The strange appeal of soap operas

I was once getting my hair cut and listened to the conversation my barber was having with a friend seated nearby. They were recounting a terribly complicated story of something that seemingly happened to a common friend of theirs. Towards the end I said that I was sorry to hear about their friend’s terrible plight when they laughed and said that they had been discussing their favorite TV soap opera. But they were really invested in it and the way they talked about it was as if those characters were part of their lives.

There is something magnetic about those operas, once you get into it. My one and only time was when I was in the US in graduate school and got the news that my father had died back in Sri Lanka. It was completely unexpected. I was so depressed at being far away from my family that I stayed at home for several days, trying to cope with the news and to take my mind off everything, I watched TV. At that time, there were just three channels CBS, NBS, and ABC and all of them ran soap operas during the day. After you have watched a few episodes, they exert a curious fascination with their excruciatingly slow pace, convoluted and incredible plots, personal intrigues, and dialogue punctuated by long, meaningful looks and silences and heaving bosoms, to the accompaniment of plaintive background piano music.

Long time soap-opera icon Susan Lucci appeared on The Colbert Report to discuss the Petraeus soap opera and their interaction captured the essence of the soaps.

(This clip appeared on November 15, 2012. To get suggestions on how to view clips of The Daily Show and The Colbert Report outside the US, please see this earlier post.)


  1. northstar says

    I once read a fascinating study — people were asked to rate their sense of social satisfaction. Surprisingly, those who watched soaps rated themselves as socially satisfied as people with very active social lives. The researchers posited that the brain has not evolved to the point where it can distinguish that the people on TV are not “real,” so we think and feel as if we are part of a larger social group when we watch soaps.

    Makes sense to me!

  2. Charles Sullivan says

    There are a number of Cable TV shows that have come out in the last decade where the plot arc is extended much like in a novel (or I dare say, a soap opera). These shows don’t specialize so much in one-off episodes that can stand alone, but work the long story line. This allows us to get to see characters develop over time along with the plot (or many sub-plots). I think this is the best thing that has ever happened to television, frankly

    And some of these shows are really quite good: The Wire, The Sopranos, Deadwood, Battlestar Galactica, Lost (not cable), Rome, Breaking Bad, True Blood, etc…

  3. F says

    Ho boy, yes. I haven’t heard such stories recently, but when I was much younger, I would hear, with some frequency, tales of soap opera actors accosted by little old ladies berating them for their behavior.

  4. jamessweet says

    When I was in college, one semester I had a schedule that left me home at my apartment during the middle part of the day with nothing to do, we didn’t have cable (and this was before high speed internet became ubiquitous) and for whatever reason I didn’t find something better to do (probably the college-era botanics, if you get my meaning). So I started watching Days of Our Lives.

    I really enjoyed it at first — the melodrama was a lot of fun. But it was the slow pace that killed it for me. If they just had more melodramatic unbelievable shit happen, I probably would have kept watching it. But it got boring after a while.

  5. mnb0 says

    It seems like I am an exception. The only shows I follow faithfully are first class comedies, like Absolutely Fabulous and Keeping up Appearances. These are very rare. Some other shows, like House, bore me within two seasons. The usual pattern is that I’ve got enough after four, five episodes.
    It’s not because of the slow pace. I love Spaghetti Westerns (even pretty bad ones) and French crime noir. Two of my three all time favourites are the drama’s The Lacemaker and Autumn Sonata.
    My main problem is that more than often I can’t relate to any character. Possibly I am quite antisocial.

  6. northstar says

    Oh, and as an afterthought… you probably did exactly the right thing after your father died. (and I’m sorry about that — you so far away) Instead of being around a crowd of relatives clucking over you, you did the next best thing: gave your brain the impression of a bunch of associated people talking around you, that you could interact with in a marginal way. It was probably just what you needed.


Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *