“Shhhh! I’m watching my stories.” I can remember hearing this phrase countless times as a kid when Grandma was huddled by the television watching her soaps. Soap operas have spanned generations. The episodic daytime dramas featuring steamy romances, baby mix ups, and villains have captivated fans for decades. Some of the best soap operas are still enjoyed today even if they stopped filming years ago.
There’s always that one mischievous character after the star of the show. Speaking of villains, a recent study shows more than half (51%) Americans “always” or “often” root for the bad guy or gal when watching a movie or TV show. In a recent survey of 2,011 U.S. adults, three in five (60%) say they watch a series or movie just for the villain.
So, what keeps our eyes glued to the TV when a soap comes on? Cliffhangers. Those unfinished plot lines keep viewers hooked. Another essential? Familiarity. Many soap actors appear on the shows for years at a time. Soap fans develop a closeness to those characters. As successful as these dramas have been, TV viewing habits are changing, and it’s taken a toll on the industry. Currently, there are just three soap operas airing on linear television. Plus, with streaming services dominating the landscape, viewers have more choices out there.
In fact, what we are watching can depend on when we were born. A recent study found millennials are nearly twice as likely to have true crime shows on their watchlists than Gen Z (45% compared to 26%). Gen Z, on the other hand, was found to have a penchant for sitcoms (38%). Gen X and baby boomers both prefer full-hour procedurals (50% and 58%, respectively).
If you’re looking to get into soaps, you need to start with the classics. StudyFinds compiled a list of the five best soap operas of all time, from ten expert websites and viewer reviews. As always, we’d like to see your own recommendations in the comments below!
The List: Best Soap Operas of All Time, According to Experts
1. “General Hospital” (1963-present)
Set in the fictional town of Port Charles, “General Hospital” is celebrating its milestone 60th year on TV. “The soap centers around a hospital (obviously), but also has unique storylines around the mob scene, spy adventure, and the corporate battles over ELQ. How can it not be one of the best of the best if viewers are still tuning in this many years later? The soap has never shied away from raising awareness around hard issues and creating unique storylines around topics like HIV/AIDS, mental health, alcoholism, drug addiction, and sexual assault,” according to Fame10.
Wonderwall.com points out two of Port Charles’ residents, “included soap opera supercouple Luke and Laura (played by Anthony Geary and Genie Francis), whose wedding was the most watched soap episode in American TV history, and iconic families like the Quartermaines and the Cassadines.”
“Even though the show premiered way back in 1963, it continues to be a television landmark. The show holds many records for its longevity. So perhaps it’s no surprise it also retains the Emmy record for the most Outstanding Drama Series wins,” adds to Showbiz Cheat Sheet.
2. “Guiding Light” (1952-2009)
This soap got its start on the radio in 1937, eventually moving to TV in 1952. GL’s last episode aired after 57 years on television. “As a result of this lengthy run, Guiding Light did its best to try and evolve with tastes and the times. It even adopted a realistic, up-front-and-personal shooting style to differentiate itself from other daytime entertainment,” according to WatchMojo.
— Guiding Light (@Guiding_Light) November 26, 2020
Oprah Daily notes stars like, “Hayden Panettiere (Nashville), Matt Bomer (The Sinner), Brittany Snow (Pitch Perfect), and so many others found stardom following their big breaks on this daytime series.”
TVLine adds “for the most part, Irna Phillips’ beloved daytime drama was blessedly real. Stories like Roger Thorpe’s rape of wife Holly, Maureen Bauer’s death and, in later years, Jonathan Randall’s taboo romance with cousin Tammy Winslow kept the show down-to-earth even as the stakes rose to towering heights.”
3. “All My Children” (1970-2011)
“All My Children” hit TV screens back in 1970. ABC canceled this soap opera after 41 years on air due to low ratings. “Pine Valley, Pa. has had quite the storied past — but, for many, it’s been defined by one iconic character: Susan Lucci’s Erica Kane. Erica’s many reinventions (model, talk-show host, cosmetics tycoon) and many loves (eight husbands) set the show’s lifestyles-of-the-rich-and-famous tone,” according to Entertainment Weekly.
“The series itself takes an Elizabeth Taylor approach to storytelling: one woman, her men, and everyone else. That woman here is, of course, Erica Kane,” notes Oprah Daily.
EditorChoice points out that talk show host, “Kelly Ripa met her husband Mark Consuelos on the show.”
4. “The Young & The Restless” (1973-present)
Even if you’ve never seen it, you’ve probably heard of it. Celebrating its 50th year on television, “The Young & The Restless” continues to captivate viewers. “This ongoing soap was created by William J. Bell and Lee Phillip Bell and has won many Emmy awards for its popularity. Although changing many characters throughout the years, the show has followed the same plot of family feuds, even holding the spot for the longest rivalry on any American soap opera between characters Jill Abbott and Katherine Chancellor,” according to Rare.
“Actors Tom Selleck and David Hasselhoff acted on this show before hitting it big in Magnum P.I. and Knight Rider, respectively,” adds EditorChoice.
5. “Days Of Our Lives” (1965-present)
Airing on broadcast TV for 57 years, this soap moved to streaming on Peacock in 2022 and the plot is still unfolding. Tilt Magazine notes that the show “is set in the Midwestern town of Salem and showcases how family disputes and problems can be dramatic.”
“Fans followed the trials and tribulations of the main families — the Hortons and the Bradys — while many other characters were introduced over time. This soap pulled off some pretty crazy plots, including a 1995 storyline that saw Marlena Evans turn into a jaguar while possessed by the devil (yes, really!),” adds Wonderwall.com.
You can’t forget the villains! EditorChoice writes: “There are many villains in the show such as Stefano DiMera and Vivian Alamain, to keep people hooked and on their toes. John Aniston (father of Jennifer Aniston) has played Victor Kiriakis since 1985. It is a gripping soapie that keeps people coming back day after day. The show has 2.1 million viewers.”
Honorable Mention: “Dark Shadows” (1966-1971)
I couldn’t end this article without mentioning this horror-themed soap that is a cult classic. “ABC nearly drove a stake into the heart of its gothic serial after less than a year in the late 1960s. But once creator Dan Curtis flipped the lid on a coffin containing vampire Barnabas Collins, the show not only was raised from the (almost) dead, it became a pop-culture phenomenon that sparked companion novels, comic books and two movies,” according to TVLine.
Dark Shadows. Best soap opera ever. pic.twitter.com/L105AvE4Tk
— ShawnMarie (@Shawn33Larson33) April 3, 2021
“As the original vampire drama in American television history, the show followed the lives of the wealthy Collins family, combining juicy drama with supernatural factors. The Vampire Diaries and its other spin-off series can’t steal the claim for the origins of combining drama with vampires, as popular as Dark Shadows was in its time,” notes Rare.
You might also be interested in:
- Showbiz Cheat Sheet
- Oprah Daily
- Entertainment Weekly
- Tilt Magazine
Note: This article was not paid for nor sponsored. StudyFinds is not connected to nor partnered with any of the brands mentioned and receives no compensation for its recommendations. This post may contain affiliate links.