Sony // 1977 // 600 Minutes // Not Rated
Reviewed by Judge Bryan Byun (Retired) // March 17th, 2004
The groundbreaking comedy series!
Soap truly merits the label of "classic TV." Groundbreaking, hilarious, and surprisingly touching, it was must-watch TV of the late 1970s, possibly more so even than the daytime soap operas it parodied. Originally airing between 1977 and 1981, it perfectly captured the mood of the era and brought dysfunctional families (as well as homosexuality, infidelity, ventriloquism, murder, and a host of other hot topics) out of the closet and into America's living rooms. No one had a more screwed up family than the Tates and the Campbells, so each episode was a little bit of therapy once a week for the nation's viewers.
This series had more twists than a basket of snakes, but the core of the show consists of two dysfunctional branches of a family joined by a pair of sisters, Mary and Jessica. Mary, who is intelligent and capable, is married to Burt Campbell, a blue-collar type who adores her but is prone to take leave of his sanity from time to time. Blissfully daffy, he's almost a male version of Jessica, sister to Mary and wife to philandering Chester Tate, a well-meaning but cowardly dog of a husband who depends on his wife's state of denial to allow him to carry on multiple affairs behind her back. Rich and snobby, Chester looks down on the middle-class Campbells and their clan, which includes mobster son Danny and openly gay Jodie. Never mind that Chester's daughters Corrine and Eunice have their own problems (in the form of an obsession with a priest and a secret affair with a congressman). In Season One, only son Billy Tate and Benson, their butler, are sane and well-adjusted, a fact which is hilariously underscored when a police investigator begs Benson on bended knee to be the voice of reason in an upcoming murder trial.
Soap liked to stir up controversy. Hyped even before release as the show that would break every last taboo on TV, it's easy to look back on it now and see it as tame and not all that daring, especially when stacked up against more prestigious sitcoms like M*A*S*H or All In The Family. But Soap was the show that gave us the first openly gay regular cast member on TV (Billy Crystal's Jodie, in a surprisingly nuanced performance), used murder as an expression of love (Burt kills Mary's former husband, a mobster and an all-around bad guy), and dared to make fun of whitey (Benson the butler, played by African-American actor Robert Guillaume, constantly gets the better of Chester, who can't keep up with his witty barbs). Just like taking icky medicine in a tasty sugared syrup, we liked our heavy issues thoroughly soaked in comedy back then, and Soap took excellent advantage of this idea to play with all kinds of hot topics -- discrimination against Jews, fear of homosexuality and homosexuals, mental breakdowns, jealousy, racism, religious temptation, and so on. Viewers couldn't wait to see what happened next and howled in frustration at the end-of-season cliffhanger, just as they would at any good soap opera.
Somewhere along the line, viewers realized how good most of the lead actors were. Katherine Helmond played Jessica with so much heart that her head-in-the-sand fluffiness actually came across as charming and endearing. Robert Mandan's Chester, who could have been a garden-variety prig in a nice suit, actually comes off as sympathetic and likeable when he pulls it together to help his family. Billy Crystal brought sensitivity and everyman sensibility to Jodie, a rather stereotypical gay role that had as many flaws as it had gems. Robert Guillaume's Benson was so good, so impressive for the meager screen time his character got, that execs spun him off into his own series. As much as Soap shocked and even outraged some viewers, there was much love for the show while it was on and especially later while in syndication. Although much of the humor is dated, and some of it is downright shocking, considering today's politically correct climate, the humor is still as fresh and engaging now as it was then, and it's hard to imagine anyone with a sense of humor who wouldn't get a kick out of this series.
The first season episodes show their age, but the picture itself is reasonably crisp and clear -- a huge improvement over VHS quality that will be welcome news to fans of the series. There is some slight compression artifacting and edge shimmer, mostly due to cramming 25 episodes onto three DVDs, but this is hardly noticeable. The mono soundtrack has been piped into a Dolby Surround Sound format, so you at least get balanced coverage, and does reflect the tinny quality of the source, but is perfectly adequate and not at all unexpected for an older TV series.
Two words: Chuck and Bob. Perhaps you joined me in blocking out the disturbing (and, thank goodness, fleeting) popularity of ventriloquist acts in the late '70s and their ubiquitous presence on prime-time TV. If you were around at the time, the mere mention of the phrase "Wayland Flowers and Madam" should have you reflexively diving behind the couch. Horrible memories will resurface for you, then, when Jay Johnson appears in episode seven as Chuck, the lunatic son of Burt, and his wooden (in more ways than one) pal Bob, who is convinced he's a real person. In fact, the very manner of his appearance (overly staged, dramatic entrance to huge applause from studio audience), will make your lip involuntarily curl and your fists unconsciously clench. Chuck/Bob is so annoying, you pray for termites -- genetically altered to also eat human flesh -- to devour the pair of them in their sleep (in matching pajamas, no less). To the show's credit, Chuck/Bob is not the dominant character and gets made fun of as often as he makes fun of others, but it is still the one weeping sore spot of the series. It could be worse. I'm not sure how, but I'm in the process of blocking out the whole Chuck/Bob thing again, so bear with me.
In the shadow of the wrong that is Chuck/Bob, issues of dated humor, politically incorrect references (characters discuss ordering "chink" food at one point), and a rather narrow view of gay life (Jodie wants to get a sex change to be a girl and dates more women than men in the course of the show) pale in comparison. It helps to consider the times in which these shows were produced and filter your responses accordingly. I would have also appreciated an optional laugh-track feature as with the M*A*S*H DVDs, in which the laugh track is separated out as an audio option rather than welded to the regular English track. Canned laugh tracks, a requisite of situational comedies from the '70s, are a love-'em-or-hate-'em accessory I can do without.
Surprising and disappointing is that Columbia TriStar put together such a mediocre DVD box set. No one is expecting miracles -- we know the soundtrack is mono and we expect diminished quality in the print due to the age of the show, but no extra features? Not even some character profiles, or canned promo spots? A printed insert with episode notes just doesn't cut it. This bare-bones release limits the asking price of the set and probably the audience, too. Fans of the show will want to get the set so they can throw away their VHS copies and free up space on their shelves, but it's doubtful this set would appeal to first-time viewers as a library edition, which is a shame. It's too bad they didn't put some effort into providing some interview material, character profiles, or follow-ups with cast members to make this a true collector's edition.
Despite the disappointing lack of extras, this first season release of Soap offers excellent bang-for-the-buck in terms of sheer laughs. Pacing is fast and light, and even the omnipresent laugh track does not inhibit viewing pleasure. Your horoscope says that you will be entranced by the interestingly different opening splash sequence, you will be whistling the theme song after the first episode is over, and if you try to eat while you watch, you will gag on a small piece of food as laughter suddenly explodes from your throat. You will recover and meet an attractive stranger. This week looks good for travel.
Will Soap: The Complete First Season be found not guilty on all charges? Will there ever be a second season DVD set? Will I ever wash the taste of bad ventriloquist comedy out of my mouth? Find out next week!
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Scales of Justice
* Full Frame
* Dolby Digital 1.0 Mono (English)
Running Time: 600 Minutes
Release Year: 1977
MPAA Rating: Not Rated