Is Downton Abbey a Soap Opera?

My bf, who is generally very practical and enjoys things like the Daily Show and Breaking Bad, for some reason has gotten hooked in a major way on the stiff-upper-lip BBC drama Downton Abbey. It’s the type of show we’ve always enjoyed as a family, but I’m pretty surprised he likes it.
So I asked him last night what it is he finds so appealing about the show. He said he thinks the dialogue is good and the characters are interesting. He also likes that the show seems fairly period-accurate without the “filter of being filmed in the ’60s.”
I then mentioned I was surprised he liked it because it’s fairly soapy, and the conversation then segued into trying to define exactly what soapiness is. If you’ve read any of my thoughts on the Vampire Diaries, you know I am a huge fan of any show in which beautiful people are embroiled in over-the-top drama, preferably with some sort of supernatural element. But Downton, to me, seems equally soapy. The storylines are, for the most part, incredibly inconsequential in the grand scheme of things. Whom will Mary marry? Will Mr. Carson be able to polish the silver and wait table at dinner? Will the Dowager Countess win the flower show—again—or let the actual best blooms take the prize? But within the “universe” of the show, as the AV Club would term it, this is the stuff on which lives depend. The gentrified world relies on these tiny, seemingly inconsequential matters for rules, for structure, for order in the larger chaos of a changing world. So because the show is set in that realistic world, does that make the endless romantic entanglements more or less soapy than a story about a mortal high school girl caught in a love triangle between two vampire brothers?
I would argue that it’s about the same. But I could be wrong. It’s hard to be a television drama and not be accused of being soapy, I suppose. Still, when matters of “the heart” are so often thrust front and center, when they trump any realism or practicality, to me that is the definition of soapy.
But will I be arguing that to my bf? Not right now—we’ve got another six episodes to go.

What do you think makes something a soap opera?


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