With its outrageously open treatment of taboo subjects such as infidelity, impotence, homosexuality, racism, religion, and mental illness, Soap was one of the funniest half-hours to hit American television.
Created by Susan Harris, Soap told the story of two sisters, Jessica Tate and Mary Campbell and their equally dysfunctional families. Married to compulsive adulterer and scruples-free stockbroker, Chester, Jessica Tate (a sublime performance of bewildered vagueness by Katherine Helmond), lived in a mansion in the wealthy part of Dunn's River, Connecticut. Those that lived with her were Grandpa Tate-an ex US Army Major who still thought the war was on, son Billy-who apart from anything else was abducted by a religious cult, and their African American butler-Benson; whose belligerent attitude manifested itself whenever the front door-bell sounded, with the sarcastically put question; "You want me to get that?" Robert Guillame became so popular as the only one to keep a cool head in the Tate household long after everyone else had lost theirs, that he was spun off into his own successful series, Benson. For her sins, Jessica also had two grown up daughters, the flirtatious Corrine, and Eunice, who was having an affair with a married Senator.
The Campbell household lacked any semblance of sanity too. Mary was married to impotent second husband Burt (a wonderful performance of rubber-faced lunacy by Richard Mulligan), who is first accused of murdering his own son, Peter, and is later abducted by aliens! Living under their roof was Mary's own children-Jodie (future Hollywood movie star Billy Crystal), who fought hard within his own family to be accepted as a homosexual, and Danny-who worked for a local mobster. Bert's son from a previous marriage, Bob, a ventriloquist who would make sarcastic and untimely remarks through his puppet, Chuck, joined the family later on.
Controversial from the outset, the series drew 32,000 letters to the ABC network (only nine of which supported it) even before it had premiered! Many ABC affiliates faced angry picketing against their plans to air it, while sponsors were placed under enormous pressure to boycott the show, which a number of them actually did, mirroring those affiliate stations which ultimately refused to carry it, or lost their nerve and placed it in a late night viewing slot. A high proportion of the unseen show's detractors at that time were religious groups, one of the strongest and most vocal being the National Council of Churches.
In response to these attacks, ABC actively represented the programme as a landmark breakthrough in TV comedy, claiming that: "Through the Campbells and the Tates many of today's social concerns will be dealt with in a comedic manner." In this instance, ABC ultimately won the battle, and with the series attracting a large and appreciative audience from the outset, the controversy was largely over and forgotten by the end of the first season.
Soap undoubtedly set new standards for television comedy with its brilliant ability to turn, literally on a dime, from madcap comedy to serious drama in mid-sentence. Soap was successful both as a knowing and lovingly crafted satire on the more outrageous elements endemic in so called "legitimate" soap operas, and as a highly individual comedic entity in its own right. Due to a combination of excellent writing, first rate acting and a certain fearlessness in addressing serious issues with wit and humour, Soap more than justifies its fondly regarded position in the pantheon of truly great U.S. situation comedies.
Published on January 31st, 2019. Written by Laurence Marcus & Steve Hulse (2000) for Television Heaven.