In Defense of Soap Operas

Note that the shows that will be replacing them lack the serial, long-term nature of the daytime dramas. Whereas the new shows will necessarily be ephemeral in their effect -- each topic disposed of quickly -- daytime dramas exercise the minds of their audiences by requiring them to retain in the memory, and recall quickly, a wide variety of story lines, characters, and events involved in the various plots. This challenges the mind in a way that a show such as Chew cannot possibly do.

There is also much good to be found in the story content of daytime dramas. From the occasional looks I've had at them and my conversations with others about what they found appealing in the programs, these shows seem to spark a real interest in figuring out what people want out of life and exploring the great variety of human desires and motives. In addition, they indicate a real concern for people's well-being. The story lines demonstrate the sometimes appalling consequences of people's bad choices (some might say they dwell on the subject), the joys brought on by good behavior, the tragic disasters that naturally hit one and all at some time or another (regardless of our personal choices), how different people react to the winds of chance, and how our dreams and desires lead us to success or ruin.

Above all, these dramas show people making choices, the essence of morality (as Aristotle noted):

Tragedy is an imitation, not of men, but of an action and of life, and life consists in action, and its end is a mode of action, not a quality. Now character determines men's qualities, but it is by their actions that they are happy or the reverse. (Poetics, Ch. 6)

Seen in this way, the often-sordid and sensationalistic content of these programs can have good effects (although Aristotle probably would not have considered these shows to be good). As I noted above, the depiction of a particular action does not imply that the writer is advocating that audiences approve of it, much less that they undertake it themselves.

For a particularly obvious example, consider the novels and TV series Dexter, in which a serial killer confines his actions to what he believes to be good ends. Obviously the writer of the books and makers of the show are not advocating that viewers emulate the title character. Instead, they are inviting the audience to consider some serious questions which philosophers and theologians have tackled over the ages, especially this: What makes an action good and justifiable -- the motives behind it, its reasonably expected consequences, its actual consequences, its adherence to a particular moral code, some combination of these, something else, or (per nihilism and relativism) nothing at all? These are questions one cannot help but confront when watching Dexter.