go in and out of fashion. Dallas invented the modern prime-time soap in 1981, and established a few genre-defining traits: They tend to have an open world. Lots of characters enter and exit, many of whom are well developed with complex interior lives. Acting choices aim for the grand over the subtle. Emotions are heightened almost to the point of caricature, and the plot goes to extremes.The early ’80s marked the genre’s first glory era — alongside Dallas, the 1981 lineup included Dynasty, Flamingo Road, Knots Landing, and Falcon Crest, among others. There was a boomlet in the ’90s, with shows like 90210 and Melrose Place, and ABC tried to jump-start the genre with Desperate Housewives and Ugly Betty in the mid-2000s. Other soaps cropped up, but nothing major really stuck, especially with shows like House and Lost and their respective imitators on the rise. Teen soaps, particularly One Tree Hill, scrambled to fill the void.
What sets apart the modern era from most of its predecessors is that many don't present explicitly as soaps but double as shows we classify as “prestige” television, from historical fiction to political intrigue. It's the soapy twists and pervasive melodrama, however, that keep people coming back.
Today ABC is making the biggest bets on a new soap boom. Blood and Oil is its stab at a Dallas-esque soap, though it just saw its 13-episode first-season order reduced to ten. The network's also home to Nashville (always better the soapier it is), Scandal, Grey's Anatomy, and Mistresses. Quantico is an action drama that borrows heavily from soap traditions. (How to Get Away With Murder, while occasionally sudsy, is really more of a legal drama, given that it has a focused, central plot and isn't particularly nimble in terms of introducing and eliminating new characters.) The CW has Reign and the wonderful Jane the Virgin, which combines the campier elements that define daytime soap and a winking metanarrative, including the characters' favorite telenovelas. E! has The Royals. BET's Being Mary Jane veers closer to a genuine drama than a soap, but then veers right on back with stolen-sperm story lines and a car crash that disfigures our heroine's face. PBS has Downton Abbey. Netflix's House of Cards doesn't know it's a soap, but the more its scope expands, the less grounded it gets — plus the number of characters who have committed murder keeps inching upwards, right into melodramatic-soap territory. Vikings toes the soap line when its characters keep secrets, particularly when there's pregnancy-related "she doesn't know that I know" chicanery. If you're a fan of kissing, murder, long-standing feuds, and wild secrets, this is not a bad age to be a TV fan.
The so-called Golden Age of television centered largely (though not exclusively) on antihero-driven shows, and with that genre in decline, it's been hard to identify what exactly our next era entails. There are still plenty of hard-core dramas out there, like Fargo and The Leftovers, and there are horror shows like The Walking Dead, Fear the Walking Dead, American Horror Story, and Scream Queens. Orange Is the New Black and Transparent aren't comedies and aren't dramas but are terrific. There's no shortage of very good, very distinct shows. But the genre at the center of innovative TV is the prestige soap, in no small part because shows can now embrace a soapier aesthetic without having to be defined purely as a soap. Just look at Homeland, which tried to transition from a tense thriller grounded in muted realism to a wild spy opera reliant on implausible plot twists. Audiences developed a stronger appetite for elaborate drama during the antihero era, for high production values and vivid storytelling, but after a decade and change contemplating the flawed nature of man, those shows were starting to feel a little suffocating. This batch of prime-time soaps, though often as brutalizing as any episode of Breaking Bad or The Sopranos, have a little more dazzle to them. Wow, look at Olivia's ensemble. Behold, a militarized woolly mammoth. My goodness, I'll be singing "Drip Drop" forever.
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.
At their best, prime-time soaps have a generalized sensation of more. More clashes, more crying, more secrets, more twists, more changings of the guards, more slaps, more betrayal. There's a push outwards and upwards. Other dramas can have violence or secrets, certainly — most do — but they might dig inwards, like The Americans, or hurtle forward, like Mr. Robot. Soaps sprawl. And a truly great soap isn’t only defined by its excess. While realism isn’t a priority on these shows, often, through the use of extreme stylization, we see an almost Herzogian level of ecstatic truth, the documentarian’s theory that truth is best arrived at through imagination and an exaggeration of reality, "a kind of truth that is the enemy of the merely factual.” Not always, certainly. But it happens, catching you off-guard, particularly in moments where actors are finding realistic resonance in wild moments. Jane's tears on Jane the Virgin — those are truer than true. Every single thing on Nashville feels inauthentic until they sing, and then somehow Juliette Barnes is like a vessel for all authentic emotion. Papa Pope's lectures about racism on Scandal? They land hard, even when delivered in secret bunkers as part of a paragovernment's lair.
Prime-time soaps, at their core, are about huge emotions that, as a viewer, you get to have a sliver of vicariously. I don't want to cheat on people, I don't want to experience murderous rage, I don't want to slap someone or disfigure them in a moment of fury ... well, maybe just a teeny tiny bit. Soaps are there to surprise, delight, and, yes, even enlighten us, in ways other shows can't or won't. Thank God they're back.