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 waves of building emotion of an opera or a symphony. In melodrama, the plot is sensationalized and emotional and the dialogue is bombastic and sentimental. Characters tend to be thinly sketched, flat Stock Characters (the hero or heroine might face problems from a "homewrecking temptress" or an aristocratic villain). Melodramas are often accomplished by dramatic, emotional music.
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. The difference between melodrama and drama is that the latter aims for realism; the conflict(s) are based on more logical and reasonable events and usually tend to have more calmer moods.
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.
Melodrama is heavily used in 1800s opera, such as in Donizetti's bel canto operas, in Bellini's works, and many Verdi and Puccini operas. In these composers' works, the heroines need to resolve impossible romantic situations all amidst grandiose, heightened stakes.
Contrast Dull Surprise.
Note: Please explain what makes a work melodramatic. Don't cite critics, fans, and YMMV tropes here, also general examples that don't apply to the whole set of works (e.g. Indian works, Korean Dramas, etc.) aren't allowed per the site's rules.
- The anime version of Heidi falls easily into this.
- A lot of Shōjo series, from the 70's to today, have these in spades. In fact, it would be easier to list those Shōjo 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.
- Fullmetal Alchemist (2003) 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.
- The second anime adaptation, Fullmetal Alchemist Brotherhood also fits the bill, partly because of its bombastic orchestral score, especially during emotional, scary or action-heavy scenes, it's bigger emphasis on spectacle, and the way its directed, which sometimes makes the intended tone of a scene even more apparent than it was in its source material or other adaptations (like the background being blood-red at one point during Ed and Al's traumatic backstory).
- 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.
- Attack on Titan, particularly the anime. The series doesn't miss a chance to ramp up the music, animation and acting whenever a plot development or action scene occurs. The manga itself also uses melodrama to punctuate the sheer dread, panic and gut-wrenching tragedy of both war and nature in general.
- 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 (2013) 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 Bastard for a villain. Saying that everyone earned their happy ending would be an understatement.
- 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 prime examples.
- 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.
- The Room (2003): 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 into 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.
- Delmer Daves made a sudden switch from gritty Westerns to melodrama after doctors advised him to make less demanding films following a heart scare. His biggest hit in that vein, A Summer Place, is an adaptation of a Sloan Wilson novel about a pair of star-crossed teenage lovers who meet again on vacation decades later as their marriages to different people are faltering, only to find further complication when their own teenage offspring fall in love with each other. After that he did Parrish (Love Dodecahedron on a tobacco farm), Susan Slade (Teen Pregnancy back when it was a very taboo topic) and Youngblood Hawke (naïve young writer from Kentucky gets involved with a succession of Manhattan women). These films all have a solid Camp reputation nowadays.
- 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.
- Life as a House is a film about a man dying from cancer who decides to spends his last days building his dream house. On top of that, there are also sub-plots including, but not limited to, a parental reconnection after estrangement, a teenage boy sleeping with his girlfriend’s mom, angsty moody Emo-ness, a rekindled romance, a sexually curious girl who is attracted to both a father and son, and a High-School Hustler.
- 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.
- The Girl on the Train: Almost every single scene in the film is filled with exaggerated crying, shouting, violence, sex, or all of the above, almost to the point of camp. And then there's this highly over-the-top scene.
- Common in Film Noir, but special mention goes to Leave Her to Heaven (1945), directed by John M. Stahl, who defined melodrama in the 1930s, and two of whose films were remade by the aforementioned Douglas Sirk. It's a film about arguably the most evil of all femme fatales, played by Gene Tierney, and her obsession with a man (Cornell Wilde) that leads to both of their downfalls. It includes a very operatic scene of Tierney riding on horseback through the desert scattering her father's ashes, an iconic scene where she calmly watches another character drown while wearing Sinister Shades, another where she induces an abortion by throwing herself down the stairs, and much more, all shot in glorious technicolor. The end result is a film that's so far into melodrama, it's almost like a fever dream.
- 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".
- 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. 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.
- 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" pokes fun at how the Buffy/Angel scenes can be. Later the Angel episode "Fredless" has Cordelia and Wesley imitate the scene, even more exaggerated.
- 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.
- Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street, based on a character from Victorian London theatre, is a musical melodrama; composer Stephen Sondheim, asked about the dark subject matter, replied, "Sweeney Todd is not dark, it's a melodrama."
- 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!
- In Double Homework, when the protagonist and Johanna finally have an honest conversation about their relationships with each other and Tamara, Johanna, when she isn’t smacking her brother, is construing just about everything he says as a reason why she’s not good enough.
- The original Terrytoons Mighty Mouse series. Not only did it feature an Ace hero, a Damsel in Distress 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"
- In a Running Gag in a particular episode she telekinethically 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.
- The Dastardly and Muttley in Their Flying Machines episode "Stop Which Pigeon?" had the Yankee Doodle Pigeon impostor Dastardly hired (to fool the General) critiquing Dastardly's call for help from Muttley after their airborne bathtub plan failed as "a bit on the melodramatic side."
- Steven Universe has Pearl, who expresses her emotions with the subtlety of a brick, and thus can be a little melodramatic at times. Best exemplified in the episode "Say Uncle", where she absolutely loses it after Uncle Grandpa's cartoony hijinks lead to the Crystal Gems getting trapped in a White Void Room:
Pearl: WE'LL NEVER ESCAPE! THIS IS OUR NEW HOME!Garnet: Pearl, you're overreacting.Pearl: I'M NOT OVERREACTING! (runs off screaming)