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 a Large 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 the type that can produce large emotions — and if the characters are depicted with proper motivations. Only occasionally does it fall into the Anvilicious Narm-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.
Contrast Dull Surprise.
- The anime version of Heidi falls 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:
- The Rose of Versailles is loaded with this. In one scene based on historical events, Marie Antoinette just had to say a few words to Madame DuBarry, and Marie then runs away in tears◊, and even tosses her Ermine Cape behind her to show the princess is beaten. Episode 03 of Rose of Versailles Abridged discusses the importance of this and Rule of Drama.
- Aim for the Ace!, which is even more noticeably overblown in the live-action adaptation. It's an early shoujo series, so it's only natural.
- Candy Candy.
- Kaze to Ki no Uta.
- Hot Gimmick.
- Peach Girl.
- Oniisama e..., which not so coincidentally is by the same author of The Rose of Versailles, and inspired lots of Yuri Genre (mentioned below) series to come.
- The first anime adaptation of Fullmetal Alchemist mixes a good deal of melodrama and Gothic Horror into what was originally more of a Thriller series. The heroes experience more Angst, the origins of the homunculi are more complex, and characters doomed to die are given more screentime so that their deaths hit harder.
- Saint Seiya, considering the action-to-drama ratio.
- Code Geass. It wouldn't be half as awesome if it weren't.
- The works of Leiji Matsumoto have melodrama written all over it.
- 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.
- Many stories in Detective Conan easily fall into this.
- Almost every main storyline in Dragon Ball Z, and especially obvious in the villains.
- Yu-Gi-Oh! is quite possibly the biggest example of melodrama in anime. The fate of the world, existential crises, life or death situations, all fall upon a children's card game.
- 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.
- King Vidor's Stella Dallas (starring Barbara Stanwyck) is a heartbreaking film, which shows melodrama at its finest.
- Any big-screen adaptation of a stage play (or in the case of The Producers, film adaptation of a play adaptation of a movie).
- Titanic, especially the second half.
- Speaking of, The Legend of the Titanic (not to be confused with the one with the rapping dog) is heavy on this in the second half.
- The Star Wars movies are adventure melodramas. Any scene with Padme and Anakin is a mini romantic melodrama.
- Pick a Bollywood film. ANY Bollywood film. The recent ones are slightly better about handling this, though.
- Johnny would like you to know that "you are TEARING me APART, Lisa!" It's amazing how much drama Tommy Wiseau attempts to put into the minimal amount of things that actually happen.
- The Wizard of Oz. Everyone puts intense effort in showing their emotions (worried, happy, frightened, angry...).
- Played With in The Devil's Disciple (1959).
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!
- The '50s is generally seen as the peak age of the Melodrama with its Stepford Suburbia setting, nuclear family casts and plots that focus on family angst, frustrated desire, adultery and bad marriages:
- Douglas Sirk is understood to "own" the genre as his best-known films are 1950s Hollywood melodramas, featuring titles such as All That Heaven Allows, Magnificent Obsession, Written on the Wind, and Imitation of Life. Many of them are retroactively considered Stealth Parodies and sly critiques of American society. These films were major commercial successes of the era and inspired the likes of Rainer Werner Fassbinder, Todd Haynes and John Waters among many others.
- Elia Kazan's direction often led to melodrama seeping into genres that were not supposed to accommodate it. His East of Eden is a famous example but other examples include Wild River and The Arrangement.
- Max Ophuls directed a few notable melodramas in America and France. Examples include Letter from an Unknown Woman, The Earrings of Madame de..., Caught and The Reckless Moment.
- Vincente Minnelli directed a few famous films in this genre: The Cobweb, Some Came Running, Home from the Hill.
- Nicholas Ray made two very famous melodramas: Rebel Without a Cause, which was so Genre-Busting that it codified the teen movie, and Bigger Than Life a film about a failed teacher's frustration that anticipated American Beauty.
- Lars von Trier is a standout example. He has by his own admittance one story: A Cutie that's Always Female has her life systematically ruined by a male Jerkass that's frequently a Know-Nothing Know-It-All. If that doesn't sound melodramatic enough, there's always plenty of hellish happenings throughout every movie, enough to drive the angst to the extreme.
