Judge Sandra Dozier believes that a little Soap, contrary to what the song tells us, will in fact wash away our tears.
Our reviews of Soap: The Complete First Season (published March 17th, 2004), Soap: The Complete Second Season (published September 6th, 2004), and Soap: The Complete Fourth Season (published November 30th, 2005) are also available.
"I wouldn't get so snitty if I were you. Apparently we shop at the same
How can a series that is supposed to be a comedy spoof of soap operas, with a cast of comedic heavyweights like Katherine Helmond, Robert Guillaume, and Billy Crystal, get me so choked up? As much as I laugh when I watch Soap, I find myself genuinely moved, sometimes to tears, by the goings-on of the Tates and the Campbells. The answer is that I care about the characters, and while their lives are usually absurd, they are also sometimes touching in the same right. Season Three of Soap is one of the best of its short four-season run.
Facts of the Case
This is a story of two sisters, Jessica Tate (Katherine Helmond) and Mary Campbell (Cathryn Damon). They, and their family members, never want for drama and intrigue in their lives. It seems something is always happening to someone. Jessica's husband is a womanizer, for one, and then there's Mary—her son Jodie (Billy Crystal) is gay, and her husband's son Chuck (Jay Johnson) is a ventriloquist who thinks his dummy is a real person. Then there's Burt Campbell, who has been abducted by aliens, and…well, let's just catch up with all the characters, shall we?
• Benson DuBois: Once he helps save Billy from the Sunny cult, the former Tate butler is off to run the governor's mansion (in his spin-off series Benson). He returns for a guest spot in the last episode of the season.
• Chester Tate: Now that Jessica is safe again, Chester begins to stray to other women and continues to see them even after confronted by his two daughters about his infidelity.
• Jessica Tate: Perpetually sunny Jessica must deal with the loss of her best friend (Benson) and the terrible choice of deciding between Chester and Detective Donahue. Between the drama in the lives of her children and her own life, the stress eventually gets to her by the end of the season, and she falls seriously ill.
• Eunice Tate: She is able to free Dutch from prison by getting him to turn state's evidence, but quickly grows tired of him and starts sneaking around with other men. Soon after, she runs out on him (and the show, for several episodes) with someone else.
• Corinne Tate: Things do not look good when husband Tim (the former Father Flotsky) hides himself away with only his prayers to keep him warm. Sure enough, the two split, and Corinne takes up with the dejected Dutch.
• Billy Tate: Billy is freed from the Sunny cult and becomes a man when he turns eighteen. He begins an affair with his young-looking teacher, Leslie. Their bliss doesn't last long before Billy decides he needs to move on, and Leslie decides that she won't take no for an answer.
• Burt Campbell: He finds out that the aliens are indeed on Earth when he is abducted and replaced by a little silvery alien who is wearing a body that makes him look identical to Burt. The alien hasn't had sex in 2000 years, so he is looking very much forward to taking over Burt's life and bedding down with Mary. Enraged, Burt goes on a madcap rescue mission, and is finally freed to be with Mary himself. Then, after a routine check-up, he learns that he has only five months to live and simultaneously learns that Mary is pregnant with his child.
• Mary Campbell: Although alien Burt looks and acts just like the real McCoy, Mary suspects something is wrong. He isn't letting her sleep at all, and he is also coming home for lunch most days. At first she isn't complaining, but soon she goes to Jessica's just to get away from alien Burt's constant advances. After getting the real Burt back, she discovers that she is pregnant, but she worries about one detail: who is the father?
• Danny Dallas: Beginning to get over the death of his wife, Danny visits her grave and meets Polly, an attractive black woman who is visiting the grave of her deceased husband at the same time. The two hit it off and begin a relationship, which is fraught with peril because of their different races. When Danny isn't being harrassed by Polly's disapproving brother, they both have to deal with the stares and outright threats of violence from nearly everyone else.
• Jodie Dallas: He meets his baby daughter, Wendy, when her grandma brings her from Texas for a visit. It seems that Carol has run off with a cowboy and left the baby behind. Jodie is instantly charmed and takes the baby to care for himself, moving back home after Burt and Mary offer to help with her care. Carol appears and takes him to court, suing for custody and weaving a story of lies about Jodie and his lifestyle.
• Chuck Campbell: He finally gets a job, and Bob continues to offer sarcastic commentary on the doings of the Tates and Campbells.
• Saunders: When Dutch is the only one around who can cook, but is unable to cook for fewer than 300 people at a time (due to his prison experience), Jessica hires a new butler to help out. Saunders (the delightful Roscoe Lee Browne), with his mellifluous voice and quiet dignity, provides a hilarious counterpoint to the outrageousness of the Tate family. If Jessica can get him to stay on, that is.
