Soap lasted four seasons on ABC from it's debut in 1977 until it was taken off the air in 1981, though it remained popular in syndication for some time after that and it wasn't hard to find it in reruns throughout the eighties. The enduring popularity of the hilarious soap opera spoof has been solidified in the DVD age thanks to all four seasons of the series having been made available individually and now together in one big sixteen disc collection containing all ninety episodes that made up the series from start to finish.
NOTE: If you've got the individual releases of the four seasons of Soap there's really no need to bother with this collection as it brings absolutely nothing new to the table at all - it's simply a repackaging of previously released material. That means that these are the uncut broadcast episodes, not the slightly trimmed syndicated ones.
The show, which was nominated for seventeen Emmy's over its four year lifespan, centered around two families and it was the interaction between these characters in the two families that provided the bulk of the story for the show. The key characters were:
Chester: Chester is the patriarch of the family. He's a very wealthy man and he's also a philanderer. He's been screwing around behind his wife's back for years now and spending too much time with his secretary. Played by Robert Mandan.
Jessica: Chester's loyal wife isn't as loyal as Chester believes as when the series begins she decides to have an affair with her tennis instructor. She's a sweet woman who isn't as dimwitted as she sometimes seems, but she's had enough of her husband's cheating. Played by Katherine Helmond.
Billy: The young teenage son of Chester and Jessica is just dipping his feet into the waters of the dating scene. He isn't as old as the rest of the case but he might be the only sane one in the bunch. Played by Jimmy Baio.
Corrine: Chester and Jessica's daughter... maybe. She might actually have been born to different parents, unbeknownst to her of course. Played by Diana Canova.
Eunice: She's a young woman who likes to party and she rarely comes home at night but technically Corrine lives at the Tate home as well. She's also sleeping with the same Tennis instructor that her mother is fooling around with. Played by Jennifer Salt.
The Major: Jessica's aging father suffers from dementia and still believes that he's stuck in enemy territory during the Second World War. Played by Arthur Peterson Jr.
Benson (the butler): The smart ass Benson (who would later be spun off into his own series) is quick with a sarcastic joke and doesn't like taking orders from the whiteman.
Mary: Jessica's sister is married to her second husband, Burt, since her first husband, a mobster named Johnny Dallas, was murdered. Played by Cathryn Damon.
Burt: Jessica doesn't know that Burt is the man who killed her first husband and this pressure gives him erectile dysfunction issues in the bedroom with his wife! Played by Richard Mulligan.
Danny Dallas: Jessica's son from her first marriage (or so he believes) is a mobster who wants to avenge the death of his father by killing Burt. Played by Ted Wass
Jodie: Another son from Mary's first marriage is a homosexual who can't decide if he wants to remain a man or go ahead with the sex change operation he's been looking into. Played by Billy Crystal.
Chuck: A son from Burt's first marriage, Chuck is a ventriloquist and is never seen without his dummy, Bob. Played by Jay Johnson.
Peter: This son from Burt's first marriage is the tennis instructor that both Jessica and Eunice Tate are fooling around with when the series begins. Played by Robert Urich.
Narrated by Rod Roddy, Soap was quite a pioneering and in many ways controversial series for its time. Of course, a few other recurring characters are introduced as the series developed over time, such as Elaine Lefkowitz, the daughter of a Jewish mobster who forces Danny to marry her and Saunders, Benson's replacement in later seasons but the above characters are the key players in the bulk of the storylines.
While the character descriptions might make the series sound like a dramatic effort, or, gasp, a soap opera, the series really is screwball comedy through and through. The unpredictable nature of the premise lends the series plenty of room for bizarre ideas and crazy plot twists. Throughout the series members of the cast would be murdered, disappear, be replaced by robots, get possessed by a demon or join a cult. The fact that the series takes the more absurd elements of the traditional day time soap opera and twists it so ridiculously while keeping a straight face is really what makes the series funny. While serious fans of soap operas might not appreciate the bent take on the genre, those who see daytime television fodder as the goofy entertainment that it is will certainly 'get the joke' so to speak.
The series caused some controversy years ago as it was really one of the first network shows to deal with subjects like homosexuality and racial issues but the material is never mean-spirited. In fact, in regards to the show's take on homosexuality, it proves to be quite ahead of its time. Danny flat out refuses to believe that his brother is gay and spends the series in a sense of denial about it while Burt makes it obvious that he's uncomfortable with the whole situation. One impressively mature moment, however, finds Jodie in the hospital after an overdose sharing a room with a complete stranger who willingly accepts him as he is, sexual preference playing no part in his decision. It's actually quite a touching moment and one that's handled very well by Billy Crystal, who normally played Jodie in a very coy manner. Despite the fact that Jodie's quirks were always part of the joke, he's one of the better written characters on the show even if his plights become too outlandish in the final season where he's hypnotized into thinking he's a heterosexual Jewish senior citizen.
