If you think, as I once did, that soap operas are easy to identify and avoid because they only air between 10am and 3pm on weekdays and look like they were filmed with your granddad's camcorder, you're wrong. Soaps are everywhere. They can appear at any time, on any channel, and often have extraordinarily high budgets that allow them to feature mind-blowing sets and special effects in high definition.
Three main qualities will help you identify soap operas:
1. Everyone sleeps with everyone
This is the obvious one. Soap operas are the whole reason we're taught combinatorics in middle school. If a soap opera has 7 main characters, how many distinct couples will be formed by the end up the series? How many love triangles will occur by season 4? How many times will each male character be slapped for cheating?* These days, the classier soap operas take it a step further: everyone marries everyone, because nothing says high-class like haphazardly entering into a legally binding contract.
It is possible to have a show where everyone sleeps with everyone without it being a soap opera, but it's rare. It really depends on the reason why everyone is sleeping with everyone, which brings us to...
2. The Memoryless Property
Like the exponential random variable, what happened last episode has nothing to do with what happens in today's episode on a soap opera. A character's ideas, values and basic identity are infinitely changeable and constantly mutate to maximize drama. The only constant is hair color, without which it would be impossible to tell the characters apart. Literally everything else is up for grabs, and I do mean literally. Which brings us to...
3. The L Word
If a soap opera continues for more than two seasons, some female character must somehow become a lesbian. The more out of nowhere this change is, the better, really. It's not like sexual orientation is a deeply rooted and fundamental part of a person's psyche and identity. Anyone, or at least any female, can, at any time, flip that internal lesbo switch if the writers run out of ideas.
Popular soaps masquerading as prime time dramas include Grey's Anatomy (partner-swapping: check; memoryless: check; lesbian: check!), E.R., Private Practice- well, pretty much any medical drama, I suppose. Also most legal dramas, detective dramas, and drama dramas. Yes, soaps are utterly pervasive, so how do you deal when you discover the horrifying truth: that the show you love is actually a horrendous hodgepodge of meaningless drama and inconstant characters who never develop or act remotely like real people? How do you find the courage to face the abyss you find in your soul where your good taste in television used to reside?
There are four stages of recovery after you realize that your favorite show is really an over-hyped soap:
Stage 1: Denial
Yes, everything begins with denial. Every time your brain picks up a new bit of evidence condemning your show, it runs frantically in the other direction. Maybe Brittany really is a lesbian, you think. Maybe they weren't just doing that for the drama. But more evidence accumulates, and you can't rationalize it forever. Maybe Britt's just an over-sexed ditz. No, wait, but now she really cares about Artie. Okay, maybe she was just confused before, I mean, she's always confused, right? Wait, I thought the whole deal was that they do modern songs, so why is Gwyneth saying they never do stuff the kids can relate to? Don't they remember that the whole Journey thing was Finn's idea? So now why are they doing a hokey 80s song no one likes for sectionals? Why do the writers never follow up on these story lines? Do they even watch the show? Oh my god, is Mr. Schuster seriously going to have a fleeting romance with every non-student female on this show? What the fuck is going on?!
Stage 2: Anger
Once you can't deny any longer, you move to anger. You start to hate the show. You refuse to watch it and mock the people who do. You make snide, offhand remarks about the show in conversation. Maybe you, I don't know, blog about it or something. You start to catalog every single thing that doesn't make sense about the show. You track, in detail, all the utterly schizophrenic behaviors and decisions of the characters. It's probable that you will spend far more time on these activities than the shows writers ever will.
Stage 3: Indifference
Once your catalog of inconsistencies has grown to be almost the size of the original script, you abruptly drop it. Turns out, people aren’t watching that show so much anymore anyway, and the ones who are can’t actually focus long enough to process your damning evidence of soapness. You’ve picked up another show, anyway, and this one is definitely not a soap opera, because it’s critically acclaimed, made by HBO, and based on a series of books. Books can never be soaps, right? Right?
Stage 4: Acceptance
Years go by, and one day the entire series of that old soapy show is available on Netflix Instant. Suddenly you remember all the fun you had together- the quirky characters, the entertaining twists, how pretty everyone is. With enough distance, you’re finally able to sit down and enjoy the show for what it is: daytime television with better production value.
*Answers: 21 (allowing for changeable sexual orientation; see 3); 35 (regardless of sexual orientation); 12 if straight or butch, 1 otherwise.