Sex, Class and Race
First, the complaints. The release of Soap: The Complete Series should be cause for celebration, if only because it packs one of the ‘70s most groundbreaking sitcoms into one compact, cheap package. And it is one cheap package: the discs sit one on top of the other on a flimsy plastic spindle tray, which then slides into a cardboard box. There is no episode guide, and no notes of any sort. Special features consist of a brief interview with the show’s creators, some ads for other studio product, and as part of season two, the pilot episode, which is already available in season one.
Absolutely pointless. Aficionadoes are also complaining in various online forums that some of the episodes are shorter than their original lengths. I’ll admit this is frustrating. If you’re going to undertake a project like this, you should do it right.
It’s a shame the package isn’t better assembled, because Soap remains an entertaining, engrossing series, one whose edgier moments still have the capacity to surprise the viewer. It’s also interesting to note the reactions of the studio audience. It’s fascinating, if occasionally uncomfortable, because you can hear the audience groan and gasp, feel them collectively wince, and know that they’re shocked, offended, pleasantly surprised, or feeling certain ways about the characters. For audiences accustomed to a laugh track, Soap is refreshingly different.
As narrator Rod Roddy points out at the beginning of each episode, Soap is the story of two sisters, Jessica Tate (Katherine Helmond) and Mary Campbell (Cathryn Damon), who live in suburban Connecticut. The Tates—patriarch Chester (Robert Mandan), grown daughters Eunice (Jennifer Salt) and Corinne (Diana Canova), teenage son Billy (Jimmy Baio), and Jessica’s father, the Major (Arthur Peterson)—live in “a neighborhood known as ‘rich’, while the Campbells—Mary’s second husband Burt (Richard Mulligan), her sons Danny (Ted Wass) and Jodie (Billy Crystal, in his breakout role), and his son Chuck (Jay Johnson), who is attached to dummy named Bob—live in a presumably middle-class neighborhood.
“The Campbells don’t have nearly as much money,” Roddy informs us, “but they have just as many secrets.” One is that Jodie is gay. Another is that Danny works for gangsters. Burt, meanwhile, killed Mary’s first husband, and the guilt has made him impotent. The Tates have secrets of their own: Chester has numerous mistresses, Eunice and Corinne seem to have inherited his sexual adventurousness, and the Major still thinks World War II is going on. Billy isn’t privy to any of the family gossip, as he’s dismissed from the room any time a serious conversation starts. And Jessica is blissfully in denial of everything.
The insanity is introduced in sweeping fashion during the pilot, and brings into immediate focus the themes that the show would thrive on throughout its four-season run, namely the holy trinity of sex, class and race. The latter isn’t a primary focus, and when it is, the character in question is often the Tates’ African-American butler, Benson (Robert Guillaume, who won an Emmy in 1979 and left to reprise the role in an eponymous spinoff series). Benson and Chester are particularly at odds, but Benson is loyal to the Tates, particularly Jessica, to the point that he would lead a rescue party (a fine opportunity for several members of the cast to appear in blackface) to retrieve Billy from the clutches of a religious cult.
In between the pilot and the multiple-cliffhanger series finale four years later, Soap, like the daytime programs it lampooned, covered an impressive amount of ground: infidelity, suicide, murder, amnesia, blackmail, fallen priests, paternity/maternity issues, the mafia, sex changes, marriages forced and unforced, false accusations, false confessions, child custody, divorce, demon-possessed babies, therapy, jailbreaks, alien abduction, faked orgasms, trials, death, political ambition, Latin American revolutionaries, mysterious diseases, interracial relationships, time travel, stalking, kidnapping, cases of mistaken identity, and sex. Lots and lots of sex.
With that roster of plot points, it might seem easy to dismiss Soap as a ridiculously unbelievable, substance-free sitcom. Occasionally, that judgment holds true, although the very premise of the show—that it’s a satire of daytime soap operas—immediately demands a suspension of disbelief. But in between the improbable and flat-out ridiculous twists and turns are sensitive scenes, full of feeling, which explore the tenderness, fragility, and ultimately the endurance of human relationships.
Many of these involve Jessica Tate, who over the course of the series manages to be both a somewhat clueless ditz and a wise and available mother, wife, sister, aunt and friend. She’s also the most sympathetic character, as she deals with an unfaithful husband, increasingly independent children, the effects of aging, and the general chaos that surrounds her immediate and extended families. Soap balances laughter and pain, great joy and the hurt that comes with being human, and Jessica achieves the perfect combination. (Helmond’s portrayal earned her a Golden Globe in 1981, and she was nominated four times for an Emmy.)
Soap boasted one of the finest comedic ensembles in television history. In addition to Guillaume and Helmond, Mulligan and Damon both won Emmys in 1980, and the show was nominated three times for Outstanding Comedy Series. Mulligan, in particular, is a joy to watch whenever he’s onscreen, a cornucopia of facial expressions, bodily contortions, and non-verbal vocalizations. The regular cast had a strong chemistry, and recurring roles for the likes of John Byner, Howard Hesseman, former Olympic gold medalist Bob Seagren, Roscoe Lee Browne, Robert Urich, Doris Roberts, Marla Pennington, Joe Mantegna and others added humor and helped advance the many entangled plots.
It’s something of a shame that the producers didn’t know the show was going to be cancelled, as the final episode leaves a number of loose ends flapping in the breeze. Three major characters are at the risk of death by gun—in three separate situations, naturally—and a fourth is trapped in a state of hypnosis. At the same time, the series had basically run its course—the plot twists had become considerably more absurd, and certain running gags had grown tiresome—so there wasn’t much more they could’ve done. It made sense, in a way, that one of the first prime-time sitcoms to have a season-ending cliffhanger would also provide zero closure in its series finale.
Despite the caveats presented at the outset of this review, Soap: The Complete Series has a lot to offer anyone who likes humor that pushes the boundaries, or for their sitcoms to have a strong emotional core. If you’re looking for a few of the most memorable characters in television, an ever-advancing story, or just some good, intelligent belly laughs, you can’t do much better, and you could do a whole lot worse.