Other controversial aspects of the show that are played for laughs include a priest named Timothy Flotsky (played by Sal Vicuso) who winds up leaving the priesthood to marry Corrine Tate. It's interesting to see the show tackle issues of faith and devotion even it if does so with tongue firmly in cheek. Of course, this being a soap opera at its core, the result of Corrine and Timothy's marriage is a demonically possessed baby - maybe Flotsky should have given his theological vows more credence than his marital ones. Speaking of marital vows, in many daytime soaps it seems that everyone sleeps with everyone, and that's a big part of the basis for Soap's plots as well. The series takes the complicated matter of martial infidelity to an absurd extreme and it seems that anytime a character hops into bed with someone, that someone will turn out to be related to or associated with another established character in the show. Prime examples of this are the first season's love triangle with the tennis instructor, Jessica Tate and Corrine Tate who turns out to be Jessica's sister's stepson which would also make him Corrine's step-cousin. Sound complicated? It should, because it is but thankfully the recaps that appear throughout the series it's fairly easy to stay on top of things as the series moves from point to point, back again, and then around in a circle or two. It's also interesting to see Jessica start the series as a fairly chaste woman who takes her marriage to the cheating Chester quite seriously and slowly but surely transform into Chester's female equivalent and bedding down with a shrink, a detective, and a revolutionary activist from South America.
The humor ranges from the subtle (some of the dialogue) to the absurd (Burt's abduction by aliens!) but the material still holds up well even now even if the more controversial aspects seem much tamer in this day and age then they would have in the late seventies. By presenting the show in a serial/soap opera format, the series does keep you guessing and while you can't really call it suspenseful in the traditional sense of the word, it's hard not to get pulled into the drama that the two families are constantly dealing with. The characters are well written and interesting enough that we can care about them to a certain extent, with Jessica becoming quite a sympathetic lead in a couple of surprisingly tender episodes dealing with Chester's infidelity.
Thanks to the clever writing and solid comedic acting, Soap still works. Modern day soap operas are just as ridiculous as the ones that this series was skewering were, and the jokes are still funny. Not every episode is a winner and some of the later subplots are too out there even for this show. Past the half way mark as the fourth season starts, however, the writing just isn't as tight as the earlier episodes probably because the series went from being written by creator Susan Harris to being written by a team and thus the focus got murky. The show also suffered a heavy blow when Robert Guilliame left to star in the Benson spin-off series. While it's true that he was really more of a supporting character than a lead, his presence in the Tate household brought with it a lot of great comebacks and one-liners and when he left, many of the running jokes left with him.
By and large the series as a whole is a very enjoyable show that remains a fan favorite for good reason. The series didn't really end on a high note, unfortunately. Plot points involving Danny, Chester and Chester's ex-wife are left dangling and sadly we never do find out what happens to Jessica or Burt - do they live or die? These questions - and many others - weren't ever answered in the last episode of Soap.
Soap arrives on DVD in its original 1.33.1 fullframe original broadcast aspect ratio. The series looks alright for a series shot over three decades ago and while there are some quivering lines on the image and some fluctuations in the colors everything is always very watchable. Detail is alright even if it doesn't compare to modern fare while edge enhancement is held in check at all times. There isn't a lot of print damage, dirt or debris to complain about nor are there any mpeg compression artifacts to note. The image is a little on the soft side but given the show's technological limitations that's to be expected.
The only audio option on this release is an English language Dolby Digital Mono track. Optional English closed captioning is provided but there aren't any alternate language dubs or subtitles so if you don't speak English, this set isn't for you. As far as the quality of the audio goes, for an older series it isn't half bad. Being an older mono mix there isn't going to be any channel separation but the dialogue, around which the show is centered, is always clean and clear and there aren't any problems with audible hiss or distortion. The levels are properly balanced and, generally speaking, everything is fine.
Here's where this set falls short. Aside from some static menus and episode selection sub-menus, this release is completely barebones save for one extra feature, a brief interview with Susan Harris and some of the creators entitled The Creators Come Clean (20:42). There is some fun behind the scenes footage and it's fun to hear from those involved about the history of the series but it doesn't go nearly as in depth as it should have and there's no input from the cast. This featurette is found on the last disc of season two which also includes a 'Encore Presentation' of the pilot, found on the first disc of season one. A couple of previews for other Sony TV properties are also included.
On top of that, the packaging is terrible. The discs are housed on a flimsy plastic spindle which fits inside a cardboard slipcase. While you can't expect super fancy packaging given the price point on this set, this packaging is cheap and it makes getting at the discs a pain.
The lack of extra features and the lame packaging are two strikes against this set but the content holds up quite well even if the presentation won't blow you away. Soap remains a quirky, clever, and enjoyable non-pc parody more than three decades since it first hit TV screens across the country and it's because the material holds up so well that this set is recommended.
Ian lives in NYC with his wife where he writes for DVD Talk, runs Rock! Shock! Pop!. He likes NYC a lot, even if it is expensive and loud.