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Melodrama, in its original sense, was a sort of play with a romantic, sensational plot which also contained songs or music used as interludes. The word itself is a portmanteau word made from melody and drama. In 1775, Jean-Jacques Rousseau produced a play, Pygmalion, in which music was played to accompany certain scenes and the spoken words of the actors. The addition of songs to plays together with spoken passages was, of course, the beginning of musical theatre, the operetta, and the German Singspiel[?]. The use of unsung musical accompaniments to action on stage was a precursor of the modern film score; almost all films have musical backdrops in certain scenes.

In current usage, the sensationalistic plots of these original melodramas have swallowed up the other senses of the word. Melodrama as currently used is a mildly pejorative word in literary and other sorts of criticism, meaning a drama primarily characterised by sensational plots and blatant emotional appeals to conventional sentiment, but which is typically distinguished from tragedy by often having a happy ending. When melodrama is used in the pejorative sense, it is usually because the critic feels that the sensationalism of the plot lacks realism, or that the characters are stock heroes and villains with little room for characterization. Melodrama is ubiquitous on television: it is evident, for example, in a long series of TV movies about diseases or domestic violence, or the large number of hour-long television programs about lawyers, police officers, or physicians.

Issues melodrama is a subspecies of melodrama in which current events or politics are given a dramatic treatment, hoping to use some recent crime or controversy as a vehicle to draw an emotional response from the viewer. The usual method is to involve lawyers, police officers, or physicians, who can then make speeches about the crime or controversy being dramatized. By this artifice, the dramatist seeks to engage the audience's recently refreshed sense of fear or moral disapproval, while simultaneously maintaining the posture that the drama so produced is timely and socially engaged.

See also: soap opera, legal drama, serial

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