Soap: A Series That Bubbled Over with Controversy

We are continuing our series of Oddly Wonderful shows. Next week we look at a show that was a parody of life as a soap opera, and today we learn about a show that was a parody of a soap opera as real life, sort of. After making that crystal clear, let’s delve into Soap, a series which aired from 1977-1981 on ABC, originally on Tuesday nights at 9:30 ET. During those four seasons, only 88 episodes were produced, an average of 22 per year.

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Soap followed the lives of two families, the Tates and the Campbells. Throw in some melodrama, some ridiculous plots, some wacky characters, and some bizarre story lines and you have a truly unique sitcom. The show was taped before a live studio audience which would have been a fun event to be at.

The show was created by Susan Harris, who also was a writer/producer of The Golden Girls, Nurses, Benson, Empty Nest, and I’m a Big Girl Now. Soap was the working name of the show, but no one could come up with a better name, so it transitioned into the actual title of the show.

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Rod Roddy was the announcer for each episode. Most viewers recognize him as game show guru announcer for The Price is Right and The Love Connection. Casey Kasem, the host of the top 40 shows at the time was the narrator in the pilot. When he found out some of the upcoming themes of the show, he backed out, and they had to re-record the pilot with Roddy.

This was a very funny and controversial show. It took on many issues including racism, homosexuality, murder, religion, and family dynamics. The scripts were extremely witty and while there was some physical humor, most of it was intellectual. The fact that it made fun of soaps with its unbelievable plots and characters only added to the reality of the show in a strange way. Some of the shows included alien abduction, demon possession, kidnapping, murder, and insanity.

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The show starred Katherine Helmond as Jessica Tate and Cathryn Damon as her sister, Mary Campbell. Jessica was married to Chester (Robert Mandan) and Katherine was married to Burt (Richard Mulligan). They live in Dunn’s River, Connecticut.

The Tates were very wealthy and upper class. Like most soaps, both Jess and Chester have affairs with other people. They employ a butler/cook named Benson (Robert Guillaume). He was very sarcastic and spoke his mind freely. He can’t stand Chester or their daughter Eunice (Jennifer Salt), but he likes Jessica, their daughter Corinne (Diana Canova) their son, Billy (Jimmy Baio, brother of Scott). Benson was one of the most popular characters and he later got a spinoff, Benson which aired from 1979-1986.

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The Campbells are a working-class family. Mary has a son from her first marriage, Danny Dallas (Ted Wass). He is training to be a gangster. The Mob gives him the task of killing his stepfather, telling him Bert killed his birth father. Danny refuses and, he has to go on the run. Later he realizes Bert did kill the man he thought was his father, but it was self-defense. His hiding from the Mob results in him taking on a variety of disguises throughout the shows. Of course, in soap opera fashion, eventually he finds out his mother had an affair with his uncle Chester before he married Jess, and he is his real father. When the Mob boss’s daughter Elaine (Dinah Manoff) falls in love with Danny, he is safe. Mary also has a son with Bert named Jodie (Billy Crystal) who is gay and having an affair with an well-known NFL quarterback.

The first season ends with Jessica convicted of the murder of Peter Campbell (Robert Urich), who is Bert’s son from a first marriage. He was a tennis pro. The announcer ends the season by telling us that Jess is innocent, but one of five characters did commit the murder. We will find out who in season two.

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Some of the future subplots included Corinne dating a priest, Chester getting amnesia, Eunice having an affair with a Congressman, and Bert’s abduction by aliens.

Another popular character was Chuck Campbell (Jay Johnson) who was also from Bert’s first marriage. He is a ventriloquist and always has Bob, his dummy, with him. They dress alike, and while Chuck is quiet and introverted, Bob is loud, rude, and extroverted.

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Season two and three found the show on Thursday nights. It moved to Wednesdays in season four. The show was riddled with controversy before it aired and that continued to a lesser extent all four seasons. The controversy seemed to increase the popularity of the show. It was supposed to run five seasons and then end. The fourth season, like the prior ones, ended with several cliffhangers but after it aired, ABC cancelled the show. It cited low ratings, but there were always rumors that the sponsors were unhappy with the show, and they put pressure on ABC.

Soap’s reputation has increased since it went off the air. Time magazine panned the show before it debuted, but in 2007, it named the series one of the “Best 100 Shows of All Time.”

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Considering the low number of episodes produced each year, it’s impressive to see it garnered seventeen Emmy nominations. It was nominated for Outstanding Comedy Series three years; Richard Mulligan was nominated for Outstanding Lead Actor in a Comedy twice, winning in 1980; Cathryn Damon was nominated for Outstanding Lead Actress in a Comedy Series four years; Robert Guillaume was nominated and won for Outstanding Supporting Actor in a Comedy Series in 1979 (he was the first black actor to win the award); Jay Sandrich was nominated for Outstanding Directing in a Comedy Series twice; the show won Outstanding Art Direction in a Comedy Series in 1978; and was nominated for Outstanding Achievement in Video Tape Editing in a Comedy Series in 1978.

Photo: npr.org

The DVDs were released between 2003 and 2008.

A recent series, Trial By Error, reminds me of Soap in a more contemporary setting. Both shows relied on bizarre plots and clever dialogue, and they both work, producing very funny shows. They both produced fewer episodes a year than a typical sitcom. Watching an entire year’s worth of this type of comedy might be too much. The outrageous actions of well-developed characters kept the show fun and interesting.

Though it was a different type of comedy, it was not a show that I watched often. Like most of these shows, I’ve called “oddly wonderful,” I’m not sure I would want to watch it in reruns. It was a product of its time and might not hold up as well in 2019, although sadly, most of the issues Soap dealt with are still being dealt with today.

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3 thoughts on “Soap: A Series That Bubbled Over with Controversy

  1. A show that I only watched once or twice, but it was memorable. Cutting edge, like “All in the Family,” “Mary Hartman, Mary Hartman,” “An American Family,” etc. The gay character played by Crystal was a definite bombshell, as I recall. And if Mulligan was as good as he was in “Little Big Man,” I can see why it won awards. I agree, I don’t think it would work today, only because the humor was intelligent, and we’re a more tolerant and diverse society (in most places), so the irony is diffused.

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  2. Casey Kasem is the first host of the top 40 countdown that I remember. I used to listen to that a decent amount. I don’t remember ever hearing of this show. It sounds like it had a lot going on though!

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    • The plots were unbelievable enough to be realistic which was all part of the humor. I saw them airing now again on Antenna or Me TV. It was a bit crazy but still better than 50% of shows today.

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