- Manhattan Melodrama wasn't kidding around. Much tearjerking goes on as Blackie the gangster kills someone to save his old buddy Jim's political career, then refuses to let Jim commute his sentence, as Blackie's old girlfriend Eleanor, now Jim's wife, begs for Blackie's life.
- In-universe with Exit Smiling, which is about a traveling theater troupe that performs an absurdly over-the-top, silly melodrama.
- 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.
- Gothic and Romantic literature — The Castle of Otranto and Wuthering Heights certainly count as melodrama, which doesn't mean they're bad.
- 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.
- The Three Musketeers, where every girl is the receiver of True, Passionate Romance, loyalty to King, Queen and Country are True and Absolute, and every tiny transgression is cause for a Duel! to the Death! Impassioned hamminess is considered the most praiseworthy of qualities in this novel. A bit of an Invoked Trope due to the setting's Blue and Orange Morality — the reason Milady is so dangerous in-universe is because she keeps a low profile and doesn't play by the rules.
- 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.
- One of the complaints of George Eliot's "Silly Novels by Lady Novelists":
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.
- Used quite a lot in Fern Michaels' Sisterhood Series. For the most part, it's done right. On occasion, it does fall into Narm.
- H. P. Lovecraft, of all people, wrote a highly amusing parody of this genre entitled "Sweet Ermengarde".
- Soap Operas, of course.
- Lifetime Movies of the Week are these in spades.
- There was one, called Her Married Lover, which is actually a Deconstruction of those melodramatic movies.
- There was a Saturday Night Live sketch from the early 1990s, "Those Proud Pattersons", where everybody was an overdramatic actor.
- The Colbert Report is already very emotional about everything, but occasionally it ramps it up to eleven. Even The Daily Show did it once.
- Even though it's a reality show, Extreme Makeover: Home Edition seems to be chock full of melodrama.
- 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. The ones labelled Melodrama will get you but 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.
- Buffy the Vampire Slayer: Forget that some see the show as running on this for a moment; the episode "The Zeppo" dials it Up to Eleven poking fun at how the Buffy/Angel scenes can be. Later the Angel episode "Fredless" has Cordelia and Wesley imitate the scene, up to eleven, eleven times over.
- Shakespeare is often regarded as a master of this trope. Although whether it's done well or poorly depends on who you ask, which play you're talking about, or both.
- Takarazuka productions.
- The Phantom of the Opera and its sequel Love Never Dies.
- Under The Gaslight, a play from the 1800s; it was eventually made into a silent film, which also qualifies.
- The Warriors at Helgeland by Henrik Ibsen is by far the most melodramatic play he ever wrote. Later, Ibsen spoofed the genre in Rosmersholm by having an off stage suicide, commented on by the last person left on stage:
- Dear god, they embrace! And save us, they are jumping in the waterfalls together!
- The Final Fantasy series, and many other JRPGs.
- 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.
- A significant number of Visual Novels appear to have no purpose other than to make the player (reader?) cry uncontrollably. See Utsuge for details.
- Bittersweet Candy Bowl has this, in both serious and Narm varieties.
- The original Terrytoons Mighty Mouse series. Not only did it feature an Ace hero, a Distressed Damsel and a Card-Carrying Villain, but all the dialogue was sung, Opera-style.
- Princess Sissi, the German Animated Adaptation of Elizabeth of Bavaria's life. This isn't surprising, as most historical drama isn't low-key.
- 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"
- Gets taken Up to Eleven as part of a Running Gag in a particular episode where she telepathically summons a divan just so she can dramatically throw herself onto it whenever she wants to freak out about something... and is then parodied at the end when the couch doesn't arrive due to having been tied down, and she promptly switches to freaking out about not having a proper setting in which to freak out anymore.
- Sometimes turns up in the Disney Animated Canon.
- 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!
- Frozen is possibly the most triumphant example. Elsa's childhood is one traumatic event after another, including seriously endangering her sister's life twice by accident. Not to mention how her Power Incontinence has plunged the entire kingdom in eternal winter. And add to that a manipulative Magnificent Bastard villain. Saying that everyone earned their happy ending would be an understatement.