Sony // 1978 // 566 Minutes // Not Rated
Reviewed by Judge Sandra Dozier (Retired) // September 6th, 2004
The comical saga of the Tates and Campbells continues...
Ah, Soap. Everyone talked about this show. It seemed there was something fantastic to gasp about every week. If you didn't watch Soap, your sense of humor was called into question. Surprisingly, this is still a pretty accurate litmus test.
This is a story about two sisters: Jessica Tate and Mary Campbell. Jessica (Katherine Helmond) is married to the very wealthy Chester (Robert Mandan). Along with her adult children and their butler Benson (Robert Guillaume, in his last season as a regular cast member), they live in an expansive home in Connecticut. Mary (Cathryn Damon) and her husband Burt (Richard Mulligan) have a more modest home close by. Although Mary doesn't have as much money as Jessica, she is probably happier on the whole.
At least, at the beginning of the season.
Season Two picks up where Season One ended: Jessica has been convicted of murder, and the family is devastated. No one can understand how sweet, innocent Jessica could have been found guilty. Chester, especially, is distraught. After having cleaned up his philandering ways, he has been a calming influence on the family, and now (with an embezzlement charge looming over him) he has nothing left to live for.
It would be giving too much away to go into more specific detail, but suffice it to say that things get worse before they get better...except in the case of Danny (Ted Wass), in whose case things get better before they get much worse. Otherwise, there is blackmail, the death of a major character, the ongoing amnesia and insanity of another major character, forbidden love with a wanted murderer, more adultery, satanic possession, and some other minor calamities such as one of the Tates being kidnapped by a religious cult.
Soap, the show, was an original idea that sprang from a completely derivative format: the daytime drama. The essential question that the show answered was "How much can we throw at these families, and can we be funny while doing it?" The answer: a lot, and you bet. Hire noted comedians and physical actors for the lead roles, provide the straight man (Benson), and start firing.
At the time it originally ran on television, circa 1977, Soap was dogged by controversy. The subject matter (adultery, murder, promiscuity), non-politically correct dialogue ("Let's get some Chink food"), and open discussion of such hot-button topics as gay life and racism almost doomed the show before it got off the ground. With an openly gay character (Jodie, played by Billy Crystal) and a black butler (Benson), it was as if the show were walking around with a sign on its back that read, "KICK ME."
The message was clear: Americans don't like this kind of thing in our situation comedy.
Fortunately, the show did get off the ground, and it went on to amaze audiences and attract some of the best comedic talent of the day for guest and recurring roles. It was definitely a love-it-or-hate-it kind of show, but viewers (for the most part) embraced it and kept it alive for four seasons, even when advertisers got weak in the knees.
What is perhaps the most surprising thing about Soap is the moments of genuine sentiment and feeling that are sprinkled among the yuks and hijinks. One moment you could be laughing along with a joke or circumstance, and the next moment there is an unexpected lump in your throat when an actor delivers a touching performance or line, usually talking about their love for their family members. Often these moments were created by Katherine Helmond, who expertly plays the daffy but lovable Jessica. Her unconditional (and sometimes undeserved) love and devotion when it comes to her family comes through in powerfully moving scenes at unexpected times. These moments helped to make Soap a unique show that kept viewers tuned in every week.
The Season Two episode set includes a featurette with series creator Susan Harris and producers Tony Thomas and Paul Junger Witt. This is an excellent retrospective featurette that provides some historical perspective on the show, anecdotes about the cast, and the trio's feelings about the show and their personal writing/producing style. This is a must-see for fans. The only other extra is a reprise of the Season One pilot. If you haven't seen Season One and want an idea of where it all started, this extra is for you. Meanwhile, everyone else will be scratching their heads, wondering why this is even here.
Video and sound quality for Soap has taken a bit of a beating. The image is noticeably soft, and the colors have washed out somewhat over the years. During a few scenes, the softness is so pronounced that the image is almost blurred. Fortunately, this latter problem is very infrequent and comes only in short bursts. Overall, the episodes are as sharp as or sharper (certainly more colorful) than any syndication broadcast, and quite watchable if you can forgive a softened image. The sound does a little better, with a mono track that has been separated into stereo channels for robust output; you won't be needing to turn the volume up unnecessarily high to hear everything, and because Soap was filmed entirely on sets, there is very little distortion or hiss in the background, even at high volume.
Although Season Two has a good featurette, the big surprise is the missing "recap" episode that played between seasons one and two. Designed as a bridge between each season, the show used flashback sequences to provide a summary of the events of the previous season. This would have made an outstanding extra and really completed this set nicely. Since the recap episode was released on VHS, the absence of it on DVD is conspicuous.
As noted in the Season One review, the presence of ventriloquist Jay Johnson is perhaps the most dated and blatantly wrong thing about this show. Harris explains his longevity in the featurette by saying that he was supposed to be there only for one or two episodes but that he tested so well with the audience that they kept him on. Indeed, this was during a time when ventriloquist acts were extremely popular, and (to the credit of the show) Chuck and Bob were a target for ridicule and aggression from the other characters, which kept the snarky dummy constantly on edge.
The dated aspect of some of the comedy is worth noting. As in the case of Johnson, some of the humor can come off as alternately dull or harsh, depending on how relevant it is today. Aside from the occasional "old is new" effect (such as jokes about the Atkins diet), most of the outdated humor falls flat. However, even mentioning this gives too much weight to the effects of dated humor; by and large, most of the show's comedy is just as funny today, or perhaps has morphed into a guilty pleasure -- certainly no modern-day sitcom would have the stones to attempt even a half-measure of what Soap got away with back in the day.
Season Two saw the departure of Robert Guillaume to his own sitcom, Benson, so this season stands as the last time the family was all together. With his departure, the show seemed to lose some of its grounding, and things started happening that were much weirder than usual. Everything in Season Two functioned like a well-oiled machine, and the laughs were coming a mile a minute; if you have to pick only one season as representative of the show, this is the one to chose.
Will I use the same joke from the Season One review in the Verdict section? Will Soap still rule now that Benson is gone? Can we expect another featurette in the Season Three box set? Find out next time!
Review content copyright © 2004 Sandra Dozier; Site layout and review format copyright © 1998 - 2014 HipClick Designs LLC
Scales of Justice
* Full Frame
* Dolby Digital 1.0 Mono (English)
Running Time: 566 Minutes
Release Year: 1978
MPAA Rating: Not Rated
* "The Creators Come Clean" Featurette
* Encore of Pilot Episode
* TV Tome