Soap, the launching pad for many a career and a hugely controversial soap opera sitcom when it was released in 1977, returns with its third season, the 1979-1980 season.
Before, I reviewed season 3, I decided it was time catch up with the 2 families I grew up with in the 70s (lucky me—despite being only 8 when the show first aired, my mom let me watch it). So I did a marathon, beginning with season 1 so I would be caught up for this season. As I followed the lives of Jessica Tate and her sister Mary Campbell, I noticed a couple of things. First off, a lot of the comedy is still fresh and original—and some of it is a little silly and cliché, but not that bad, considering it probably only seems cliché because many shows have stolen from it since. Some of the controversial stuff is only shocking now if you imagine how the network could have gotten away with it at the time, yet other subject matter left me gawking because it's just SO un-PC that it wouldn't even pass censors today (mostly race and ethnicity slurs and stereotypes). Some of the subject matter also shows how much things have changed in three decades. We don't blink at interracial dating these days, yet it was a huge issue on the show. The only gay character on TV lived through every ridiculous gay stereotype---dating a closeted man, wanting a sex change, trying to commit suicide, having sex with and nearly marrying a woman, getting her pregnant—and in season 3, having to challenge the courts to win custody of his child. Then there's the frighteningly relevant issue in this third season of a teenager dating his high school teacher. However, one of the most amazing things I realized is exactly how much could happen to these two families in the course of a 22 episode season. When I was young it felt like these storylines lasted for ages, but I guess that was due to the week long gaps of anticipation for the next episode.
Going from Season 2 to Season 3, there's a noticeable gap in storyline. At the beginning of each season when the show originally aired, there would actually be a lengthy recap episode of what happened in the season prior—specials that are not included on these boxed sets. The problem here is that, the special that aired before this season included crucial NEW storyline—the departing of Benson (Robert Guillaume). When season 2 ended, he was still the butler for the Tates. When Season 3 begins, he's already left the show to do his own spinoff, and just returns for a few episodes at the beginning of this season (to help the Tate men rescue son Billy from a kidnapping by a religious cult), as well as for the last episode of this season. So, from viewing disc to disc on DVD, we aren't informed of WHY Benson suddenly no longer works for the Tates. Many fans are hoping these lost, season-linking specials will be included on the final season release, but I highly doubt it. The studios who put these packages together don't have any of the passion for these shows that the fans do, which is unfortunate.
While keeping with the zaniness of the first two seasons, season 3 really develops the characters and enhances the episodes. It tackles controversial social issues, and the sexual innuendo becomes much more blatant—perhaps even paving the way for the creative team Harris/Junger/Witt to get away with all they did a half a decade later on The Golden Girls. The chemistry between the family is at its best in this season, and the mix of drama works perfectly, because not only do we totally care about all these characters by this season, but the flawless cast pulls of emotional drama with ease, yet never loses the hilarious, darkly comic tone of the show. So what exactly goes on in season 3? Let me refresh your memory without giving away too much.
Let's begin with the Tates. Jessica (Katherine Helmond) has a rocky love life. Her husband Chester continues to cheat on her, and she has a bevy of men chasing after her, including a detective, a lawyer, and a psychiatrist. Chester (Robert Mandan) struggles to clean up his sexual compulsion and remain with Jessica, but even seeking help from a minister works against him. Eunice (Jennifer Salt) realizes that she doesn't love her convict boyfriend Dutch (Donnelly Rhodes—man, did I have a huge crush on him when I was just a young boy). When she runs away with another man, Dutch falls for Tate sister, Corinne (Diana Canova). Billy (Jimmy Baio—yes, he's related to Scott. Cousin) goes from being kidnapped by a cult, to dating a teacher ten years older than him. Benson leaves, and near the end of the season is replaced by Saunders (Roscoe Lee Browne), another black butler: while keeping the race the same, smartly, the writers didn't try to replace Benson with someone with similar personality traits.
