This outrageous spoof of daytime soap operas stars comedian John Byner joining cast members Billy Crystal, Richard Mulligan, Robert Guillaume, Katherine Helmond, Cathryn Damon, Robert Mandan, Diana Canova, and Jimmy Baio. Nominated in its second season for three Emmy® awards Soap won for Outstanding Supporting Actor in a Comedy Series (Guillaume).
Soap - The Complete First Season
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. (Technical note: Given the shortcomings of 25-year-old videotape, with minor glitches and color variations, these episodes look and sound remarkably good.) --Jeff Shannon
Soap - The Complete Second Season
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. Most impressively, Soap built its madness upon a solid tragi-comic foundation, with risky shifts of tone and characters invested with surprising depth and compassion. The episodes are consistently full of classic scenes and side-splitting dialogue. Simply put, it doesn't get any better than this. --Jeff Shannon
Soap - The Complete Fourth Season
Even as it struggled with lower ratings and ongoing backlash from conservative watchdogs, Soap entered its fourth and final season with big laughs and plenty of surprises. The series was beginning to lose its edge with interwoven plots even more preposterous than usual, but its primary strengths (a great ensemble cast, risk-taking writing, and a delicate combination of humor and pathos) are still abundantly evident as Jessica Tate (Katherine Helmond) emerges from a coma in episode 1. In the 20 episodes that follow, Burt (Robert Mulligan) will survive a blackmailing scandal and, as the new local sheriff, begin a political career; Jodie (Billy Crystal) fights for child custody, enters into psychotherapy, and begins to channel a 90-year-old Jewish man from a previous life; Mary (Cathryn Damon) suspects that her newborn child is an extraterrestrial, and devastates Jessica with a long-held secret about her past involving Chester (Robert Mandan); and the now-liberated Jessica gets involved with El Puerco (Gregory Sierra, from TV's Barney Miller), a revolutionary from the (fictional) Latin American country of Malaguay.
These and other plots--including an affair between Danny (Ted Wass) and Chester's new wife Annie (Nancy Dolman), and the climactic kidnapping of Jessica--ensured that Soap's final season was never boring for even a minute, and the one-liners are endlessly quotable as series creator Susan Harris (here backed, for the first time, by a stable of cowriters) dares to combine comedy with heavier elements of betrayal, alcoholism, life-threatening situations, and heartwarming reconciliation. These shifts of tone still qualify Soap as one of the most accomplished sitcoms in TV history (you'd be hard pressed to find a better cast capable of handling such a dynamic range of comi-tragic extremes), and with Sierra and a then-unknown Joe Mantegna providing the best laughs from an impressive guest-star lineup, the series mixed up its volatile ingredients with considerable aplomb and no small degree of genuine humanity. While some characters suffered due to the season's ambitious plotting, it's still clear that Soap could have thrived into a fifth season and beyond. Alas, it wasn't to be. Amidst threats of sponsor withdrawal and the inevitable fallout of ratings in decline, ABC pulled the plug on Soap, depriving loyal viewers to a resolution to this season's cliffhangers, which left several key characters on the brink of disaster. It's therefore regrettable that this DVD set lacks any bonus material that would provide a retrospective summation of what was, for its time, one of TV's boldest comedy experiments. --Jeff Shannon