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Soap on DVD

The First Season

Soap generated controversy even before it debuted on ABC TV back in 1977. A spoof of daytime soap operas, it promised to be groundbreaking in its treatment of such taboo subjects as homosexuality, infidelity, and more, and this generated a lot of hype.

In the end, perhaps it was groundbreaking. Perhaps not. Today, it seems mild.

But even better, and more important, Soap was funny - darn funny, and its treatment of homosexuality, infidelity and more was much the same as its treatment of just about every other issue on which it touched - as fodder for laughter. Nothing was sacred, no sacred cows were spared, and the laughs were broad and came from the belly.

Soap tells the tale of two families, the rich, white collar Tates and the middle class, blue collar Campbells. Jessica Tate (Katherine Helmond) and Mary Campbell (Cathryn Damon) are sisters. Jessica is an airhead, but she has a heart of gold and just when you least suspect it she puts things together in her head and suddenly seems like the smartest person on the show.

Mary is a lot smarter, but then again she’s married to Burt (Richard Mulligan), who in many ways makes Jessica seem like she should be a Nobel laureate. Isn't love strange?

Then there’s the rest of the extended Tate family: Chester (Robert Mandan) - the philandering hypocrite of a husband, Corrine (Diana Canova) - the confused and promiscuous daughter, Eunice - the other daughter, a journalist who’s leading a secret life with a politician, and Bobby - the teenaged boy who’s probably the most normal person in the family. The family is kept together by crusty butler Benson (Robert Guillaume).

Besides Burt and Mary, the Campbells have a prime crew of people, too: Jodie (a very young Billy Crystal) - the homosexual son who wants to be the heterosexual daughter, Danny (Ted Wass) - a decent guy who got in with the wrong crowd and whose efforts to get away from them lead to some pretty bizarre situations, and Chuck (Jay Johnston) - Burt’s son from a previous marriage, a ventriloquist whose dummy, Bob, is an obnoxious, foul mouthed alter ego who insists on being treated as a separate charcter. Chuck and Bob are this reviewer’s favorite character(s).

Richard Mulligan’s Burt was also an audience favorite, for his combination of manic energy and extreme oafishness.

We won’t get into the storyline here because it’s complex and interwoven and not only won’t it not be done justice but we don’t want to spoil it for you. Suffice it to say there’s plenty going on, and it’s all very, very funny - though with enough humanity cropping up to keep you rooting for - or against - the characters.

Season one is 25 episodes spread over three discs, leading up to a cliffhanger finale that’ll make you sweat until Season two is released.

Incidentally, Robert Guillaume’s character was later spun off to his own series: Benson. We never saw it, so can’t comment on whether or not it was any good - but his crusty character in Soap is very enjoyable.

The ensemble works very well together and, though some characters would undoubtedly have been more fun to play than others, no one here gets or gives short shrift.

Soap was naughty at times, but never at the expense of the fun - and any naughtiness or “controversial” topics were handled with wit and charm, and they were all essential to the plot. No soapbox moralizing here at all, just good characters and situations, and lots of laughs.

The DVD is pretty good, though the old videotaped episodes are definitely showing their age. The picture quality, overall, is good, but it makes you wish they’d shot the show on film back then because it stands up better.

The aspect ratio, obviously, is 4:3 full frame, so it isn’t 16x9 TV compatible. The subsequent stretching/zooming doesn’t help the picture’s flaws, but it’s easy enough to live with.

Audio is straightforward mono and is fine considering the source.

There are no extras, alas; we’d have loved some commentary tracks or background information - especially cast members and creator/writer Susan Harris, but ‘twas not to be. You do get a listing of the episodes with a few words of description (in very small type) and a cast/crew list, but it isn’t enough.

Still, it’s wonderful to see this old show again.


Season 2

Season 1 set the bar high, but the second season of Soap doesn't disappoint. In fact, in many ways, it's funnier than the first season!

We pick up with the resolution over the first season's cliffhanger ending. Jessica Tate (Katherine Helmond) has just been convicted of murder and it looks as if she's going to rot in jail. Yet we know she didn't do it and that the murderer is one of five people. But which one?

Well we aren't going to spoil that, of course!

The murderer's identity is revealed early on, and the perpetrator is sent up the river in Jessica's place - but that doesn't mean we lose a major character: in fact, we meet even more bizarre and larger than life people as the cast stampedes off in a variety of directions and a variety of situations.

Here's just a little of what happens, without spoiling the fun for you:

Chester (Robert Mandan), thanks to a brain tumor, loses his memory while Jessica falls in love with the detective (John Byner) she hires to find Chester after he mysteriously disappears. Meanwhile, Jodie (Billy Crystal) learns that he's knocked up his friend Carol (Rebecca Balding), while his mother Mary (Cathryn Damon) suspects Burt (Richard Mulligan) of having been unfaithful. And Corrine (Diana Canova) and her husband, former priest Tim (Sal Viscuso) have a rather unusual baby - and then Burt finds himself kidnapped by - well, you'll just have to watch to find out.

And don't forget Chuck and Bob!

Some of the situations seem extremely contrived on the surface, but co writer-creator Susan Harris manages to pull it off with aplomb. Okay, it isn't exactly believable, but it isn't meant to be. Rather, it's very silly and very, very funny - and that's just fine with us.

Not only that, but Season 2 also features surprising depth and compassion in the characters and situations - and the performances are first rate. Our favorite is Mulligan as Burt, whose body language and movements bring to mind the best of Art Carney as Ed Norton in the Honeymooners. High praise indeed!

Alas, the DVDs' picture quality isn't nearly as good as the show deserves. Perhaps because it was originally recorded on videotape rather than film, the picture shows some color banding in many scenes and while it looks generally pretty sharp on a 4x3 aspect ratio TV (the show's original full frame aspect ratio), if you watch it on a 16x9 TV, stretched to avoid burn in of the TV set, the picture gets very soft and quite smeary at the same time. Rats!

Audio is Dolby Digital mono and it's fine.

Bonus features include the original series pilot, which is a nice touch, and a 20-minute featurette in which Harris and coproducers Paul Witt and Tony Thomas talk about how the series was brought to life under adverse conditions. It's interesting stuff.

But it's the episodes that really count, and they're simply great!


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