At the Campbell household, things are even crazier. Burt (Richard Mulligan) tries to get into the Guiness Book of World Records, runs for Sheriff, and is captured by aliens while an alien is beamed down in his place. Little does Mary (Cathryn Damon) realize she's actually having sex with a horny little silver alien in Burt disguise, and not Burt. Gay son Jody (Billy Crystal) moves in with a lesbian, ends up with custody of his little daughter when the mother disappears with a cowboy, but soon lands in court in an attempt to keep her. And Danny (Ted Wass—okay, he was no Dutch, but I had the hots for him too) tries to track down the killers of his wife—and also gets into a heavy relationship with a black woman. And also in this season, two of our main characters learn they have only a matter of time to live, and as the season ends…well, you'll just have to watch to find out.
With all its wild storylines, Soap still retains a uniqueness not seen in any show since. Rewatching it now, it's not so much the comedy that draws me in, but the fast-paced plotting and the spectacular performances—the real reasons to watch this show, I'd suggest from the beginning. I honestly think some of these actors were at the height of their art here in this season. Billy Crystal's dramatic acting was powerful (and I must thank he and the writers and creators of this show for putting on TV so long ago what developed into a strong, incredibly human gay role model by season 3). Richard Mulligan's physical comedy and moving dramatic acting would be somewhat wasted when he later took a backseat to the other characters on Empty Nest. Katherine Helmond was the perfect blend of dizzy, strong, sexy and passionate, and her talent was later exploited in a sort of caricature of her Jessica character on the hokey Who's The Boss?. At least she's had an opportunity to wipe that slate clean with a better role on Everybody Loves Raymond as Deborah's mother. There are even some notable guest roles. Ted Shackelford of Knots Landing, as well as a pre-V Robert Englund!
The season finale is one-hour, and unlike in the release of season 1, it doesn't appear as if any of the episodes are the syndicated edits, although, it's been so long I can't guarantee that. They all ran approximately 23 minutes, so my guess is they are the original cuts. Sure it would be nice to see the "wrap-up" specials included on the fourth and final season. It would also be nice if, as a bonus, they included Katherine Helmond's appearance on Benson a couple of years later as ghostly Jessica—which still never really helped to explain the disappointing cliffhanger series finale (a corner in the back of my mind has been in turmoil my whole life because of that lack of resolution). Of course, Helmond's guest appearance will show up on a Benson box, but who really wants to own a whole season of that show?
The show is presented in its original full-frame 1:33:1 aspect ratio. I actually think season 3 looks a little better than the first two seasons. It's far from impressive colors range from being bland and washed out to being a bit saturated, but it's never really bad. The print itself doesn't seem to have much in the way of damage, although the overall haze of the image shows its age. Nothing has been done to restore this show (or most others for that matter), which is a shame, since the original masters are just going to keep getting worse and you'd think the studios would take this opportunity to save them from degrading any further. Another thing to note is that watching this show on a widescreen TV just draws more attention to the flaws—stretch out this full frame image, and you notice pixelation as well as more obvious blur.
The Dolby mono track is predominantly good, with crisp clear sound. On just a handful of episodes it gets a little muffled, but never becomes hard to hear.
The only extras you get on here are quick previews for a load of other Sony TV show releases, including Seinfeld, The Tick, Dilbert, The Critic, and a bevy of 70 sitcoms. The menu also allows you the option of playing all episodes. If you select a specific episode, you get kicked back to the menu, on the next episode, which is convenient if you aren't starting from the beginning, but still want to watch in order. The other cool thing about this boxed set is the included card that offers a brief synopsis of each episode in this season.
Soap was one of my favorite shows when I was a kid, and I now see why. The insane plots were like nothing ever seen on TV before, and its progressive themes worked well with my predominantly non-conformist imagination. The performances were amazing, and I had crushes on a couple of the men in the show. And it was created by the people who later created my all-time favorite The Golden Girls. Still, this one's probably most appreciated by those who have been fans from the beginning. But if you've never seen, and are willing to dedicate some time to it, this crazy comic soap opera will probably draw you in.