Judge Brett Cullum laments the untimely end of a series that changed the face of television forever.
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 Third Season (published March 2nd, 2005) are also available.
Confused? You won't be after this episode of Soap!
Soap was one of the first television programs ever to have a warning before it aired—and back when it ran, the show needed one. It bravely entered a world of comedy where nothing was off-limits—black jokes, gay characters, alien babies, teacher-student affairs, sex with a revolutionary leader, and past life hypnotherapy were all fair game. It ran for four seasons, and created scandal and controversy in its wake. It also launched many careers, and ended just as many. It was smart, funny, surprisingly endearing, and too good to last on network television. The fourth season was its last gasp before a surge in conservative views overtook the country, real prime time soaps took over, and all the advertiser boycotts finally won out. It's the most bittersweet season of the run. Does Sony finally give it the send off it deserves?
Facts of the Case
By the time we reach Soap: The Complete Fourth Season: Jessica (Katherine Helmond, Brazil) lies dying in a hospital surrounded by possible suitors, Mary (Cathryn Damon, Webster) is giving birth to a baby she suspects may be alien, Danny (Ted Wass, Married to the Kellys) and Burt (Richard Mulligan, Empty Nest) are blacked out in a sleazy "no tell" motel, Billy (Jimmy Baio, The Bad News Bears in Breaking Training) has quit sleeping with his teacher (who now wants to kill him), Corrine (Diana Canova, Throb) and Eunice (Jennifer Salt, Sisters) are both fighting over Dutch (Donnelly Rhodes, Oh Heavenly Dog), Jodie (Billy Crystal, City Slickers) has won custody of his daughter, and poor Saunders (Roscoe Lee Brown, the narrator of Babe: Pig in the City) has replaced Benson as the butler for the Tates. Over the course of this last season secrets will be revealed, new love affairs will pop up, old flames will die hard, babies will be stolen, revolutions will be financed, Chester (Robert Mandan, Days of Our Lives) will remarry, and Chuck (ventriloquist Jay Johnson, a notable guest on That '70s Show) will show up with his wooden dummy Bob (Bob, a notable guest on The Facts of Life) to make light of everything.
Soap remains one of television's boldest comedy experiments. The show was conceived as a spoof of the ludicrous serpentine plots found on daytime television on the likes of General Hospital, All My Children, and Days of Our Lives. The title was a working production development term, but they never could come up with anything that fit more aptly than the self-described term Soap. It was too perfect to describe the sensibility of the spoof. Soap was funny as hell, but even more surprising was how well the show handled serious topics and dramatic moments. As the show grew, it explored darker and darker themes: infidelity, alcoholism, homosexuality, insanity, and terminal illness. Though it was always irreverent and a laugh riot, the show had its fair share of tearful moving scenes.
The fourth season of Soap was delayed because of a nasty actor's strike, so it did not premiere until October. By the time it came on, controversy was brewing around it. A conservative Methodist minister named Donald Wildmon, founder of the American Family Association (which later attacked Ellen), launched a bitter campaign to get Soap off the air. The AFA pressured advertisers to pull their support, and many did. Wildmon begged people not to watch the show, and conservative viewers wrote angry letters to ABC demanding it be pulled. The network caved and put the show on hiatus in midseason. ABC began running promos asking viewers to call in and tell them what they thought of Soap. Support came flooding in, so ABC moved the show to a later slot and aired the last shows of the season in hour-long blocks. But the damage was done, and Soap just couldn't pull in the stellar ratings or ad revenue anymore. It staggered across the finish line, and was duly canceled.
Soap was also suffering from creative issues. Some of the actors wanted to leave the show, and its creator Susan Harris was struggling to keep the story going. Some new writers were brought in to help Harris, and together they crafted a season that had quite a few more serious moments than the first three. By the end of the season Diana Canova would depart, and other actors would only be available for certain episodes. The show was beginning to lose a little of the manic steam that characterized it in its heyday. The comedic tragedy was becoming more of a dark comedy; a tragedy with comedic overtones. It was doing a one hundred and eighty degree turn, and morphing in to something else altogether. It was ambitious, and I wish we could have seen at least one more season to see how the experiment would conclude.
Problems aside, Soap: The Complete Fourth Season still has some gut-busting scenes of comedy coupled with some truly touching moments between the characters. Katherine Helmond, Richard Mulligan, Cathryn Damon, and Billy Crystal couldn't turn in a bad performance if they had to read a phone book. By this time the cast knew the characters so well that even some of the outright bizarre turns in the plots (even by the spoofy Soap standards) were handled by the cast deftly. No matter where the characters went, you believed in the Tates and the Campbells.
The Rebuttal Witnesses
Sony sure hasn't done much for Soap on DVD. The fullscreen transfers are uninspired. They're clear, but extremely soft. The show was always designed to look like a daytime soap opera, and it could never look extremely sharp. Still, Soap: The Complete Fourth Season looks its age. Colors vary from episode to episode—some look washed out, and others look like the colors are too garish. I often wondered if Soap: The Complete Fourth Season was transferred from the EP VHS versions. The sound is predictably mono but clear. No extras are to be found. Only the second season release featured any kind of look back at the series, and that's a real shame. Soap broke a lot of ground, and deserves better. I would have killed for Susan Harris to talk about what would have happened in a fifth season, since the show ended on some decidedly downbeat cliffhangers with most of the cast in dire situations.
And then there's the missing episode. Three weeks before the official premiere of the fourth season, there was an hour-long recap show, with Jessica in heaven talking to angel Bea Arthur (Golden Girls) about whether she should go to Heaven or stay on Earth. The special didn't move the plot forward, but it was an amusing sequence that showed what happened while Jessica was dead. The completist in me is very angry about the lack of the recap.
In truth you are not even getting the shows as they aired. Most of the episodes in the set are missing the "on the last episode of Soap" segments, which were always funny recaps of previous events. Also, the final shows are in the intended half-hour format, which betrays the broadcast history of them being aired as a full hour.
Soap is a classic television series many fans have been waiting for years to appear on DVD. It broke ground, and paved the way for another show that revolved around a dysfunctional family, Arrested Development. The recently-canceled Fox comedy about the Bluth family owed much to Soap's sensibilities. The legacy of the show will live on in razor-sharp comedies that can't seem to make it more than four seasons. Soap: The Complete Fourth Season at least completes the series on DVD (with some notable missing episodes). Now the show can live on in our homes notwithstanding any conservative protests.
The real irony of the smug satisfaction of the AFA and Donald Wildmon when Soap was canceled was what replaced it. The conservative watchdogs opened champagne bottles over their victory against a situation comedy that dared to portray an immoral American family with homosexuals and adulterers in their ranks. Their little victory dance was quickly cut short by the likes of Dynasty and Dallas, which took all the nasty elements of Soap and ditched the comedy. Soap's fifth season probably could have wound up like Dynasty's first season, with a rich family and their gay son and plenty of adultery from everyone. They took the idea of a dark tragedy with just a hint of comedy, and slapped it on a real soap opera. The religious fundamentalists were trumped by evolution. Soap opened the floodgates for the real thing, and within a matter of months the little sitcom that shocked a nation would seem tame.
Soap is free to go on making people laugh and cry, and inspiring new ambitious comedies to tackle the same sort of daring topics. It sits nicely next to my Arrested Development box sets. Sony is sentenced to face a firing squad comprised of angry fans who want to see the whole series intact. And would it kill them to make the show look better while they're at it?
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