"They (young actors) see TV movies. They see Lifetime movies. They think that's melodrama. They don't know the true fun of ever-escalating emotions building up to a volcanic pitch!" — Quentin Tarantino on Douglas Sirk melodramas.
A type of theater, film, and television that focuses on heightening the emotions of the audience. The word "melodrama" derives from "melody [in] drama" (like opera); melodrama at its finest aspires to have the tone and the repetitive, building emotion of an opera or a symphony.
It's usually associated with everyone acting like aLarge Ham, but it's actually about specific emphasis on any dramatic situation. This is done by amping up the perceived scale and emotional response on everything. Basically, every little hurdle becomes a mountain, every setback a tragedy of Greek proportions, and the official couple will be Star-Crossed Lovers over the tiniest things, usually thanks to outside interference and Poor Communication Kills.
Note that this isn't the same as stage actors speaking loudly and making broad movements. That's just a necessity of stage acting. This is when the actors portray the characters (or the characters are written as) being akin to teenagers with a very small, Soap Opera scale world. Every success, kiss, and snub will carry the sting of a legendary story. Essentially, what to us would be a pinprick gains the pathos of a rending wound.
Also note that this can be done right. Melodrama can quite easily hook viewers into becoming emotionally invested in the characters, something every story needs to survive. It helps if the stories are such as would produce large emotions — and if the characters are depicted with proper motivations. Only occasionally does it fall into the AnviliciousNarm-fests we associate with them. Which is why nowadays it's more of a pejorative term for gratuitous drama, and something writing books today urge people to steer clear of.
A Sub-Trope of Rule of Drama.
A Super Trope to GASP!, Melodramatic Pause, Drama Queen, Dramatic Downstage Turn.
Compare Chewing the Scenery, Large Ham, Milking the Giant Cow, Narm, Mundane Made Awesome, Comical Overreacting.
Contrast Dull Surprise.
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Anime and Manga
The anime version of Heidi fall easily into this.
A lot of shojo series, from the 70's to today, have these in spades. In fact, it would be easier to list those shojo anime/manga titles in which melodrama isn't a central element of it. Some examples:
Melodrama plays a vital role in most Yuri Genre anime. As with most shojo anime and manga, it would be easier and shorter to list those Yuri Genre shows which aren't all about melodrama.
Death Note, especially the dub. Major plot twists are accompanied by mundane actions and hammy dialogue - see the famous "I'll take a potato chip... AND EAT IT!" scene.
Chris Claremont's work is often seen like this now.
From Hell bears the subtitle "A melodrama in sixteen parts".
Many silent movies were melodramas by necessity, as they couldn't rely on spoken dialogue to convey emotion. D.W. Griffith was a master of the art, and his epic films (The Birth of a Nation, Way Down East, etc.) were pure melodrama.
But, as with all things, there are exceptions. Part of the trouble is which films and performances have survived and remained well-known, which were often the most popular/successful ones of the time. And let's face it, melodrama sells.
A lot of silent movie conventions appear in Dracula (1931), to the point that no non-diegetic music appears. Gestures and dialogue are exaggerated, and a close-up of Dracula's Death Glare repeats to the point of Running Gag.
Kenji Mizoguchi was the foremost practitioner of Eastern melodrama, such as Osaka Elegy.
Hong Kong was rather fond of melodramatic cinema in its heyday. John Woo and his Heroic Bloodshed melodramas are a prime example.
Major Swindon: I can only do my best sir, and rely on the devotion of our countrymen.
General John Burgoyne: May I ask, Major, are you writing a melodrama?
Major Swindon: No, sir.
General John Burgoyne: (sarcastically) What a pity! WHAT a pity!
Douglas Sirk did other films, but his most well known are his 1950s Hollywood melodramas, featuring titles such as All That Heaven Allows, Written on the Wind, and Imitation of Life. Many of them are retroactively considered Stealth Parodies and sly critiques of American society.
In The Baby-Sitters Club series, there's no other word to describe the scene in Boy-Crazy Stacey where the girls are saying goodbye. They're all going their (temporary) separate ways and the waterworks are endless. Sobbing, hugging, wailing. How long will they be apart? Two weeks.
The standard Romance Novel is purely and unabashedly melodrama by design; though some are low-key, most thrive on emotional extremes and emotion-heightening situations.
Twilight. When you think about it, there aren't that many obstacles keeping Edward and Bella apart. They just like to think that there are.
In fact, most of these hurdles are put up by Bella and Edward themselves, be it Bella fretting over not being pretty enough to deserve Edward or Edward deciding that he needs to separate himself from Bella, resulting in him uprooting his whole family so that he can go live in South America and months of Wangsting from both him and Bella.
Hwang Sun-won's 1959 short story Sonagi (Rain Shower in English) is an enduringly popular melodrama in Korea that is often referenced in contemporary Korean culture, which is a culture that is very fond of melodrama.
In the same way very ordinary events of civilized life are exalted into the most awful crises, and ladies in full skirts and manches à la Chinoise, conduct themselves not unlike the heroines of sanguinary melodramas.
Reality shows in general are a gold mine for this trope. For example, My Kitchen Rules makes putting on a dinner party look like an epic tale of love, hate, war and other things.
New-formula Masterchef: "Cooking doesn't get tougher than this!"
Scrubs exists to invert and subvert this trope. The show is about low-ranking, everyday doctors who realistically acknowledge that one third of their patients are old farts about to die and most of their day is spent disimpacting people's bowels. This is in direct contrast to medical dramas such as House, ER and Grey's Anatomy where every single patient leads the cast on a roller-coaster of emotional torment and soul-searching. Although it should be noted that the doctors on Scrubs have, on occasion, been put on a rollercoaster of emotional torment and soul-searching (by their patients or otherwise) anyway.
A commercial for mail-order eye contacts had an "overly-dramatic recreation" ("But Mary, our eyes are different!").
Korean Drama. Oh my god. The ones labelled Melodrama will get you but the the comedies and romantic comedies can sneak up from behind and hit you with a lead pipe while you are still laughing at that last comic bit.
Little House on the Prairie has melodrama in almost every episode. It's not uncommon to see someone crying in an over-the-top manner on the show.
This is often the very essence of yellow journalism.
One of Metal Gear's claims to fame/notoriety. Every boss battle is followed up by a five to ten minute death scene and the Myth Arc is deep enough to put LOST to shame. The last cutscene of Guns Of The Patriots (the de-facto Grand Finale) is over an hour long.
Later episodes of South Park often go in that direction, thanks to Cerebus Syndrome. There are 3 ways that it's used: intentionally (i.e. "Raisins"), Played for Laughs (i.e. "Over-Logging"), or both (i.e. "The China Probrem").
Rarity from My Little Pony: Friendship Is Magic has her moments, and out-hams everyone around her: "I VANT TO BE ALO-HO-HO-ON I WANT TO WALLOW IN... WHATEVER IT IS PONIES ARE SUPPOSED TO WALLOW IN! (aside to self) Do ponies wallow in pity? (back to the melodrama!) OH, LISTEN TO ME! I DON'T EVEN KNOW WHAT I'M SUPPOSED TO WALLOW IN! I'M SO PATHETI-I-I-IC"
In Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs, all the characters are large hams to varying extents. There's the operetta-quality trilling of the heroine, the silent movie-esque gestures of the Queen/Hag, and the outsized personalities of the dwarfs (Bashful makes shyness hammy).
In Sleeping Beauty, a fairy duel erupts over the color of a dress. Wait until you see what happens when an entire kingdom's at stake, and all because an evil fairy wasn't invited to a party!