One of the best soap opera parodies on television, Soap ran for four seasons and featured a stellar cast of players. It spawned at least two spin-off series (one for Robert Gullaume, who played Benson, and one for Diana Canova, who played Corrine), and freaked out religious groups and sponsors from the time it first hit the airwaves in 1977. With an openly gay character (Jodie Dallas, played by Billy Crystal) and frank dialogue about sensitive social issues, it's not surprising that sponsors, who were much more conservative in the seventies, would be taken aback. Of course, by today's standards, Soap is rather tame, and even fans agree that Season Three did not pack as much controversy as previous seasons. Still, the show had not lost its unflinching way of looking at sex, race issues, and the human condition in general.
The writing for this show was clever, but it's the comic timing of the performers involved that really sells it. Helmond plays the spacey, perky Jessica so well that you forget that she isn't that way in everyday life, and her ease with comedy makes her more dramatic scenes all the more surprising and heart-tugging. Amazingly, Billy Crystal is the straight man of the set (no pun intended). As Jodie, he is the sanest of the bunch, and his struggle for custody of his daughter gives him a dramatic arc this season. I am not a fan of Crystal's typical comedic style, so it's a joy to see him in a role where he doesn't have to be "on" all the time, and you can see that he has a skill for timing that is masked by the in-your-face mugging that is typical of his later work. I also cannot get enough of Richard Mulligan as Burt Campbell. His physical comedy, mostly communicated through his mad assortment of expressions and goofy sounds, is always a treat to watch. When he gets some good news at the doctor's office, Burt grabs the doc in a bear hug, hooting happily, and you can clearly see an astonished (and unplanned) grin flash across the other actor's face.
Supporting cast members also fit in nicely. I'm thinking primarily of John Byner as Detective Donohue, one of Jessica's many suitors. His antics to try and win Jessica are not particularly cunning on paper, but Byner brings a sort of innocent enthusiasm to the role that defines the character as a lovable goof and makes him memorable. There's also Dutch (Donnelly Rhodes), who could kill with a simple line like "Now, if you'll excuse me, I gotta go to the can," because it comes at the end of a heartfelt speech about how special he felt because he was a part of the family. Finally, the addition of Saunders toward the end of the season is welcome, if only to see Roscoe Lee Browne in action. When Burt absurdly dumps his drink on the floor immediately after Saunders gives it to him (in a nervous fit of not wanting to drink on the night of his election), Saunders takes a beat and then says, deadpan, "Would you like another?" as if nothing happened. He is also distinguished for having sussed out Chuck and Bob right away, immediately slamming the door in Chuck's face as soon as he sees them.
The bottom line is that the cast and the writing are gold. There is hardly a dull moment in any episode, mostly because each one is packed with a steady stream of jokes and weird situations. Sometimes things get a little absurd, such as when Burt is abducted by aliens and a little silver man impersonates him, but somehow they make it work. One interesting (and welcome) aspect of Soap is that it has hardly dated over the years, despite the period fashion, hair styles, and topics for discussion—the core humor is universal and timeless. We will always be dealing with the same issues that were so topical and relevant when Soap was made in the seventies, and that is why this show is a breath of fresh air even now.
Picture quality for Season Three fares about as well as you might expect for a television show from the seventies. The image is often grainy or soft, and the colors are somewhat washed out, but this is the clearest I have ever seen the series—the DVD format definitely is the best way to present it. Sound is a mono feed into a basic stereo output and sounds good considering its age. There are no pops or static to interfere with viewing enjoyment, even if the output is sometimes slightly muddled. For the most part, the volume level is even and easy to listen to.
There are no extras with this volume, other than some previews for other television collections on DVD, but I don't think this is a deterrent for most fans of the series. The Season Two boxed set had some featurettes with the creators of the show, and getting the entire seasons (with a notable exception—see Rebuttal Witnesses) on DVD is enough of a draw.
The Rebuttal Witnesses
I wish, wish, wish that someone would just break down and include the "season recap" episodes that were aired between seasons for Soap as an extra with each season. Not only would this be an excellent way to recall the prior season for new viewers, it would be an incentive for anyone wishing to own a complete Soap library. The absence of these retrospective specials will not take away from the pleasure of viewing the series, but it will be a bother for fans of the original series run who might be looking forward to them on DVD, which offers the clearest print of the show I have ever seen.
Other than that, I have no complaints. The picture is not crystal clear, but it is good enough considering the age of the series and the tendency not to preserve television shows very well prior to common VCR use in the home.
I can't recommend this series enough. My only reservation would be in considering the fair-to-middling quality of the print, which will bother anyone who likes a crisp, colorful image. However, I strongly encourage checking this series out, especially if you like quirky comedy—Soap is right on the money, and does a good job of keeping things interesting even after the departure of a much-loved character, Benson.
Soap: The Complete Third Season is given a slap on the wrist for not having the foresight to include the season retrospectives, but all will be forgiven if the next boxed set (the final season) has all of them as extras (hint, hint).
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