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Soap

By Jeff Shannon

Even before it premiered on September 13, 1977 (Tuesdays at 9:30 pm on ABC), Soap was mired in controversy (including 32,000 letters of protest) and primed to make television history.

Conceived as a primetime satire of daytime melodramas, this groundbreaking series toppled many of the TV taboos that remained after All in the Family and M*A*S*H, openly addressing a variety of risky topics (homosexuality, infidelity, impotence, familial murder) with a deft combination of irreverent wit, wacky slapstick, supreme stupidity, and--key to its success--engaging drama from characters you could really care about, regardless of their rampant quirks and foibles.

As a friendly announcer informs us, "this is the story of two sisters" in suburban Connecticut--wealthy dimwit Jessica Tate (Katherine Helmond) and blue-collar housewife Mary Campbell (Cathryn Damon)--whose class-divided families are bound by enough scandalous secrets to make each of these 25 episodes (all written by creator-producer Susan Harris and directed by sitcom veteran Jay Sandrich) a polished gem of half-hour comedy.

The integration of plot and character is flawless, and dirty laundry was rarely this absurd: Jessica's cheating on her cheating husband (Robert Mandan, the show's underrated lynchpin); stepson Jodie (Billy Crystal) is (gasp!) openly gay, and brother Danny (Ted Wass) has Mafia connections; daughter Corrine (Diana Canova) is in love with a priest; Mary's husband Burt (manic genius Richard Mulligan) is a would-be killer who thinks he's invisible; and all of them are suspects in a murder case that fuels the season's cliffhanger finale.

This is ensemble comedy at its finest, and is it any wonder Robert Guillaume--as the Tates' insolent servant Benson--got his own spin-off sitcom in 1979? His line readings (such as "You want me to get that?" when the doorbell rings) are instant classics, and while Helmond tops the cast with her inimitable brand of idiocy, there's not a weak link in the entire cast. All those protesting prudes fought a futile battle: Soap was never naughty without purpose (indeed, the show possesses subtle integrity) and a large and loyal audience propelled it to even crazier heights in subsequent seasons.

It doesn't seem possible, but the second season of Soap is even better than the first. Only the greatest primetime sitcoms achieve triple-threat genius: Casting, writing, and direction reached their zenith as the 1978-79 season began with a resolution to season 1's cliffhanger murder. Chester (Robert Mandan) loses his memory and wander out west while his ditzy wife Jessica (Katherine Helmond) enjoys a fling with the detective (new cast member John Byner) she'd hired to find Chester. Across town, the working-class Campbells have their own melodramas to contend with: Despite being gay, stepson Jodie (Billy Crystal) is an expectant father and moves in with pregnant Carol (Rebecca Balding), and later a lesbian roommate; Mary (Cathryn Damon) suspects Burt (Richard Mulligan) of having an affair; Corrine (Diana Canova) and ex-priest Tim (Sal Viscuso) have a baby that's demonically possessed; and Burt is abducted by aliens!

Exorcisms and flying saucers might suggest desperation on the part of writer-creator Susan Harris, but the opposite is true: the controversy that plagued Soap's first season had subsided (thanks to valiant defense by ABC President Fred Silverman), and Harris and Jay Sandrich (who directed 20 of these 22 episodes) were able to push their spoofy plots to even greater heights of absurdity without sacrificing the show's core integrity. Jimmy Baio (as Billy Tate) gets his moment to shine, and Robert Guillaume (as Benson) deservedly won an Emmy for Best Supporting Actor in a Comedy Series.

Soap on DVD!
Soap is now available on DVD! Get it at Amazon.com!
Season One, Season Two, Season Three, Season Four

 

Share Your Memories In Our Forums!

Check out our Soap forum! Do you have a favorite episode of the show? What do you remember about the series? Do you have any questions about it or its stars? Now you can post comments and questions directly to our TV forums! Click here to see what other Soap viewers have said or to post your own comments about the show!

Your Memories Shared!

My favorite episode of soap is when Elaine and Danny finally start falling in love with each other after they were trying to kill one another its really quite sweet. ;)

--Avril

Note: This is just a random sample of the Soap messages in our TV forums! Click here to see what others have said or to post your own comments!

 

TV TIDBITS

Aired: September 13, 1977 - April 20, 1981

Cast: Katherine Helmond, Billy Crystal, Robert Manda, Diana Canova, Jennifer Salt, Jimmy Baio, Robert Urich, Robert Guillaume

Network: ABC

Genre: Sitcom

Theme song

Image courtesy of ABC


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Use of this site is subject to our Terms of Service.
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