The longer a drama is allowed to run, the closer it comes to resembling a soap opera. The difference between these two forms is that while both are made from the relationships between fictional characters, dramas use those relationships as a means of articulating some deeper truth about the human condition. Soap operas are dramas that have been robbed of significance; they treat the relationships between fictional characters as ends in themselves.
As someone who has never entirely understood why I am supposed to become emotionally invested in the lives of people who do not exist, I am very sensitive to the difference between drama and soap opera and I am always wary of films and series that move from one form to another. An excellent example of the slide from drama to soap is the French procedural Spiral. When Spiral first aired in 2005, it was a tightly-written drama exploring how various aspects of the French legal system interact as part of an investigation and how incompetence, mendacity and institutional dysfunction can get in the way of justice. At the time, many people compared Spiral and to The Wire but where the two programmes part company is that while The Wire used its additional seasons to expand its critique of American society, Spiral lost interest in the real world: By the third season, the writers of Spiral had shifted their interest away from the French legal system towards the emotional lives of their characters. By the fourth season, the procedural elements were serving as little more than an excuse for characters to bicker, plot and occasionally jump into bed with each other. A fifth season of the programme has been produced and has begun to air and I see no reason why it shouldn’t continue indefinitely. Spiral’s viewers may have been drawn in by the critique of French society but it is their emotional investment in the characters that keeps them coming back. In the nine years since it first aired, Spiral has transitioned from a drama about the French legal system to a soap opera set in courthouses and police stations.
This process is also beginning to affect the on-going collaboration between director Michael Winterbottom and the comic actors Steve Coogan and Rob Brydon; a creative partnership that began by producing thought-provoking drama now traffics in smug, middle-class soap opera.