I tend to put any ongoing serial in the category of being a quasi-soap opera. Consequently as my family will tell you I have little use or patience for soap operas. I have had friends refer to Mad Men as just another soap opera. So why am I (and many of my fellow advertising professionals) so enamored of AMC’s Mad Men? Answer: Because Mad Men is much more than a soap opera. I had to test my hypothesis and did a little research on the history of soap operas.
The soap opera has its origins as a distinctly American phenomenon (we Americans should not take too much pride in this I daresay). Back in the1950’s, in fact each and every weekday, millions of people from all over the world tuned in to their favorite soap to follow the trials and tribulations of their favorite characters. There are still soap operas today but as a genre they are being phased out of network television and recently have been moving to the web.
Soap operas have been on television since 1952, with the debut of what was a radio show “Guiding Light”. This is the longest running continuous soap on TV. The term “soap opera” is deceiving, for it is not about soap, nor is it an opera! It is called this because soap companies were big sponsors of the radio shows back in the 1930s, when soaps like Guiding Light were being aired. The opera part comes from the fact that operas tell a story, just as the soaps do.
What makes a soap opera unique is that the story never ends, that is why soaps like GL can be on the air (either radio or TV) for more than 50 years! In fact long running soap operas like All My Children will live on seemingly forever now that they been able to detach themselves from ad-supported network and cable television.
So how is Mad Men different? First, the backdrop of depicting the advertising culture of the 1960’s is for us advertising folk VERY interesting. Second, the use of a backdrop in the form of the historical events that made up the 1960’s which impact the lives of the characters are also extremely interesting. Soap operas rarely deal with historical aspects and the only culture ever depicted seems to be backstabbing and snobbery. This goes for both daytime and nighttime soap operas by the way. Third, the story DOES have an end – purportedly next season. I say purportedly since shows that are set to end frequently live on for additional seasons as long as the creators, advertisers and actors are all aligned and making money.
What do you think – is Mad Men a soap opera or something more? Or something else?
Soap operas are simply serial dramas. You’re right about the origins of the term as they were not only sponsored, they were produced by companies like Procter & Gamble. In fact, P&G is still involved in the production of a few TV shows–including the People’s Choice Awards. I see these programs like major league baseball. The season has 162 episodes with a varying cast with some sense of finality at the end of the season.
As for Mad Men, you like it because it is a GREAT show on so many levels; great writing, real human drama, phenomenal directing and highly symbolic.
Mad Men is indeed a great show. Great post yourself yesterday – http://diaryofamediaman.wordpress.com/2013/05/24/the-value-of-listening/