PopMatters is moving to WordPress in December. We will continue to publish on this site as we work on the move. We aim to make it a seamless experience for readers.


Soap: The Complete Series

Thomas Useted

Infidelity, suicide, murder, amnesia, blackmail, fallen priests, sex changes, demon-possessed babies, alien abduction, trials, mysterious diseases, time travel, kidnapping, sex, and much more.


Distributor: Sony
Cast: Katherine Helmond, Cathryn Damon, Richard Mulligan, Robert Mandan, Robert Guillaume, Billy Crystal, Ted Wass, Jennifer Salt, Jimmy Baio, Diana Canova, Arthur Peterson, Jay Johnson, Donnelly Rhodes
Network: ABC
First date: 1977
US Release Date: 2008-06-10
Last date: 1981

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.


Please Donate to Help Save PopMatters

PopMatters have been informed by our current technology provider that we have until December to move off their service. We are moving to WordPress and a new host, but we really need your help to fund the move and further development.





Ane Brun's 'After the Great Storm' Features Some of Her Best Songs

The irresolution and unease that pervade Ane Brun's After the Great Storm perfectly mirror the anxiety and social isolation that have engulfed this post-pandemic era.


'Long Hot Summers' Is a Lavish, Long-Overdue Boxed Set from the Style Council

Paul Weller's misunderstood, underappreciated '80s soul-pop outfit the Style Council are the subject of a multi-disc collection that's perfect for the uninitiated and a great nostalgia trip for those who heard it all the first time.


ABBA's 'Super Trouper' at 40

ABBA's winning – if slightly uneven – seventh album Super Trouper is reissued on 45rpm vinyl for its birthday.


The Mountain Goats Find New Sonic Inspiration on 'Getting Into Knives'

John Darnielle explores new sounds on his 19th studio album as the Mountain Goats—and creates his best record in years with Getting Into Knives.


The 100 Best Albums of the 2000s: 60-41

PopMatters' coverage of the 2000s' best recordings continues with selections spanning Swedish progressive metal to minimalist electrosoul.


Is Carl Neville's 'Eminent Domain' Worth the Effort?

In Carl Neville's latest novel, Eminent Domain, he creates complexities and then shatters them into tiny narrative bits arrayed along a non-linear timeline.


Horrors in the Closet: Horrifying Heteronormative Scapegoating

The artificial connection between homosexuality and communism created the popular myth of evil and undetectable gay subversives living inside 1950s American society. Film both reflected and refracted the homophobia.


Johnny Nash Refused to Remember His Place

Johnny Nash, part rock era crooner, part Motown, and part reggae, was too polite for the more militant wing of the Civil Rights movement, but he also suffered at the hands of a racist music industry that wouldn't market him as a Black heartthrob. Through it all he was himself, as he continuously refused to "remember his place".


John Hollenbeck Completes a Trilogy with 'Songs You Like a Lot'

The third (and final?) collaboration between a brilliant jazz composer/arranger, the Frankfurt Radio Big Band, vocalists Kate McGarry and Theo Bleckman, and the post-1950 American pop song. So great that it shivers with joy.


The Return of the Rentals After Six Years Away

The Rentals release a space-themed album, Q36, with one absolute gem of a song.


Matthew Murphy's Post-Wombats Project Sounds a Lot Like the Wombats (And It's a Good Thing)

While UK anxiety-pop auteurs the Wombats are currently hibernating, frontman Matthew "Murph" Murphy goes it alone with a new band, a mess of deprecating new earworms, and revived energy.


The 100 Best Albums of the 2000s: 80-61

In this next segment of PopMatters' look back on the music of the 2000s, we examine works by British electronic pioneers, Americana legends, and Armenian metal provocateurs.


In the Tempest's Eye: An Interview with Surfer Blood

Surfer Blood's 2010 debut put them on the map, but their critical sizzle soon faded. After a 2017 comeback of sorts, the group's new record finds them expanding their sonic by revisiting their hometown with a surprising degree of reverence.


Artemis Is the Latest Jazz Supergroup

A Blue Note supergroup happens to be made up of women, exclusively. Artemis is an inconsistent outing, but it dazzles just often enough.


Horrors in the Closet: A Closet Full of Monsters

A closet full of monsters is a scary place where "straight people" can safely negotiate and articulate their fascination and/or dread of "difference" in sexuality.


'Wildflowers & All the Rest' Is Tom Petty's Masterpiece

Wildflowers is a masterpiece because Tom Petty was a good enough songwriter by that point to communicate exactly what was on his mind in the most devastating way possible.


Jazz Composer Maria Schneider Takes on the "Data Lords" in Song

Grammy-winning jazz composer Maria Schneider released Data Lords partly as a reaction to her outrage that streaming music services are harvesting the data of listeners even as they pay musicians so little that creativity is at risk. She speaks with us about the project.


The 100 Best Albums of the 2000s: 100-81

PopMatters' best albums of the 2000s begin with a series of records that span epic metal, ornate indie folk, and a terrifying work of electronic music.

Collapse Expand Reviews

Collapse Expand Features

PM Picks
Collapse Expand Pm Picks

© 1999-2020 PopMatters.com. All rights reserved.
PopMatters is wholly independent, women-owned and operated.